EJ Koh read her poem “South Korean Ferry Accident” to a room full of weary Bumbershoot attendees back in 2016. It’s a poem that begins with a bit of comedy: “Footage is released to the public: the captain/abandoning the ferry in his underwear.” Not only do we have an oafish captain forsaking the universal pledge to go down with the ship, but he’s jumping overboard in his underwear. It’s an image that brings pratfalls to mind, or a Benny Hill-style soundtrack.
But that image falls away to the real-life horror of one of the worst boating accidents in modern history. And Koh’s personal story becomes intertwined with the tragedy:
My parents are crying in the other room. “Why didn’t
the students jump into the water?
Americans would’ve jumped.”
It’s an immigrants’ dilemma: there’s something to be said for the traditions of one’s birth country, but when they become too constricting — when tradition overrules your chances of survival — it becomes necessary to flee to America. In America, traditions don’t kill you. If anything, too much freedom will kill you in America.
Last year, when Koh read the poem (“The footage is broadcast. The faces are blurred./The voices are changed. They are laughing”) the audience reacted almost as one. Eyes started watering. A few nasal snfffs tore through the audience, and then shoulders bobbed up and down. People were sobbing for these strangers that they’d never know who died in a ferry disaster, and who were being summoned by a Seattle poet for a Seattle audience at a quintessentially Seattle event. It was a tender moment, a special moment, the kind of event that everyone in attendance will likely always remember.
This is the genius of EJ Koh: her poetry combines tradition and freedom and history and hope and biography and tragedy in such a compelling way that audiences can’t help but be moved. Her voice is clear and warm; her eyes catch the little human moments that we often take for granted. Her poems are often slight — brief and simple — but they can clamber around your head like an elephant.
This Saturday, September 23rd, Koh will launch her debut collection, A Lesser Love, into the world at the Hugo House. She’ll read from the book, and then I’ll interview her onstage (I guess this is as good a place as any for a full disclosure: the Seattle Review of Books, has advocated early and often for Koh beginning on the day that we first published her jaw-droppingly good poem “Korean War” two years ago) and then she’ll take your questions.
In person, audiences are often surprised to see that Koh doesn’t seem as intense as her poems. She’s funny; she laughs a lot; she’s charming and humble. But the intensity is there, and it is real. With just a few words, carefully selected and arranged just so, she can bring a room full of humans to tears. She has that power
Sherman Alexie published a letter to his fans on Facebook in mid-July. It was about his book tour for his memoir about his mother’s death, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. Alexie was being haunted by his mother, Lillian. Alexie interpreted these repeated visits — in the form of coincidences and visions and emotional distress — as a sign. “I am supposed to stop this book tour… I am cancelling all of my events in August and I will be cancelling many, but not all, of my events for the rest of the year,” Alexie wrote.
“Dear readers and booksellers and friends and family, I am sorry to disappoint you. I am sorry that I will not be traveling to your cities to tell you my stories in person,” Alexie continued. He was clearly a man who was deep in the process of grieving, and he puts so much into his readings that he was tearing his soul open every night he took to the stage.
But Alexie wasn’t about to become a Salingeresque recluse. “My memoir is still out there for you to read,” he wrote. “And, when I am strong enough, I will return to the road. I will return to the memoir. And I know I will have new stories to tell about my mother and her ghost. I will have more stories to tell about grief. And about forgiveness.”
But if you know Alexie’s story at all, you know that there are two things that he loves more than almost anything: his home and his audience. While reading from Love was too much for him to bear, anyone who has seen Alexie read knows that he draws strength and inspiration from being onstage, from interacting with an audience. And anyone who has seen Alexie read in Seattle knows that he draws a special power from a hometown crowd.
So on Tuesday, September 19th, Alexie is returning to the stage for a special reading — not for his memoir, but for the tenth anniversary of his blockbuster young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Alexie was already a famous author by the time Part-Time was published, but the book broke him into the mainstream in a way that’s usually only reserved for rock stars and Kardashians. The book, which talks frankly about masturbation and other sexual topics, has been banned repeatedly from school libraries by fussy Christian parents, which has only inspired more sales and made Alexie even more famous.
So for one night, Alexie is going to get back on stage where he belongs, and he’s going to soak up his hometown audience’s affections, which is exactly as it should be. It’s more important than ever to go and be a part of the Alexie experience, to show him how much Seattle loves him. This time around, Alexie needs us almost as much as we need him. Let’s not let him down.
Third Place Books Lake Forest Park, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, http://thirdplacebooks.com. Free. All ages. 7 p.m.
Karen Junker is well-connected in the literary community: talk to her for five minutes and you’ll realize that she knows hundreds upon hundreds of agents and editors and publishers and booksellers. She’s an author and an event coordinator and an editor and an unpaid publicist — someone who “likes to introduce people that will help other people.”
Junker says one of her favorite things to do is to organize events that place a famous writer next to a lesser-known writer, creating the possibility to inexorably alter the course of a career. She’s organized conventions and a popular series of writing retreats called Writers Weekend and all sorts of other literary events.
And now she’s expanding her scope event further with Readerfest, a free family-friendly book festival at Magnuson Park on Saturday, September 9th. Junker just started planning the festival at the beginning of the summer, but she’s filed with Washington’s Secretary of State for nonprofit status and the whole thing came together with meteoric speed. In a phone interview just after planning began in July, Junker told me she was “adding [authors] and sponsors every day.”
“I’m a big fan of the writing community, especially in our region,” Junker told me. “I started Readerfest because the Northwest Bookfest was so cool, and I feel that this is something I can do to organize a little tiny thing to build that back up again.” She admitted to being “scared” by how quickly Readerfest grew after announcing it, but she told me that the secret to putting on a good event is that “you get good people who you know can talk about what they do.” If that happens, “I don’t have to manage that. It takes care of itself.”
Inclusivity is important to Junker. Readerfest will feature an indigenous arts tent, and there will be talks by local native artists. There will be spaces for kids and food trucks and theatrical performances. The festival will feature conversations about “cultural appropriation in literature, and race and gender representation in steampunk.” Headliners include local novelist (and Seattle Review of Books columnist) Nisi Shawl; author of the Seattle-set Clockwork Century series Cherie Priest; former Seattle Youth Poet Laureate Angel Gardner; and novelist Kathleen Alcala.
Readerfest doesn’t look to be as polished as Bookfest used to be, but that’s not necessarily a problem: Junker’s aesthetic is to get a whole bunch of people into one space and find out what happens. That concept — a space where aspiring authors can mingle with editors and agents and playwrights and authors from different genres can compare notes — is more appropriate for Seattle’s literary scene than the giant commercial corporate monolith that Bookfest became at the end of its short life.
In the end, Junker told me, she wants to put on an event that will connect people to books that they’ll love. “I just felt the need in the community for this kind of event — one that’s family-friendly but not exclusive of any genre. I’m a fan of all types of writing, and there’s a reader for everything,” she says.
Once upon a time, Bumbershoot used to draw nationally recognized authors to read to enormous audiences. Jim Carroll headlined Bumbershoot in 2000, and a slate of young McSweeney’s authors followed a few years after that. Allie Brosh and Harvey Pekar both read to packed houses. Touring groups of writers like Sister Spit were showcased. Terry McMillan read the same year that UB40 played. Hell, Larry McMurtry was a big-name headliner in 1977. Ursula K. LeGuin was a draw in 1998.
All that, of course, was a long time ago.
You can’t point to any one reason why Bumbershoot is no longer a high point in Seattle’s literary calendar year. We have a lot of reading series in Seattle nowadays, and so it’s less special to have a nationally prominent author appear in the city. A few years ago, Bumbershoot transformed its literary stage into a more general “Words and Ideas” format that de-emphasized books in exchange for more pop-cultural phenomena (writers for The Onion, Parks and Recreation, and Transparent have spoken at Bumbershoot in the past few years.) And the Bumbershoot audience has changed and grown more music-focused: people stopped showing up for literary events.
All of which is a long and whiny way of saying that you won’t find any Stephen Kings or George R.R. Martins at this year’s Bumbershoot. Instead, they’re turning the focus on local literary causes that deserve a wider audience.
On Sunday, September 3rd, Fremont Abbey’s popular Abbey Arts in the Round talent showcase brings its multidisciplinary lineup to Bumbershoot with musician Led to Sea and spoken word poet Sienna Burnett. Additionally, the festival continues its longstanding commitment to the spoken word scene with the Battle of the Word slam series, bringing the thrill of competitive reading to audiences who are eager for some drama.
Bumbershoot is also hosting a reprise of the Ghost of Seattle Past project. Ghosts, a gorgeous book published by local press Chin Music, is an anthology of pieces devoted to Seattle-area locations that have been demolished or that have changed ownership or that just feel different now that we’ve apparently fully committed to being Amazonville. Editor and curator Jaimee Garbacik will join Ghosts contributors in conversations about what it means to document the city in transition, and the audience will be invited to participate with their own memories of places that no longer exist.
But for my money, the biggest and most promising literary event at Bumbershoot is a special edition of the Bushwick Book Club, the ongoing music-and-books event which charges local musicians to read and respond to a selected text. The special Bumbershoot edition of the Club will feature all-new music written in response to Ernest Cline’s unbelievably popular nerdgasm of a sci-fi novel, Ready Player One. The book, which is being adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg, has attracted an array of passionate fans and some venomous criticism from critics of the book’s adoring fanwankery. Bushwick is perfect for Bumbershoot’s multidisciplinary creative spirit — a project that takes literature and moves it to an unfamiliar stage, just for the fun of seeing what might happen.
J.L. Cheatham II took his four-year-old daughter to the Tukwila Barnes & Noble to find her a book about her newest obsession — dinosaurs. Once they got to the kids’ section, he started looking around, and he noticed something: There were plenty of books about dinosaurs, but on “all the covers of the children’s books,” Cheatham tells me, “there were no black or brown faces.” He decided right then and there to write his daughter a dinosaur book that starred kids who look like her. After months of research, Cheatham published his first book: The Family Jones and the Eggs of Rex.
Cheatham learned then that publication isn’t the end of a process; it’s the very beginning. Authors today have to promote their own books and network around the clock. Cheatham was invited to participate in the Toronto Urban Book Expo, and “it blew my mind. Just the energy, the crowd, the music — everything.” When he returned home, Cheatham tried to get in contact with Seattle’s expo for authors of color. He quickly realized that this event simply doesn’t exist. Nobody in Seattle had put together an inclusive event for authors of color to find their fans, network, and celebrate their community.
So, naturally, Cheatham did it himself. Now, the Seattle Urban Book Expo is in its second year, and it’s grown at an exponential rate. The Expo happens on Saturday August 26th at Washington Hall from 1 to 5, and at 7 pm on Wednesday, August 23rd, Cheatham and other Expo authors will sit on a panel at the Seattle Public Library downtown to talk about their books and their experiences as authors. All are welcome.
What can people expect? Cheatham says “the goal is to have a literary party.” He’s signed up 20 authors for the Expo — more than twice last year’s roster — from a range of genres including comics, sci-fi, romance, erotica, and self-help. Part of Washington Hall will be turned over to kids’ entertainment (including face-painting and coloring writing classes) and the parking lot next to Washington Hall will be a full-service food court anchored by the Catfish Corner food truck. “I want people to show up and stay for a bit,” Cheatham explains.
As someone who has worked in and covered the book scene in Seattle for almost two decades, I’m embarrassed to admit to Cheatham that I don’t recognize many of the names of the participants at the Expo. Seattle is a segregated city in a lot of ways, and it seems that our literary scene is no exception. Cheatham is working hard to create an environment that puts these authors in front of the entire city. “We all want an opportunity. We just want a chance to show our work,” he says.
When that happens, things get better for everyone. As Cheatham puts it, “We just need to cultivate this bubbling artistic atmosphere that’s going on here in Seattle, you know?”
Sierra Nelson loves cephalopods. Squids, octopuses, cuttlefish — you name it, if it’s a bilateral mollusk with a big-ass head, Nelson is positively gaga over it. Nelson is a Seattle-area poet, and you can understand how a poet might fall in love with betentacled sea creatures: they’re romantic figures, skulking in the ocean — a part of the great marine biosphere, but also remote from the whales and fish. Those articulate limbs and big brains set them apart from the rest, leaving them to skulk and mope fabulously. And they even produce their own ink! How could a poet not land on Team Cephalopod?
But Nelson is more science-minded than your average poet. She’s a co-founder of the Vis-á-Vis Society, which applies scientific rigor to crowd-sourced poems, often employing large crowds at parties to write, Mad Lib-style, a series of poems about love and longing. No other poets in town have likely dissected a poem into pie charts on a whiteboard while wearing a lab coat.
On her own, Nelson loves to tease out the poetry in science, finding resonance in the long and mysterious Latin words and phrases that we’ve used to name the world. One of my favorites of her poems is “The First Photograph,” which explains the process that created a blurry heliograph by the father of photography, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce:
Through the pinprick it all came to us,
how close we were, upside down,
several hours on the windowsill.
We were surfaces arranged to receive.
The poem concludes: “Yet I capture you. Close to the sun./I coated my longing in bitumen.” Much has been written about the way photographs capture a moment in time, but rarely is that desperate need so beautifully overt.
So yes, there’s whimsy in Nelson’s celebration of all things squid and squid-like. But there’s also serious investigation and a questing mind, fusing together science and art and seeing what happens. She’s been throwing Cephalopod Appreciation Societies every year since 2015.
The Cephalopod Appreciation Society is a multidisciplinary arts celebration with music, film, visual art, poetry, and speeches. Past participants have included musician Lori Goldson, biologist Stephanie Crofts, marine cinematographer Laura James, and novelist Kevin Emerson, and presentations have included stickers, classes on incorporating marine biology into creative writing, octopus-themed animation, and sea shanty singalongs.
This year’s Society is in a different setting: whereas past assemblies happened at the creative hub of the Hugo House, this year’s edition meets on Sunday, August 20 at the Waterfront Space, a gallery on Western Ave. Nelson encourages participants of all ages to come dressed as their favorite cephalopod, and she promises there will be a “mini-parade” to the waterfront, presumably where she will call on a giant squid to rise from the deep and cast a judgment on Seattle. Will we be destroyed by the mammoth monster from the briny depths? Or will our suction-cupped friend recognize the like-minded intelligence in our eyes and guide us to a happier future? Only our molluscular overlords know for sure.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Storme Webber read at Seattle literary events. In person, she is an explosion: her poetry is a performance with real drama to it, and the prose is meticulously crafted, as though carved into stone. If you just scanned literary calendar listings, you could make the mistake of believing Webber to be just another poet, endlessly anthologized in group readings around town.
But Webber has another side that you might not see if you only attend readings. Her poetry can’t be constrained to just the page or the stage. Webber is interested in pitting history against the present in complex ways, in giving voice to the people who have been steamrolled by the bureaucrats who approve the history books, in examining the way that stories get repeated and forgotten and intentionally erased.
In recent years, Webber has combined performance with prose and visual art in an experimental site-specific project called Noirish Lesbiana, an attempt to bring light to the forgotten lesbian culture in and around Pioneer Square in the 1960s. “The focus is on my lesbian-headed family of mixblood Alutiiq Natives, and the communities, struggles and strengths that shaped their lives,” Webber writes on her website. “I am the storyteller, the second generation Black Alutiiq Two Spirit daughterartist.”
This month, Webber unveils what might be her most ambitious project to date. At the Frye Art Museum, she’s headlining a show — her first work in a museum — titled Casino: A Palimpsest. Casino continues with the work that Noirish Lesbiana began: it’s a history of one of the first gay bars on the west coast, the Casino.
In the early days of the city, Pioneer Square was where the freaks and outsiders went to be left alone, and the Casino — located near 2nd Avenue, where you’ll find Sounders fans twirling their scarves these days — was where they went to feel a sense of belonging. Webber’s own family found stability at the Casino. And the stories that played out in that space have never been told to enraptured tourists on the Underground Tour. Through photographs and performances and writing and workshops during the life of the show, Webber will use Casino to rewrite the erased history of the Casino.
But the title of the show is a warning: a palimpsest is a piece of writing that has been recorded on the place where another piece of writing has been erased. Random parts of the original show through, interacting with the newer manuscript in complex ways. Webber is not promising to revive the past, whole and undiluted. Those stories have been wiped out. The best she can do is tell the story as best she can, and hope that echoes of those lost stories make themselves known in her work. What’s past is gone; we can’t resurrect history, we can only hope to collaborate with it.
Colleen Louise Barry, the publisher at Seattle small press Mount Analogue, told me back in April that she dreamed of opening up a space somewhere in the city, a venue as nontraditional and artistic as the titles Mount Analogue publishes. She was reticent to discuss the idea — it seemed too crazy, in a city with booming real estate prices, to imagine — but eventually I coaxed it out of her. She talked about a performance space, a gallery, a small bookshop, and a space that functions as a never-ending salon, “a place where everything can coincide and collide into each other.”
It was hard to prize the idea away from all the caveats that Barry piled around it: such a place could never work. Nobody’s really done anything like that before. Artists can’t afford to live in Seattle anymore, let alone open businesses. Maybe one day after the economy collapses it’ll be a viable idea again.
What a difference 120 days makes: This Thursday as part of Pioneer Square’s First Thursday Artwalk, Barry will be co-presenting the grand opening party for X Y Z Gallery, a “collective arts space” that houses four different arts organizations. Alongside Specialist, a contemporary art gallery, you’ll find the headquarters for three young small presses.
Mount Analogue, of course, is one of the publishers in X Y Z. Barry is single-handedly blurring the line between visual art, performance art, and the literary arts. Her books are bizarre and beautiful objects which tend to find poetry in odd places. (My favorite Mount Analogue title so far is Final Rose, a book-length poem by Hailie Theoharides composed entirely out of subtitled screenshots from The Bachelor.) In her space, Barry will present an installation by Mary Anne Carter titled “Women in the Style of Taco Bell” alongside special performances.
Nearby, you’ll find the headquarters for Gramma Poetry, an ambitious young poetry press that has already become one of the most vital publishers in town. Gramma published Sarah Galvin’s latest (and, so far, greatest) poetry collection Ugly Time, and they most recently published Anastacia-Renée’s (v.). They’ll be presenting a collection of art that has served as book covers for Gramma’s releases.
Last, and probably least-known, of the three is local risograph printer Cold Cube Press. Cold Cube is a publisher and for-hire press that is remaking the aesthetic of what we expect books to be. You can identify a Cold Cube book from twenty paces: their risograph printing process isn’t as harsh as the gaudy processes used by most modern publishers. Each book feels hand-processed: if your typical John Grisham paperback is the publishing equivalent of factory farming, Cold Cube books are free-range and organic. They’ll be showing off their new printing studios throughout the evening.
The opening of X Y Z Gallery is a big moment for the Seattle literary scene. It represents three independent presses joining forces and carving a space in the world for themselves. By making a space for artists and lovers of the literary arts, this could represent the dawning of a new Seattle aesthetic: something young and warm and handmade and beautiful. You’ll want to get in on this.
Beloved Seattle-area poet Crysta Casey passed away in 2008, but her work is very much alive. Casey wrote poems about herself and her self: she wrote openly and with great energy about her schizophrenia, and her cancer journey. Her work was vital and personal and incredibly strong — there’s probably no greater indicator of the power of Casey’s writing than the fact that her dearest friends are still safeguarding and expanding her legacy. They’ve recorded her work and published it and read it at readings and done everything they can to keep it alive.
Two short primers of Casey’s work, Celebration and Yesterday My Name Was Wine Bottle, are available for free on the Apple iBookstore. Floating Bridge Press published a chapbook of her work titled Green Cammie two years after her passing, and this month Cave Moon Press has published Rules for Walking Out, the collection she completed just before her death.
Casey referred to herself as “Resident Poet,” a vague title that somehow perfectly captured the specificity of her situation. She was Seattle’s resident poet, walking the streets and reporting back on everything that she’d see. In “Poem for an Unknown Soldier” in Celebration, Casey notices an American flag at half-mast. she doesn’t know who the gesture is supposed to mourn and so she asks a nearby woman “who died?” She responds:
“Orville Reddenbacher did,
but I don’t think they’d fly a flag
for a popcorn man.”
The poem ends in uncertainty:
I listened to the radio, waiting
for the news.
There’s a dread to this line, imagining Casey hanging by the radio, waiting to put a name to the unidentified death floating out there in the aether. But there’s a comedy to it, too, a funeral for nobody, a symbol of mourning that could just as easily be the end result of a park staffer who’s too lazy to pull the damn flag all the way to the top of its pole.
Here in the haunted present, though, we absolutely know the name of the soldier we’re mourning. This Thursday, the 28th, Greenwood’s Couth Buzzard Books hosts a release party for Rules for Walking Out with readings by many of Casey’s closest friends and fans. Trisha Ready, Jamaica Baldwin, Kym Littlefield, and Esther Altshul Helfgott will read poems by Casey, and harpist Monica Schley will interpret her work through song.
Casey was an avid reader and an enthusiastic audience member at readings all around town, so it’s fitting that the event will end with an open mic. She’d want every poet to feel welcome at this event. In Casey’s Seattle, everyone is a poet-in-residence.
Couth Buzzard Books, 8310 Greenwood Ave N., http://buonobuzzard.com. Donation. All ages. 7:30 p.m.
Every so often in Seattle, a writer pops into the popular consciousness. You’ll find them everywhere at once: in every Seattle-centric magazine, newspaper, and website that covers the literary scene. (Yes, and there aren’t so many of those these days, but that’s a complaint for another time.)
When these kinds of writers appear — a Robert Lashley, say, or a Sarah Galvin, to use two recent-ish examples — it must be easy for aspiring authors to fall prey to jealousy. You toil at the open mics and publishing for free in the hand-printed literary magazines, and then all of a sudden there’s the it-lit figure of the moment staring out at you from free boxes around the city. This doesn’t happen very often, and it probably feels as though they’re taking up some of the spotlight that by rights ought to belong to you.
In my experience, though, these overnight success stories happen because the writers in question work. Their. Asses. Off. They read everywhere, they write all the time, and they put in the hours to gain the respect they deserve. Case in point? Anastacia-Reneé, the poet who has received glowing profiles in a number of local publications including a fantastic City Arts cover story by Galvin that’s on the stands right now.
The reason Anastacia-Reneé is getting so much attention is that she’s publishing three books of poetry with three different publishers this summer: (v.), Forget It, and Answer(Me). This confluence of publication dates wasn’t just handed to her on a platter; the truth is that Anastacia-Reneé is relentless. She reads all over town and advocates for other writers. She experiments in plays and visual art and non-fiction. Until recently, she was the Poet-in-Residence at the Hugo House, making her expertise available to aspiring authors with regular office hours and special appointments.
Anastacia-Reneé’s restlessness shows up on the page, too. She has written under a number of different aliases over the years, and her work investigates the question of identity — race, sexuality, community — in nearly every poem. She is fragmented, and she is mighty, and she is a force of nature. She’s exactly the kind of writer we need to see posted on every corner of the city right now.
To celebrate the second release of her busy summer, Forget It from Santa Cruz publisher Black Radish, Anastacia-Reneé will be joined on Tuesday the 25th at Elliott Bay Book Company by three stellar Seattle-area authors: poet Jane Wong, memoirist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, and poet-slash-civil-rights-attorney Shankar Narayan. She’s not only generous with the spotlight, but Anastacia-Reneé is perfectly willing to give time and exposure to other authors who complement her work. Other writers would balk at giving three dynamos some of her stagetime. Anastacia-Reneé knows that every stage is big enough to share.
Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com . Free. All ages. 7 p.m.
A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of talking to a couple dozen young sci-fi writers in the living room of a sorority house in the University District. Those writers were part of the annual intensive writing course presented by local sci-fi writing program Clarion West, and I was part of a panel to talk about book reviewing and publishing. These writers knew exactly the right questions to ask, and their enthusiasm for publishing was infectious.
The Clarion West class was a reminder that Seattle is one of the best towns for sci-fi in America — a place where young writers come to learn their craft, and a place where published writers come to find some of the best audiences in the business.
Next Tuesday, as part of their summer reading series, Clarion West is bringing Daniel Jose Older to the downtown central branch of the Seattle Public Library with the final book in his bestselling Bone Street Rumba series. Older has been a significant force for change in the sci-fi industry — it was his early agitation that finally led the World Fantasy Award organization to abandon the likeness of white supremacist H.P. Lovecraft as their award statues — and his inclusive, multicultural fiction is welcoming whole new audiences to the too-white, too-dudey genre.
But it speaks to Seattle’s strength as a reading town that Clarion West isn’t the only sci-fi event in town this week. The best sci-fi bookstore in the city, University Book Store, is also hosting a dual sci-fi event tonight at 7 that is of particular interest to Seattle audiences.
Bestselling sci-fi novelist Nancy Kress moved to Seattle from New York State about eight years ago. The influential author — perhaps best known for her odyssey in genetic manipulation, the Beggars in Spain series — will be reading from the first book in her Yesterday’s Kin series, Tomorrow’s Kin. Fans of the movie Arrival will find a lot to admire in Kress’s latest book, which involves aliens arriving on earth and humanity’s desperate attempts to communicate with their strange visitors.
Kress will be joined by a younger sci-fi talent — and a former University Book Store bookseller. Kay Kenyon is the author, most recently, of At the Table of Wolves, a novel set in the tense years just before World War II in a world where humans with psychic powers could upset the balance of power forever. The two authors will read from their books and talk about the agonies and the ecstasies of writing.
So in the next seven days, there will be three sci-fi writers sharing their talents with eager audiences in Seattle. Most American cities would consider themselves lucky to host even just one of them. Is there any wonder why Clarion West chose Seattle as the place to incubate promising new talent? This is a city where great science fiction is born.
You don’t often recognize the importance of a venue until it’s gone. If you’ve lived in Seattle for more than five years, you can probably name a now-extinct rock club or bar that played a significant role in your life. Odds are good that you didn’t even know you’d miss those places until they closed forever.
Town Hall Seattle is only temporarily closing its doors for a top-to-bottom remodel, but it’ll be out of commission for long enough that we’ll acutely feel its absence. It’s impossible to imagine Seattle’s literary scene without Town Hall, and the next year is going to feel barren without the 400 events annually hosted at the venue. Particularly in the spring and fall — the busiest seasons for books — we’re going to be missing Town Hall like hell.
The simple fact is that no other venue is Town Hall-sized: with seating for 900, the grand upstairs hall is large enough to accommodate the crowds summoned by big-name visiting authors like Jhumpa Lahiri and Arundhati Roy. The downstairs hall, with its church-basement vibe, is just the right size for civic events and up-and-coming authors like Claire Dederer or Bryan Lee O’Malley, who might overpower more modest bookstore reading rooms.
But it’s more than just a matter of arithmetic: Town Hall’s stateliness imbues events with a certain legitimacy that no other space in Seattle (barring perhaps the over-the-top grandeur of Benaroya Hall) can touch. A night at Town Hall feels like a proper night out on the town, and the wide array of events happening in any given week— science, music, literature, politics — means that any Seattleite can find something in Town Hall’s readings calendar that appeals to them.
This Friday, June 30th, Town Hall is throwing an all-day party before it shuts down for renovations. At 10 and 11 am, staff is leading tours of the space, which was constructed 101 years ago as a Christian Science Church. At noon, staff will be playing some of their favorite Town Hall talks over the years in a kind of greatest-hits reel.
Then there’s an opportunity to become part of Town Hall’s history. At 2 pm, Town Hall will be hosting an open mic of sorts, in which anyone has the opportunity to speak for five minutes on any topic they desire. Those presentations will be recorded for posterity. And at 4 pm, anyone who donates $25 or more to Town Hall’s renovation campaign will be given a Sharpie and one square foot of floorspace to decorate as they see fit.
Finally, from 7 pm to midnight, Town Hall is hosting a big last hurrah of a party. Onstage, you’ll find slam poetry from Seattle great Buddy Wakefield and a dance performance from Northwest Tap Connection and a special edition of the popular Ignite series of slideshow lectures. Outside the great hall, you’ll find food trucks and photo booths. At the end of the evening, there will be a special poetry reading and a toast to the venue’s future. When you raise your glass, look around and consider how that great hall — a big empty space, for the most part, made special by the people onstage and in the pews — has made such an indelible mark on this city.
Seattle nonprofit Shout Your Abortion really hit a nerve with its name. Founder Amelia Bonow took a lot of flack from self-described progressives when she started the organization: they supported the organization's calling, they would say, but then they would hem and haw for a second before getting to the point: isn’t it in bad taste, they’d stammer, to “shout” abortions?
They have it entirely wrong, of course. They think the name Shout Your Abortion is aimed at right-wing religious conservatives, when in fact the name has more to do with them. There’s a sanctimonious brand of liberal who likes to smugly proclaim that abortion should be “legal, safe ... and rare.” Bonow and her cohort argue that this type of thinking helps no one.
Here’s the thing: Abortion should be legal, period. It’s not your business why someone gets an abortion, and as soon as progressives allow themselves to cloak abortion in a stigma, they’re ceding ground to opponents. Hence: shouting your abortion, and offending the polite progressives who don’t realize they’re hurting the cause with their reticence.
Until now, the best book about abortion that I’ve ever read is Katha Pollit’s Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, which made the case for abortion as a moral good and unveiled the secret anti-woman agenda behind anti-abortion organizations. Finally, we have another book worthy of a spot next to Pro: Dr. Willie Parker’s Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice.
Parker is a devout Christian and an unapologetic abortionist. He tells his own story in his book, but he makes sure to tell the stories of the women he’s helped first and foremost. The book has plenty of quotable, headline-making moments — Parker equates anti-abortion laws to slavery, for example — and it also builds a complex and compelling argument for safe and legal abortion.
Parker recently told Newsweek that he believed he was “doing God’s work ... [by] protecting women’s rights, their human right to decide their futures for themselves, and to live their lives as they see fit.” There, in conjunction with his description of the abortion clinic as “a woman’s world,” is the core of his belief. He is a man who trusts women enough to believe they know what’s best for their own lives, and he knows that when women have the agency to exist without fear of government intrusion into their most personal decisions, everyone is better off.
SYA is presenting Parker at a special Town Hall event this coming Tuesday, and attendance is required for anyone who thinks a woman’s right to choose is essential for the future of this country. At this special event to celebrate the publication of Life’s Work, Parker will be introduced by Seattle celebrity Lindy West, who helped Bonow get SYA off the ground, and Parker will be interviewed by staunch SYA ally Martha Plimpton, who appeared most recently as the mom in the sitcom The Real O’Neals. Don’t expect anyone, onstage or in attendance, to be ashamed about their passion for a woman’s right to safe and legal abortion.
Nobody’s ever accused Paul Mullin of being soft. Back when Mullin was a playwright, he wrote stories about genius brains being turned to slurry from aggressive radiation poisoning and monstrous men who recall their own horrific acts even through the blessed fog of amnesia. Mullin wrote long screeds about what was wrong with American theater (spoiler alert: basically, everything), and he wasn’t afraid to make enemies. Then, about four years ago, he retired from theater.
Then Mullin published a memoir titled The Starting Gate. It’s about stepfathers and sons and Mullin’s early teen years working in a bar full of colorful characters, and it’s full of fights and threats of violence, but in that chipper John Wayne kind of way, where every fistfight might end in friendship or, at the very least, a grudging respect. Mullin writes that he’s comfortable in the “beer-dank dark of this shit-kicker bar,” and you get a sense that in fact, he might chafe in an environment that doesn’t have a bit of an edge to it.
Lately, Mullin has been running a reading series called Loud Mouth Lit, and it’s got a couple interesting angles to it. First, as curator, Mullin is pulling from his theatrical past. He asks guests who he thinks will be good (by which I mean dramatic and compelling) readers. Second, he doesn’t cram the bill full of six or seven readers: every Loud Mouth Lit is just Mullin and one other reader.
Third, he’s branching out into a very different venue. Loud Mouth Lit happens at St. Andrews Bar & Grill on Aurora, which is not one of these refurbished amusement-park dive bar simulacrums that you see on Capitol Hill. St. Andrews is a bar from a different time and place. It’s a little less butt rock and a little more classic rock: on the menu you’ll find “Rod Stewart Onion Rings,” which are “served with ‘Rod Sauce,’” which may be the single most unappealing name for a condiment since “gentleman’s relish.”
Bringing a reading series to an Aurora sports bar is a baller move, the kind of thing that makes you wonder if maybe literary events have gotten a little too comfortable in their own enclave. If readings are so great — and I fundamentally believe that they are — why not take them out into places like St. Andrew’s, where they can compete with jukeboxes and soccer matches on the satellite TV and abundant booze for relatively cheap?
On Tuesday, May 30th, Loud Mouth Lit features readings from Mullin and local writer David Schmader. Mullin will be reading a piece about his job at the National Archives and a fistfight in an elevator. Schmader says he’ll be reading “About gay mentors with bad boundaries and my short history of having to punch my way out of dates,” and he credits the piece to “Ed Murray, whose current scandal inspired me to write this all out."
Schmader — who is, full disclosure, my former coworker and a friend — is a very funny writer who has a knack for baring the frilly underpants of our most angst-ridden issues in as entertaining a fashion as humanly possible. He can make you laugh about things that you’re afraid to say out loud. His exuberant ninja-assassin style of comedy should blend well with Mullin’s aggressive punch-throwing technique. One’s a tactical genius, the other kicks down doors. I’d watch the hell out of that buddy-cop show.
It was a loss that felt like the fluttering turn of a page. When Seattle-area poet Joan Swift passed away back in March, friends and fans expressed their grief in many ways. They shared stories about Swift’s generosity of spirit, her candor as an artist, and her tireless devotion to the craft. But the most common sentiment, the one shared by people who spent years with Swift in their lives and by people who had never once met her, was that Swift’s passing was a sad and significant moment in Seattle literary history, a loss of generational proportions.
This Tuesday, May 16th at 7 pm, Open Books is hosting a memorial service and celebration of Swift’s work. Local writers including Tess Gallagher, Esther Atshul Helfgott, and Holly Hughes will be on hand to talk about their memories of Swift, and fans are encouraged to bring a favorite poem to share with the audience. Cave Moon Press publisher Doug Johnson will be hosting the event, and debuting Swift’s final collection, The Body That Follows Us, which she completed just before she passed. The event should serve as a good introduction to Swift’s work for people who’d like to know her better and a fond farewell for those who know her well.
At 90 years old, Swift was loved by a cross-section of Seattle writers that stretched back to the roots of modern Northwest literature. She was one of the last living writers to take Seattle poetry godfather Theodore Roethke’s class, and she provided a direct link to future generations of writers.
Swift inspired with her presence; poet Esther Atshul Helfgott, who founded the It’s About Time open mic series, says Swift read at her reading many times. She says Swift “treated me like an equal,” even though most “writers of Joan’s caliber wouldn’t give us a second look.”
And Swift also inspired by her example. She published poems about her own experiences with rape and her daughter’s suicide that to this day stun readers with their candor and bravery. Her work was intelligent and well-crafted, but she wasn’t genteel; when the subject called for it, she used language and subject matter that was sometimes shocking.
Shortly after news of Swift’s death broke, Sherman Alexie told me about the impact that Swift’s work had on him as a young poet. “I read a Joan Swift poem about eagles having sex as they plummet toward the earth, how they sometimes forget to uncouple and crash to their deaths,” Alexie says. “And I remember thinking, ‘Wait, it’s cool to write a poem about eagles fucking to death? Awesome!’ Joan introduced a new rule of poetry to me. Or broke the old rules. Or both.”
This week, Small Press Distribution released their list of poetry bestsellers for the month of April 2017. In the top ten bestselling poetry books around the nation, you’ll find three young Seattle-area poets: Robert Lashley, Jane Wong, and Sarah Galvin. As the vanguard of our city’s literary scene, they’re building on the foundation that Joan Swift helped establish. Swift’s legacy is more than secure — it’s thriving.
Every year, the Seattle Public Library chooses one book to headline its “Seattle Reads” program. The idea is to get as many copies of a single title into as many hands as possible, to bring the author to as many of Seattle’s neighborhoods as they can in a single week, and to examine a book thoroughly. It’s a noble idea and it raises some interesting questions about place and readership: does Ballard, say, read a book differently than Rainier Valley? How does a city read?
This year’s Seattle Reads selection seems to be selected to put that question to the test. Angela Flournoy’s debut novel The Turner House was published two years ago, but it addresses issues that this city is wrestling with right now. Set in Detroit during the financial collapse of 2008, The Turner House is about the adult children of a large family — 13 children, though we only really spend time with a handful of them — who must decide what to do with the family home, which is worth so little that burning it down would probably be a profitable decision.
People who complain that literary fiction is out of touch with the concerns of the working class are sleeping on this book. We follow the Turners through the 20th century. As black Americans, they have to fight to enjoy the same American dream enjoyed by the white working class: the police are always watching them, hoping for a misstep; they work harder to earn the same jobs and financial benefits that a white family of the same income bracket would come to expect. When the financial crisis arrives and wipes out that American dream for everyone in the 99 percent, the Turners are a little less surprised than white families, but they’re still hurting.
Like any good novel that is firmly rooted in a specific place and time, The Turner House develops a certain universality. The Seattle of 2017 will very likely see itself in the Detroit of this book. We, too, are seeing the working class being pushed out of a city. We’re witnessing the results of systemic racism in policing and education and economics. We’re living with a mental health system that ignores those most in need. The story that Flournoy tells with this family — a haunted house story, really, of a different kind — is exactly the story we need to read right now, because it’s exactly the story we’re living right now.
Flournoy is in town from May 8th to 11th to read from The Turner House and to talk with Seattle communities about the book. On the evening of the 8th, she’s reading at the Columbia branch of the library. On the 9th, she’s at the University District branch and the Ballard branch; the 10th brings her to the Southwest branch and the Langston Hughes Performing Institute; and on the 11th she reads at the Central Library downtown. All events are free; all are welcome. Find all the details at http://www.spl.org/audiences/adults/seattle-reads
This Saturday, April 29th, 23 area bookshops will be taking part in the third annual Seattle Independent Bookstore Day. You — being the discerning lover of literature and an ardent supporter of local businesses staffed by real, live humans that you are — don’t need me to tell you why independent bookstores are the motherfucking cultural glue that holds our entire city together. So you’ll obviously want to head out to your two or three favorite bookstores to buy a book or two, say hi, and enjoy some special events.
Also this Saturday, the most hardcore of you book-lovers will attempt to visit at least 19 of these 23 bookstores. This is an arduous journey, stretching from Poulsbo’s Liberty Bay Books to the Edmonds Bookshop to BookTree Kirkland and all Seattle’s neighborhood shops. It’s a difficult trip involving lots of traffic, sketchy parking, and a lot of planning, but those who succeed will get a 25 percent discount on every purchase at any of these stores for the whole year.
But say you can’t spend a whole day trekking from the stately Eagle Harbor Book Company on Bainbridge Island to the delightful Neverending Bookshop in Bothell. That’s okay! Participation in the marathon isn’t required; all you need to do is show up and make your appreciation known. Bookstores will be selling special available-for-one-day-only books from authors like Rainbow Rowell and Michael Chabon, along with literary condoms and a vinyl version of podcast sensation Welcome to Night Vale. And independent Seattle-based audiobook seller Libro.fm will be giving out free audiobooks — including one of David Foster Wallace’s very best essays, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” — at participating locations.
Here are some special Seattle Independent Bookstore Day events you should know about:
Local restaurateurs Tom Douglas, Molly Wizenberg, and Heather Earnhardt will be doing special appearances with cooking demos (and samples) at Fremont’s Book Larder.
University Book Store will be hosting all sorts of events for kids, including maskmaking and storytimes and some sort of a balloon animal menagerie thing happening at 2:30 pm.
Seattle poet Meredith Clark will be stationed at Elliott Bay Book Company from 2 to 4 pm making erasures — that’s carving poems out of the existing text on a page of a preexisting book — for anyone who asks. Additionally, Fogland Studios will be operating a printing press in the middle of the store, publishing zines and posters while you wait.
Why aren’t there more cookbooks in comic book form? Comics are the perfect medium for cookbooks, visually walking readers through every step in the process of cooking eventhe most complex recipes. From 1 to 3 pm, Fantagraphics Bookstore and Gallery in Georgetown is hosting a release party for a new minicomic, the Northwest Cartoonists Cookbook, featuring recipes from a murderer’s row of Seattle cartooning talent including Ellen Forney, Marie Hausauer, David Lasky, Kelly Froh, Megan Kelso, Simon Hanselmann, Mita Mahato, and Colleen Frakes.
This is your day, literary Seattle. Go make it a good one.
It is probably no mistake that some of the best poets are translators. While translating poetry from one language into another is an impossible, thankless task — I’ve heard it described as performing open heart surgery with a chainsaw — it still teaches you to ask all the right questions.
Why did the poet use this word in that particular spot? Does a line break mean the same in this language as it does in the original language? Just because you’ve managed to assemble a word-for-word translation of a sentence, the rhythm of the translated sentence might be completely wrong — a sentence can sound like a crashing wave in one language and a galloping horse with a trick knee in another. Those airy, complicated questions of translation are bound to make anyone a better writer.
Redmond writer Lena Khalaf Tuffaha has translated other poets from Arabic to English. She’s written beautifully about the experience in an essay on her site titled “Translation as Poetry.” She explains that the “first time I unlocked one of these phrases on my own, I felt like I had put on goggles and was happily diving into the cerulean deep of a pool after years of blurry immersion.”
Now, Tuffaha is publishing her first book of poems with prestigious Pasadena publisher Red Hen Press. Water & Salt is a book that spans the globe, from Seattle to Jordan and back again:
We are driving away
because we can leave
on the magic carpet of our navy blue
US passports that carry us
to safety and no bomb drills
to the place where the planes are made
and the place where the president
will make the call to send the planes
into my storybook childhood
The repetition of the “planes,” there, from being manufactured to being launched, is a meaningful one. Here, in Seattle — once the Jet City, though that name has fallen into disfavor in the age of Amazon — the planes are a point of pride. They represent jobs and industry and security for families. There, they bring endings to childhood.
These poems bounce back and forth between worlds to look at familiar objects from both sides. Tuffaha compares vivid street markets to fluorescent supermarkets. She writes, “I love to tell you where I am from,” when she says “the nine letters” — Palestine, the “place with a name charged as an electric fence” — that inspire opinions in absolutely everyone. Her poems are addressed to ugly Americans and friends and Syrians and her close family. Even Tuffaha’s beloved coffee habit is different in America (“free-trade shade-grown organic”) than it is in the Middle East (“…never serve coffee without ground cardamom.”) The sun casts different shadows here and there. Everything looks a little different.
It becomes obvious as you read Water & Salt that Tuffaha is still deeply invested in the business of translation. Not even something as innocuous as an almond can just be itself. Here, they are dried and brown and vacuum sealed. There they are green and so sour they’re “puckering.” Her poetry is always translating something — experiences, cultures, memories — for someone else. She’s a patient intermediary, explaining how one word can have a million different meanings. It’s all a matter of perspective.
In July of 2015 on the website Very Smart Brothas, Damon Young wrote a blog post titled “Serena Williams Drinks, Bathes In, and Makes Lemonade with White Tears.” The next day, he published a post titled “White Tears, Explained, for White People Who Don’t Get It.” It seems that his original post about Serena Williams inspiring white tears had inspired some white tears of its own. Young quoted a white reader’s response to his article: “It’s disturbing how it seems many black people resent white people, when we all bleed the same color. How can we get to equality when there’s so many stirring the pot with hatred?”
Young patiently (and with more than a little bemusement) explained the idea of white tears to the aggrieved white people, that white tears are “what happens when certain types of White people either complain about a nonexistent racial injustice or are upset by a non-White person’s success at the expense of a White person.” So his original post highlighting white people complaining about racial unfairness was met with more white people complaining about racial unfairness. This cycle probably continues to this very day — imagine an infinity symbol made out of white tears, swallowing itself forever.
So it’s safe to assume that Hari Kunzru has already heard from upset white people about the title of his latest novel, White Tears. He’s probably already been accused of reverse-racism, or race-baiting, or whatever the catchphrase is among the special snowflakes who love to cry out about injustices committed against the ever-innocent white race. If you were planning on going to his Elliott Bay Book Company reading on Tuesday to alert him to his insensitivity toward Caucasians, you can just stay home and rest easy, knowing some other white dude has already gotten there before you. Stay in, draw a nice bubble bath, read some Jonathan Franzen, and rest easy, knowing that your people have already spoken out.
But everyone else should go to this reading.
Over the course of fifteen years, Kunzru has proven himself to be an agile and witty novelist. His 2002 debut, The Impressionist, was about a man at the sunset of British colonialism whose racial identity could freely swap back and forth between Indian and British. (Kunzru himself is British Indian.) Ever since, his books have spoken frankly and with good humor about race.
White Tears finds Kunzru taking on American racism with a bold frontal attack. It’s about two young New Yorkers who pass a contemporary recording off as a 1950s blues classic, thereby raising questions about cultural appropriation, authenticity, and authorship. The book travels through time and exhumes some dangerous ghosts as the recording seems to hit everyone it encounters in their most fleshy, delicate spots. The fact that a few angry white people probably couldn’t make it past the book’s title without writing a strongly worded Facebook post is part of the joke, and only proves Kunzru’s point.
Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com . Free. All ages. 7 p.m.
Regular readers of this column know that on the first Wednesday of every month, the Seattle Review of Books and the Seattle Weekly host a book club called Reading Through It at Third Place Books Seward Park. The response has been incredibly strong — anywhere between 60 and 100 attendees every month — because books are the perfect response to the historical moment.
It just makes sense that in a time when too many voters are low-information or low-empathy, we should turn to books for help. Books are still the best way to impart large quantities of information, and they are better at inspiring empathy in humans than any other art form. Even when we let ourselves down, books are there for us. More than that, books will save us. They will inform and educate and inspire us, in ways that magazine articles or listicles or television shows simply cannot.
Our president does not read. He prefers his memos to be a single page, with lots of images and graphs. It is not clear if he’s actually read a book as an adult — including his own bestseller, which was famously written by a man who now hates him. He is the first modern American president who seems, at best, bored by the idea of books and, at worst, actively anti-book. There’s a kind of pleasurable symmetry in this thought of books coming to our rescue.
This Wednesday, April 5th, at 7 pm, I hope you’ll join us at Third Place Books Seward Park for the discussion of this month’s book, What We Do Now: Standing Up for Your Values in Trump’s America. While most books take years from initial pitch to publication date, Now was published by indie New York press Melville House in a matter of weeks. Inspired by Trump’s election and published just in time for Trump’s inauguration, Now thrums with a vitality and an immediacy that most books lack.
Unlike most of the Reading Through It choices so far, Now is fairly unfocused. The book is divided up into thematic sections: Racial Justice, Immigration, Women’s Rights, Climate Change, etc. Many of the essays are repurposed from other publications and speeches, but placed together they gain a strength and renewed purpose.
Now collects various perspectives and experiences in between two covers. Some of my favorite essays are direct calls to action, like Brittany Packnett’s encomium “White People: What Is Your Plan for the Trump Presidency?” or Harper’s publisher John R. MacArthur’s “How to Make Blue States Blue Again.” George Lakoff examines the way Trump communicates, and George Saunders provides a more impressionistic overview of the political situation.
The conversation at this month’s Reading Through It is sure to be varied and untethered from any single topic. That’s okay. (Those wanting to focus on a particular subject are invited to the May 3rd edition of the club, where we’ll be reading The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt.) These are confusing times, and every day brings with it three or four issues that demand our attention and our action. We’ll get through it by communicating and listening and, yeah, by reading.