(WSB photo: L-R, Katy E. Ellis and Susan Rich)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Like to read? Like to eat pie? There’s one place to be this Wednesday night, when the trio of writers who long produced the WordsWest Literary Series “re-reunite” to celebrate the newest books by two of them.
Katy E. Ellis is launching her first full-length prose-poetry novel “Home Water, Home Land.” Susan Rich recently published “Gallery of Postcards and Maps: New and Selected Poems,” her fifth poetry collection. They’ll be joined Wednesday by their longtime WordsWest collaborator Harold Taw, who’s currently co-writing a “steampunk musical.” The event starts at 7 pm Wednesday (September 28th) at WordsWest’s longtime hub for happenings, C & P Coffee (5612 California SW; WSB sponsor).
That’s where we sat down with Ellis and Rich recently to talk about their books and the challenges of being a writer at this moment in time:
First – Ellis, a former West Seattleite now living on Vashon Island, tells us about “Home Water, Home Land”: “My book is mixed genre, the story of a young girl who ventures off to Canada and figures out her own connection to God (while) trying to wrestle with religious patriarchy in her family .. It’s called a prose poem, more like a novel-length poem, not all broken by lines … interwoven poems that tell a story … each one can stand alone.”
She has always enjoyed “writing small bits of fiction … fragmented fiction … a slide-show story rather than lines drawn in a plot.” Her work also has included writing “all different kinds of poetry,” and in fact, “Home Water, Home Land” calls back to her chapbook “Night Watch,” winner of the Floating Bridge Press chapbook competition in 2017.
Rich’s “Gallery of Postcards and Maps” is a collection drawing from her first four books plus new work comprising about a quarter of the book. The West Seattle poet’s publishing career goes back to the turn of the millennium, but getting a book out there now poses new challenges. She’s cognizant of the fact that “in pandemic times, people are not necessarily strolling through bookstores,” so writers have to find new and creative ways to promote their work, particularly those working with smaller independent presses. “That’s always ben subtly assumed and now it’s front and center,” Rich observes.
She spent the start of this past summer on a “fun … brief book tour” in Ireland, which is the home country of her newest book’s publisher, Salmon Press. The publisher’s location has led to some distribution challenges, so she’s “become my own distributor” in part, making sure copies are supplied to local independent stores such as Pegasus Book Exchange in The Junction and Elliott Bay Book Company on Capitol Hill. Her fall schedule includes a few readings in Boston, a former hometown.
“If we want our work read,” they have to work hard at making sure prospective readers know about it, Rich summarizes. “These independent presses don’t have the people power” to promote authors without the authors’ active participation, Ellis adds. Their five years of curating WordsWest – bringing writers to C&P once a month – helped sharpen those promotion skills, including “how to write and send a press release.”
But both firmly believe it’s just a matter of reaching readers, not of trying to generate them. “There’s still a real book business,” Ellis insists. “It’s very satisfying to hold a book in your hands, poems in your hands.” She reads on e-devices too but says it’s just not the same. Rich says she’s 100 percent a non-digital reader.
While we talk, both muse on what it’s like to return to readings after two-plus years in the eventless heart of the pandemic. Rich recalls that in the early days, she tried to see the stay-home time as a “writing retreat,” resulting in a lot of “pandemic poetry.” She also encouraged her Highline College students to write about it because “it was a historic moment.” “Gallery of Postcards and Maps” has two of what she considers “pandemic moments.”
For Ellis, it was a quite different experience, as she works in public health – communicable diseases, to be specific. It was a hectic time, “a lot of insanity,” where at one point her work group of 23 people ballooned to 181. She had to go to the office for a long time when the rest of the world was staying home. But when staffing circumstances finally allowed her to work from home, “that is when I wrote a lot of this book.” Her husband also was working for home and became a sounding board for the experiences that shaped her book; they had more opportunity for conversations and “quality time.”
Then this May, WordsWest had its first “reunion” – and both Rich and Ellis say it was “emotional” to return to being face to face with readers, and each other. “I teared up, and that’s not my style,” admits Rich. “This (C&P) had been a home to us, so to come in and see the stage, that the place survived … we had a full house.” With open windows, of course. (And with Ellis’s Aunt Barb from Poulsbo, who made the journey to see her niece.)
“Home” is a theme in both of their books. That’s obvious with the title of Ellis’s “Home Water, Home Land,” but she describes it further as “a theme of looking for home, belonging, to the self and a bigger group … Some of it is written to my daughter, a message for young women to have their own voice and not let anyone tell you what (they should believe) … You have every right to claim what that means for yourself and your power and no one else’s.” Her book also spotlights “our connection to nature and the environment, how we are one.”
In Rich’s work, it’s “a thread of looking for home,” along with a continual theme of travel, as she has “a past as a human-rights worker in West Africa and Bosnia. She also was inspired by surreal women artists “who were creating community in outrageous and outlandish ways.” They both supported each other and competed.
Support is what WordsWest is about, too. Ellis, Rich, and Taw started it so they could promote other writers, and enjoy readings, without crossing the bridge. “This is the first time we’re headlining!” they laugh. And in our conversation, Rich and Ellis are boosters for each other’s books. Rich describes both as “reader-friendly,” even if you’re not a poetry fan. “Katy’s book is very welcoming, accessible.” Ellis uses that same word – accessible – for Rich’s book, along with noting its “humor … (that’s) very real and human, very relatable.”
“I couldn’t put Katy’s book down,” Rich declares. “I wanted to know what happens next.”
What happens next in this story is easy – you go to C&P at 7 pm Wednesday, enjoy pie, meet and hear from the authors. You’ll also be able to buy their books at the event. And invite your book-loving friends from off-peninsula, now that the bridge is open!
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