Seattle, Day 2: Open Books, Pike Place Market, Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum, and The Bureau of Fearless Ideas

(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.

Letterpress photo taken at Red Dragonfly Press in 2012

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.

Pike Place Market

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.

A few photos from the Chihuly Garden & Glass Museum

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 longleafpress@gmail.com 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!)

Choo-Choo!

I took this photo on my last major Amtrak trip during the summer of 2017. I’m pretty sure it’s the Portland, Oregon Amtrak station, but feel free to correct me in the comments if I’m mis-remembering.

It’s been several years since I’ve kept up with my website in any kind of meaningful way, but since so much has changed for me in the last year–and since I’m about to embark on yet another epic train trip (this time to try and decide upon a new place to call home)–I thought this would be an opportune time to begin chronicling my journeys again. Recently, I was laid off from my job as an English professor at a small, private, liberal arts institution in the Southeast. I had deep roots there. In addition to being my employer for the last eleven years, it was my undergraduate alma mater. I love teaching and know I will miss my students dearly, but I also feel like my layoff may have been just the push out the door I needed. A variety of factors like declining enrollments and other difficulties posed by the pandemic have made this a dire time for many in academia. Having been a contingent, yearly-contract faculty member, I was one of the first to go when cuts were being made. In fact, seven out of the ten professors in my department were laid off, as well as a few non-tenure-track professors in other departments. We called ourselves the Monday Massacre Club on account of the Monday afternoon email we all received informing us of our impending termination. When I first finished skimming that email, I felt an unexpected, somewhat perverse wave of exhilaration at the realization I would no longer have a job tying me to my current home in Fayetteville, North Carolina. I could move, finally: something I had wanted to do for a long time. Granted, I spent the majority of the next day crying on the couch; after all, I loved teaching, and even though Fayetteville has never quite felt like home, my sisters, nieces, and nephew are all nearby. Being here has enabled me to be close to them. But even in the midst of the shock, financial anxiety, and disappointment, I felt an undeniable sense of possibility. Plus the layoff wouldn’t be official until the end of the spring semester, so I was fortunate in the sense that I had some time to plan.

One of my deepest sources of disappointment upon hearing the news was the fact that I’d recently made some significant professional strides that my layoff threatened to undo: after a decade of teaching first-year composition almost exclusively, I’d finally been given creative writing classes, and I’d also taken over Longleaf Press, a literary nonprofit that had been founded in the 90’s by Robin Greene and Michael Colonnese, my undergraduate mentors, who later became my friends and colleagues. Michael and Robin retired from the university in the spring of 2020, when the reality of the pandemic was setting in, and in October, I hosted a virtual poetry reading in their honor. A little over a month later, when I found out about my layoff, I had just begun working on my first publication as editor-in-chief, a beautiful poetry collection by Crystal Simone Smith entitled Down to Earth. Since the press had operated under the umbrella of the university’s nonprofit status since its inception, I didn’t know what would become of it once I lost my job.

There were some minor technical difficulties early on (trickster energy, as Sandy Yannone called it), so the event actually begins about five minutes into the recording.

My connection to the press began in 2007, when I worked as an undergraduate intern on the publication of Roger Weingarten‘s Premature Elegy by Firelight, so my attachment to Longleaf was longstanding and deep. I wanted to preserve my mentors’ legacy and felt it would be a disservice to all of the authors whose work we had published over the years if I were to let the press fold or hand it off to someone who didn’t know it as well as I did or care about it as much. So I figured it was worth a shot: I asked to take the press with me when I left the university, and to my delight and surprise, the administration agreed.

For the last several months, I have been working to not just preserve but expand the press, and one of the lovely, unexpected blessings to come out of all of this is that it has given me a chance to work again alongside Mike and Robin, as well as Roger, and another poet named George Rawlins, whose fantastic collection, Cheapside Afterlife, is forthcoming from Longleaf. We’re re-incorporating as an independent nonprofit and re-envisioning the possibilities now that we’re transitioning away from the university and going out on our own. Whereas we previously operated as a regional publisher of authors in the Southeast, we’re now opening submissions for our full-length poetry book contest to anyone writing in English. We’re also hoping to house the press eventually within a community-integrated arts center of some kind, and toward that aim, I’m looking for an arts-oriented town or city to which to relocate.

I found out a few days ago that Amtrak was running a sale on 30-day rail passes for $299, so to those who know me, it will come as no surprise that I’ve decided to scout out possible locations by train. I just bought the pass and will be planning out my route during the next couple of weeks.

The last time I took a trip like this was in 2017, when I spent a summer backpacking solo via Amtrak and Couchsurfing my way cross-country to and from a residency at Willapa Bay AIR. I’ve often wished I had blogged about that trip, so I’ve decided to do so this time around. Stay tuned to hear updates about my trip and the press. Long live Longleaf!

Next Big Thing

Many thanks to Megan Roberts, author of Matters of Record, for tagging me to participate in Next Big Thing, an expanding blog project of author interviews.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

My older sister Chelsea, to whom the book is dedicated, scared the hell out of me when I was little with these ghost stories about a butcher who had built our house, so I guess the idea was planted then. What surprised me was that as I got older, other people around the little town where I grew up began to elaborate on some of her stories: for instance, when I was waiting tables many years later at the Lumberton 68 Family Restaurant, one of my older regulars asked where I lived, and when I told her, she replied, “Oh, the old slaughterhouse. I looked at that place when it was on the market in the ‘80’s. You know the butcher used to drain the blood in that creek?”

So I guess you could say that the collection is part history and part ghost story, though sometimes it’s hard for me to tell those threads apart.

I should also say that the more I looked into the history of the place, the more bizarre the stories got—so much so that they would not all fit in the chapbook. In the full-length collection, readers can expect, in addition to the butcher poems, some poems about an elephant, Helen McGregor, who died while traveling by foot through the area with the circus in 1832.

Image

What genre does your book fall under?

Poetry

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Hmmm, I think I’d pick Winona Ryder to play my sister. Anthony Hopkins would make an excellent butcher, and Natalie Portman could play the ghost of his wife. For the parents, I would pick Kathy Bates and Jeremy Irons.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

These poems were stitched together with human hair and highway lines in haunted landscapes.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

The oldest poem in the collection (“Stray”) is from 2007, and the newest (“Dressing the Hog”) is from  2012. So that makes something like six years. I would add, though, that I did not begin to think in terms of “a manuscript” until around 2009, and it took a couple of years more to muster the courage to write the poems that dealt with the theme of incest.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Well, I would say I was initially motivated by my sister’s death and a cathartic impulse, but I don’t think that counts as inspiration exactly. Some individual poems, on the other hand, were definitely inspired by people I know & love (shout out to my ever-supportive husband, Gerard) and by other writers, teachers, mentors, and peers who encouraged me and showed me how it’s done (I’ll save the complete list for a full-length collection, but for now, I’ll just mention a few: many thanks to Dorianne Laux, Michael Colonnese, and Robin Greene, especially).

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I attempted a poem that contains two dirty jokes.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Neither–it is being published by Longleaf Press.

The writers I tag will post their own interviews on March 20, 2013:

1. Kelly Michels, author of Mother and Child with Flowers (forthcoming from Finishing Line Press)

2. Rachel Herrick, author of A Guide to the North American Obeast (Forthcoming from The Institute for Contemporary Art.)

3. Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés, author of Everyday Chica (Longleaf Press)

4. Michael S. Begnal, author of Future Blues (Salmon Poetry)

Hey Guys, Check out My Chapbook Cover:

My chapbook, Blood Creek, is due out from Longleaf Press soon, so I thought I’d share with you all the cover image, which was designed by Michael Duprey, a good friend & very talented graphic artist. For the creek, Mike used satellite imagery he’s been mapping out. I’ll be sending out some promotional postcards soon; if you would like one, please email your address to shannoncamlin@gmail.com or message me on Facebook. Cheers!

bloodcreek_cover