(August 10, 2021)
My second day in Seattle, I focused on my business mission for the trip: exploring the bookish side of the city for inspiration on what I could accomplish with Longleaf Press, a literary nonprofit I had acquired in the spring.
The press was founded in the late ’90’s by my undergraduate mentors, Robin Greene and Michael Colonnese, who later became colleagues and friends. When I was a student intern there in 2006, we were university-affiliated, and we published only poetry–primarily by writers in the Southeast–though Mike and Robin had recently begun working with the Vermont-based writer and artist, Roger Weingarten, on the publication of his collection, Premature Elegy by Firelight. Little did I know then that my connections with Robin, Mike, and Roger would in many ways steer the direction of my life.
Fast-forward 14 years to 2020: I’d been an assistant editor with Longleaf for a decade and was appointed executive editor when Mike and Robin took early retirement at the start of the pandemic. I was floored, but the catch was that a few months later, I would also find out I was about to lose my full-time faculty teaching position of 11 years because the university was putting its writing program “on hiatus” and laying off all of the untenured professors therein. Since the press was university-affiliated, its future was uncertain, but the one thing I did know was that no one else had the history with Longleaf that I did or cared as much about it. So I asked to take it with me. To my surprise, my wish was granted, and thus began the hard work of re-establishing Longleaf as an independent nonprofit–something that never would have been possible without the continued dedication and support of Robin, Mike, and Roger, who banded together with me to form a board of directors.
I did what I often do when I need to regroup: got a rail pass and went wandering around the country by train. Since my job was no longer tying me to Fayetteville, North Carolina, I wanted to explore places I could potentially relocate and visit literary spaces to help me envision the future I wanted for both myself and Longleaf Press. I also seized on the opportunity to reconnect with friends I hadn’t seen in awhile, so when I decided Seattle would be one of my stops, I got in touch with Keun-Hae Lee, a friend I’d met in the creative writing MFA program at North Carolina State University. Though we hadn’t seen each other in over a decade, she graciously offered to give me a tour, starting with Open Books, a sacred little space on North 45th Street devoted entirely to poetry. We wait outside for a few minutes because they’re encouraging social distancing by limiting the number of patrons permitted in at once.
In the window, I notice a broadside with the Louise Erdrich poem, “Life will break you”:
When I step inside, I imagine one day having a community-oriented space where we could sell Longleaf Press books (over 30 to date already), host readings, and offer workshops. I’d never been in a store devoted entirely to poetry before; the closest approximation I could think of was the upstairs poetry room in San Francisco’s City Lights.
Browsing through a bin of broadsides, I also felt my desire reignited to one day have a letterpress to play on, fashioning poems into gorgeous art pieces for display. I’ve visited a couple of letterpresses–one at Red Dragonfly and the other at Horse & Buggy–and found them utterly enchanting. The letterpress appeals to that part of my brain that loves visual projects involving minute details–the same part that loves knitting gloves with hand-dyed, merino wool and weaving with itty bitty, Japanese Delica beads–impractical, expensive hobbies for a recently unemployed woman who grew up on government cheese, but something about focusing on such intricacy of detail makes me feel at peace.
I lost my sense of time poring through the shelves and have no idea how long we were inside. I resisted the urge to mail home yet another box of books (as I’d done after visiting Birch Bark in Minneapolis, which–coincidentally–is owned by Louise Erdrich, whose poem was displayed in the window); instead, I settled on two: Traci Brimhall’s Our Lady of the Ruins and Natasha Trethewey’s Memorial Drive, a memoir written by a poet I had the incredible fortune to receive some feedback from the year before she was appointed poet laureate. She was incredibly kind to me–not to mention incredibly helpful with my poems–so I follow her work closely.
As Keun-Hae and I were checking out, I squealed a little when I caught sight of Raising Lilly Ledbetter on the anthologies shelf. “I’m in there!” I told her, delighted to find one of my own poems in such good company with all the others in this magical shop. It gave me a sense of belonging and strengthened my feeling of reconnection to my writing life–something I’d put on the back burner, in one part due to the demands of teaching four composition courses a semester and in another part due to some mental health challenges that had arisen during a difficult divorce several years before. Though Keun-Hae and I hadn’t seen each other in over a decade, she had been kind to me through the worst of it and had written periodically to check in. I was grateful for that, and grateful also when she plucked the anthology off the shelf and added it to the stack of books she’d already intended to purchase.
Then hungry, we headed to Pike Place Market, where we wandered through bustling aisles lined with stalls selling everything from earrings to fish. I wisely followed Keun-Hae’s lead and ordered a pork bun from one of the vendors, and we sat outside by the water, catching up and enjoying the sunshine. When it came time for her to pick up her daughter, we hugged, and I stayed behind to sample the elote I’d spied at one of the outdoor food carts.
With a full belly and a happy heart, I sat by the water to tackle the travel pickle I was in; from Seattle, I’d intended to take the Coast Starlight south to San Francisco, but shortly before I set out on my rail pass adventure, the Lava Fire in Northern California had burned a prominent railway bridge. So there was no way I could get to San Francisco by train.
I’d wanted to drive the northern part of the Pacific Coast Highway ever since I’d done the southern portion from San Diego to San Francisco in 2007, so I decided to rent a car. The problem was that there was a rental car shortage, and before I left home, the car rentals out of Portland had been hundreds of dollars less expensive than the rentals out of Seattle. So I went ahead and reserved one, figuring I could just catch a bus from Seattle to Portland to pick it up; however, sitting by Elliot Bay, nibbling on my elote and looking at bus schedules, I realized that getting to Portland before the rental car company closed at 5 PM would mean waking up around 4 AM and taking this bus to that bus to the other–not ideal for a lifelong insomniac with a history of sleeping through alarms. Luckily, when I checked Budget’s website one last time for rentals in Seattle, I found one that was only $30 more than the one I already had reserved in Portland. Problem solved.
Then I decided to walk to the Chihuly garden because I’d been mesmerized back in 2017 by a Chihuly exhibit in the gardens at Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh. The Chihuly garden in Seattle was much smaller, but it had great views of the Space Needle. The indoor portion of the museum was the real gem in my opinion.
Outside, I watched a glass blowing demonstration and was pleased to learn that the pieces made during the demos were sold in the gift shop at the Space Needle, and the proceeds were used to help fund the arts in Seattle. It got me thinking about things Longleaf could do to raise money as we waited for approval of our nonprofit status from the IRS (a process that usually takes around six months).
Later, on the bus back to my host’s house, I caught a glimpse out the window of a place called The Bureau of Fearless Ideas. Curious, I googled it and found out it’s a community writing and storytelling center geared toward authors aged 6-18. Like many of the places I wanted to visit on this trip (The Loft in Minneapolis, The Hugo House in Seattle, etc.), they had suspended in-person programs during the pandemic, so I couldn’t visit; nonetheless, I was intrigued by their mission and decided to add it to the list of models Longleaf Press might look to for ways to integrate into a new community.
That was the moment that sparked my desire to start a writing mentorship program for under-served youth: a goal I continue to work toward by researching grants Longleaf Press can apply for when our nonprofit status is granted, by seeking donors who might be interested in supporting such a program (contact firstname.lastname@example.org for details), and by coming up with fundraising projects such as the collaboration between Longleaf Press and Coconut Cream Soap “to bathe you in books this holiday season.” (In other words, we collaborated on holiday spa sets containing Longleaf Press books alongside handmade, 100% vegan, coconut milk soaps, lotions, facial serums, and other personal care products–awesome gifts for the book lover in your life who likes to read in the bathtub. Please consider preordering yours today to support a small press, two women-owned businesses, and a writing mentorship program for under-resourced youth!)