Editorials — April 29, 2013 16:42 — 0 Comments

The Monarch Chats With Three Seattle Poets

Elizabeth Colen, Rich Smith and Katie Ogle are Seattle poets. Distinguished in the field already, the three have books published and forthcoming. They also hold teaching positions, writer-in-residences and regularly attend city poetry readings. The Monarch Review chatted with these three about all that and more (including gin!). 


Jake Uitti: In an interview we did recently with poet Matthew Dickman, he said, “I believe part of our craft is to share the work we make with others, to attempt to at any rate…” Elizabeth, I know you just came out with a book of poetry. What’s the most difficult aspect, for you, with 1) being a writer and 2) handling the process of getting the work out into the world? 

Elizabeth Colen: It’s hard to make time to do the administrative side of writing. It isn’t the interesting part, and it involves a lot of rejection. I’d rather spend an entire afternoon working over one line or sentence than to take ten minutes submitting. Researching presses and journals is easy; I always know where I want to send things because I read a lot and I know what’s out there and what should be appropriate venues for my work. But if I don’t pencil in 2-3 hours a week to force myself to send work out, it doesn’t get done. On top of that I just started looking for jobs, which is a whole other beast of details. 

I’m also not as indefatigable as I used to be. I’m fatigable. At this point, I’m happy to take things a little slower, send mostly just when asked. I have a plan for world domination through poetry, but it’s probably going to take a few lifetimes. 

JU: Rich, you’re in the middle of putting out a book of poetry as well, what’s that process been like for you from writing to promotion to fatigue? 

Rich Smith: Yeah, I have a little chap forthcoming from Poor Claudia. It’ll be out in June, or sometime this summer. (“Book” might be a strong word, here, as a chapbook is considered by our people to be a sort of limited run, fine art object rather than a Book. Maybe that conception will change, as small press joints like Octopus & Poor Claudia, YesYes Books, Ugly Duckling, Black Ocean, et al are killing it in terms of reaching audiences who have a vested interest in Books that are also beautiful artifacts. As I was browsing through the print catalogues at this year’s APRIL lit fest, I was generally blown away by the quality and the amount of consideration these people are putting into their products. Each design seemed to play with/add an extra dimension to the content of the book, which is often not the kind of treatment you get from larger presses.) 

What was writing the thing like? I just wrote one poem at a time, or sometimes five poems at once that would eventually become one poem, until I had a bunch of poems. I’d revise a lot. That’s when fatigue would enter, during revision. But then someone would bring me a little clinking glass of gin, or someone would call and tell me a story about seeing one majestic tiger barfing on another majestic tiger at the Kansas City Zoo, and then I’d be restored. Mostly I wrote in the mornings and in the evenings after meals. I got in a regular pattern like that, so that writing became like eating. At those times (7:30AM–10:00AM, ditto PM) I didn’t like to do anything else. That said, I’d never turn down an invitation for some tacos or a highball or to sleep a little longer or to youknowhowlifeisI’mnotgoinganyfurtherintomypersonallife. 

I was lucky enough to get slipped into a reading at the Pine Box. Drew Scott Swenhaugen heard me read, asked if I had a manuscript, and if so to send it along. I did. He liked it. Now he’s publishing it. Thanks, Drew. I leave all the design stuff up to the talented people at Poor Claudia. They asked if I wanted to collab a little bit on the design, but I’m so bad at that kind of stuff. I just let them do it. Left to me, the book would be apartment-white and maybe have a tucked-in shirt. 

In terms of promotion? This interview constitutes the extent of my promotional work. I told my dad about it. He said, “What’s a chapbook?” My friend Willie and I went out for a few drinks to celebrate. I have yet to tell my mother. I might do a status update here pretty soon. I trust Poor Claudia has better ideas. 

JU: Katie, might you have work forthcoming that’s having you pull out your brown curls? You have an interesting role in town, too, both being a writer and working on Poetry Northwest. Who do you think you are??? 

Katie Ogle: Well dang, I only usually get that question when I’ve been caught red-handed or in costume (often) – but I guess it’s a valid one – who do I think I am? I’ve got a lot of identities – in addition to working on a manuscript of poems, I work as an editor at Poetry Northwest, as the writer-in-residence at West Seattle High School, as an instructor for the University of Washington, and as a caregiver for a 91-year-old blind writer. I pick up a few other things on the side…I like to think of myself as a print-maker. I have a secret fashion blog. I had a short unglamorous stint as a model. I have the stock for a vintage clothing store but not enough mannequins, or time. 

Recently this several senses of selves has coalesced into a writing project. I am under fellowship at the Hugo House to complete a collection of poems by early fall, and my manuscript follows a speaker who has just gotten in touch with her homunculus (Latin for “little man,” that in the collection serves as the little man who lives in your head and tells you what to do). I’ve got a lot of energy with this project and my hair is curlier than ever, which keeps the homunculus from escaping. 

As far as my role as both an editor and a writer, I find it essential to my bigger project of being a human. Not that I work out except when there’s a good Groupon, but what is it they say about if you exercise one muscle you need to also work on its opposite – like if you do a lot of crunches (again, theoretical), you need to get to your lower back, too (or…?????) – Anyway: I publish work and I myself try to publish, I teach and I learn, I take care of my dear old writer friend and I need, need, need. 

JU: Elizabeth, you first, but I’d love to hear from everyone: what is your favorite line of verse, one that continually runs through your head as inspiration? The line you wished you’d written. And why? 

EC: “Tell me about the dream where we pull the bodies out of the lake / and dress them in warm clothes again. / How it was late, and no one could sleep, the horses running / until they forget that they are horses.” 

That’s more than one line, and I don’t know what my favorite line would be, but I never go more than about a month without picking up Richard Siken’s Crush again (as anyone who knows me even slightly probably can already tell you). My favorite line changes all the time. This week it is probably: “Your longing has a clean finish; mine echoes its hollow cord, is too frail.” I should look up the lineation on that; it’s broken over two or three lines, with ample horizontal use of white space as well. It’s from Jennifer Chang’s book (and title poem), “The History of Anonymity,” which I’ve recently read twice and absolutely adore. 

The Siken lines are the first four lines of the first poem, “Scheherazade” in his book. I don’t understand at all what he’s doing with white space and line breaks, but the music of his language and the brutality and beauty of his images punch me right in the gut every time. I would say I’m Siken’s biggest fan, but people have TATTOOS of his lines. 

RS: The lines that inspire me are necessarily not the ones I wish I’d written. And it might be the case that the possibility of being inspired by a line of poetry IS the thing that truly inspires. And I’m basically with Elizabeth, in that the inspiring line changes all the time. But I’ll stop being difficult and throw you a few lions. 

“It’s too nice a day to read a novel set in England.” This from David Berman’s “The Charm of 5:30.” If I didn’t love the rest of the lines in the poem so much, I’d want a chance to write a poem that starts with that line.   

Every 16th poem by Frank O’Hara, because they’re so charged with life and grace and presence. Also, this one from Mary Ruefle’s “Quick Note about the Think Source:

“And if, when asked, you say you do not dance,

the next day an infant is born without feet.”

Why do I like this line? Because now I am never afraid to dance. Also this from Jaswinder Bolina, which is actually a title and then a first line:

“If I Persisted for Seven Lifetimes, I’d Spend Six of Them with You” 

but something in me

would desert you” 

I like these lines because their effect is like getting a bouquet of day lilies that then explode in your face. 

What have we learned? I guess I don’t care much about individual lines, which always look so naked and alone outside of the context of their poem. “My force is in movement,” Frank O’Hara says. I guess I’m in love with the move. The shimmy. You know, the shake. I like dancing! 

KO: First thing on my mind: I wish I, instead of Dolly Parton, said “The higher the hair, the closer to God.” I also wish I’d written the poem “How the Pope is Chosen” by James Tate. 
Here’s a few lines I can never get rid of by Walt Whitman:
 “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death, / And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it, / And ceas’d the moment life appear’d. // All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”
 And speaking of death, I think more than writing a good line, it’s getting a good last few words in. Oscar Wilde had a sharp one: “Either the wallpaper goes, or I do.” 

JU: There’s a long history of writers and their drinking, so much so there is something of a mythology attached. What are your thoughts on this mythology? 

RS: “After the first glass of vodka / you can accept just about anything in life / even your own mysteriousness.” That’s about all there is to say about that, I think. I don’t think I’ve kept anything I’ve written after the third glass of vodka. 

KO: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margarita. 

EC: Rich does better than me then. I have the first drink and everything goes well. At the second I have to decide: are we drinking here or writing? I do not understand functional alcoholism. Or perhaps I have a weak constitution. This is not to say that Rich is a functional alcoholic, by the way! Only that I romanticize those writers (Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, etc.) who can hold their liquor and maintain coherency. 

RS: Ouzo’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 

JU: I want to whiskey you all away! But for the sake of this piece, let’s move forward. Katie, do you have strong opinions on the Seattle writing scene as a whole? Are there aspects you’re proud of, things you might like changed, or grown? 

KO: The Seattle writing scene is vast and varied, which I love. I see it operating in pockets: communities of writers coming united around common watering holes, participation in certain reading series and publications, and genre/background/age. I enjoy being a member of several of these communities: the UW MFA, the Hugo House, Poetry Northwest, and Writers in the Schools. Of those, Seattle Arts & Lectures Writers in the Schools program offers the most diverse group of writers for me precisely because we aren’t all lint of the same pocket. In that group of teaching artists there are novelists, poets, essay writers, short story genies, a playwright, spoken word artists, and even a comic book artist. Limited just to the realm of “poets” there is still a tremendous amount of diversity – the Washington State Poet Laureate, world-renowned performance poets, and a range of talented folks who integrate science, experimentation, and literary study into the creation of poetry. Being a part of this group is what made me aware of how insular some of my other communities can be. 

I’d like to have more opportunities to interact with different kinds of writers, but I am not necessarily calling for change in the way the scene currently operates. I see how the pockets work well and I seek readers and companions within those realms. I also enjoy knowing that there are communities and reading series and publications I haven’t yet tapped into. 

I also realize that all sounds very sweet and optimistic, which isn’t how I feel all of the time. Sometimes I go to readings and have to walk out because the work upsets me, doesn’t feel like art. Sometimes I can’t go to readings for a while because they all seem that way. But that doesn’t mean I want people to stop giving readings – I am my own filter and I’m fine with that. 

JU: Rich, can you speak to this, how you came into the city via the mid-west, and your idea of ‘the sifter’? 

RS: Regarding “the scene,” I’d basically echo everything Katie said. I’d only add that I’m most proud of the fact that there’s such a healthy appetite for literature up here. I had never lived in a town where there was a reading every single day of the week. If a poet was slated to read in Athens, Ohio or Columbia, Missouri, then everyone would go because it was THE thing that was happening (unless someone’s friend’s band was playing, or maybe it was karaoke night, but then you’d just go to all of that after the reading). Didn’t really matter what the hell kind of poetry it was. You just sat there and took it. There’s a certain charm to that. It’s different here, thank God. 
In general, though, I don’t think geography matters much. Everyone lives on the internet. 

“The Sifter” was an idea that we invented while drinking at the Pine Box, right? An anonymous reporter who would go to readings and then write up a review of those readings? I imagined myself asking myself and then answering questions like: Did some poet say something about love that I found abhorrent? Who keeps telling spoken word poets to speak that way, and who is training page poets to read their poems as if they were trying to talk down a bear? Did people snap or lip smack or poetry moan and if they did was it because they liked the work or because they were covering up their indigestion? Was there food, and why not? How many shattered sonnets can an American audience really endure? Was I impressed or depressed by the snail imagery? And, more importantly, what was everybody wearing? 

After readings I go out with friends and we talk about that kind of stuff anyway, and I thought it might be nice if someone wrote all of it down in some online forum so that more people could add to the conversation. So many events just happen and go undigested, and I think it would be cool to archive and review them. It would take a lot of time, though, and right now I’m busy looking for steady work. Hire me, Seattle! 

JU: Elizabeth, can you speak to your experience, in light of having come into Seattle from outside the state? 

EC: Seattle is a literary town. So much so that it is fantastic and beautiful and inspiring and rousing to all the voices within. I have always had an anxiety when I walk into a library or a bookstore that there is NOT ENOUGH TIME and that I cannot read ALL THE BOOKS. I get this same feeling when I look at the calendar of readings in a particular week. There have been nights where I wished I could not only halve myself, but clone myself three and four times because there was SO much good going on. Anxiety! So to choose. Which means I get annoyed (perhaps what Katie was saying) if I go to something and the work is lesser, less precise, less interesting. I guess I should say ‘lesser-to-me,’ because for whatever reason there are certain pockets where work is exalted that I just don’t think stands up very well. Where the work has not been worked. Maybe more to the point, and diplomatically, I should just say that there are some instances of work that is accepted or held up as universally excellent in this town that I just don’t “get.” But overall, Seattle is filled-to-bursting with people (so many poets!) whose work so fantastically slays me every time in the best of ways. To live in a town that has Open Books, the Hugo House, SAL, UW’s continually talented horde of MFAers (who often stick around)… I just feel really lucky. As an aside to anyone who might be reading this and who might also attend any of the SAL readings: you don’t have to clap after every poem. 

KO: Shh, Elizabeth. What they suppress in claps, they’ll make up for in mmhmmm. 

EC: I think if at every poetry reading there was applause after every poem the world would be swimming in at least ten times as many poets. At least! Why stop at the poem as unit of praise? Why should we not clap after every word? 

JU: (Standing and applauding each and every one of you). Rich, what would you want your job TO BE? 

RS: I want to be a ballerina. A big one. Like. A ballerina of the mind. 

EC: You are so nimble. 

RS: I did just get a schvitz in, so my brain feels like a tutu. Banya 5, then 3 Stolis at Presse. I’m the happiest little Cossack in early evening’s hammock. Strong Saturday, thus far. 

EC: I had to look that up. I just met with some goats, so. 

RS: I think all goats look like Ted Nugent. Do you feel the same way? 

JU: Can it with the goat jokes, okay? (See what I did there, because goats eat cans…). What I want to know from you lovely people is what do you do to escape from writing? Or is this even possible? 

EC: It is not possible. 

RS: Hear hear. 

JU: Why not? 

RS: Because what else is there? (I mean besides music and dancing and making out with people). 

EC: And in all of that the writing also happens. I am rarely anywhere without a pen and paper, even a dance floor. Which is not to say that I, for one, am always writing. I’m often not. I go months without writing, and then other times where I can be working on something for 12 hours a day, every day, for a long time.

Rich, Katie… are you two always writing? I’m interested in people who make it a point to sit down at it every day. 

RS: I write every day. Morning and evening. Notes on the phone. And I can’t remember the last time I composed with pen and paper–letters, maybe. But I’m a little bit of a cat (my friend Darren says that there are cat writers and rhinoceros writers. I’m a cat.) I do a little bit and then take care of the dishes. Do a little bit and then read something. Etc. Almost 100% of the startup language and turn-thoughts happen away from the page, though. Ideally, I’d rig up some kind of device that would allow me to write while walking around town and talking to friends. 

KO: I keep notes on the world all day long, I usually have a little journal in my purse. I write down scraps of thoughts or overheard conversation as they enter my field and I sit down and write when I’m waiting. I like the idea that as long as I have something to write with and on, I’m occupied. This at odds with a new perspective I was recently introduced to: I took a class from Matthew Rohrer recently who held up a blank sheet of paper and said, “How do we make this worth even less? That’s right. We write on it.” 

If I don’t have a journal I buy a sewing kit from a drugstore and dig some paper out of a recycling bin and make one. Once I thought it would be a good idea to write lines and seeds for poems on post-it notes so I could stick them to my wall and arrange them, but later that week an acquaintance picked a little yellow scrap off of my jacket and said, “Katie: ‘turkey v. turn-key?'” …a poet’s KICK ME. I pulled the plug on that project. 

EC: Turnkey v. turkey is something I’m aware of re: my day job of editing dry documents. I’ve also experienced the assess v. asses many times. But all asses should be assessed. Also, you would be amazed at how many people like the word piqued, but think it’s spelled peaked. 

JU: Simply put for the three of you, to conclude: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned writing in Seattle? 

RS: Take Vitamin D. Exercise. Go wherever Sarah Galvin tells you to go. 

EC: That cloud cover is cozy and I am capable of getting much more done because of it. 

KO: I’ve learned to stop reading and walking at the same time. A dangerous business.


Elizabeth J. Colen has lived in three dozen different houses in seven different states. Currently an MFA candidate at the University of Washington, she was the recipient of the Nelson Bentley and Frederick Ingham Fellowships. She is the author of poetry collections Money for Sunsets (finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in 2011) and Waiting Up for the End of the World: Conspiracies (from Seattle press! Jaded Ibis, 2012), as well as flash fiction collection Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake (Rose Metal Press, 2011).

Rich Smith is the author of a chapbook called The Great Poem of Desire, forthcoming form Poor Claudia. He teaches writing and is working toward an M.F.A. at the University of Washington. His poems have recently appeared or will soon appear in Tin House, Guernica, Barrow Street, Bellingham Review, The Southeast Review, and elsewhere.

Katharine Ogle, a poet, lives and works in Seattle as the writer-in-residence at West Seattle High School, as a caregiver for a blind writer, as an editor at Poetry Northwest, and freelances as a writer, editor, model, and personal shopper. She also acts as an instructor in creative writing for the University of Washington at both the Friday Harbor Marine Biology Laboratory and the Rome Center. In 2012 she was named a Made at the Hugo House fellow and a finalist for the Crab Creek Review contest.

Jake Uitti is a founding editor of The Monarch Review.

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The answer isn't poetry, but rather language

- Richard Kenney