CYOS: A Choose-Your-Own Literary Adventure

If you could curate your own series of authors and thinkers to come to Seattle, who would you choose and why?

Besides starting up your own local reading series, the closest you can get to a literary-style Choose Your Own Adventure is probably SAL’s Create Your Own Series, in which you can pick any four of our events to attend, crossing over series and selecting who you think is the best of the best. Maybe you want a more affordable way to go to multiple SAL events, or maybe you don’t want to have to decide between poetry, prose, or any of our special events.

Below, the SAL staff act as mini-curators and share with you their own selections for CYOS—in other words, who they’re most excited to see this season.

Nichole Coates, WITS Program Associate

Roxane Gay: I can name at least three separate times over the last few weeks where a friend has asked me with a great deal of excitement, “Did you know that Roxane Gay is coming to Seattle?!” Why yes, dear friend, I did. I’ve read several of Roxane Gay’s articles over the past couple years. After finishing Bad Feminist last week, I’m even more excited to see her speak. Reading her essays is like having a deep conversation with a close friend, where the discussion volleys from abstract analyses of the intersections of culture, gender, race and class, to the intimate ways these forces play out in your life and the world around you.

Helen Oyeyemi: Helen Oyeyemi’s stories feel like fairy tales, fantastical with an eerie hint of familiarity. Her writing is dreamy and quick on its feet, lyrical only long enough to let a moment shine before flitting to the next one. It’s certainly easy to get lost in the worlds she creates, and I’ll be excited to see he take to the stage in April!

First Loves with Sherman Alexie: In idle moments, I will reserve a few books at my local library. Then I will reserve a few more books. And then a few more… and some more… and more. Weeks later, I will arrive at the library only to be dumbfounded by the massive number of books that have arrived for me to check out. During my last trip to the library, I was thrilled to find Re: Jane by Patricia Park, Adam by Ariel Schrag, and The Heart is a Muscle the Size of your Fist by Sunil Yapa peeking out between all the other titles I had put on hold. Sorry, other library books, but you’ll have to wait.

Emily Nussbaum: I’m always excited to see when Emily Nussbaum has written a review of one of my favorite shows, because her writing is always so sharp and insightful. She has extra sensitive antennae for picking up on thematic nuances and cultural influences, and I know that after reading one of her reviews, I’ll be able to watch a series with a new critical lens…which totally justifies my next Netflix binge. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch Bojack Horseman and Lady Dynamite for the umpteenth time.

Read more…

Introductions: Ada Limón

On October 5th at McCaw Hall, Ada Limón—the wildly generous and truthful poet whose “heart wants her horses back”—read from her book Bright Dead Things and gave us all excellent writing adviceSAL Associate Director Rebecca Hoogs introduced and interviewed Ada for this event, which opened SAL’s 2016/17 Poetry Series.

By Rebecca Hoogs, SAL Associate Director

For a while now, my son has been a bear. For example, he roars at people he meets and likes to eat salmon because “bears eat salmon.” This week, driving to school and having a lapse in his bearhood, he asked if we were also animals. And perhaps because I’ve been immersed in Ada Limón’s poetry, I replied, yes, we’re the kind of animal called humans. Humans, he repeated, trying out the word on his tongue.

“I don’t believe in God,” Limón said in an interview, “but I do believe in animals.” And animals indeed populate her work: dogs and horses and birds, especially, but also the human kind, with their big feelings and despair and radical joy in spite of it all. “We’re all such bizarre animals,” she has said. “And I find the noises we make so exciting.” Read more…

Required Reading: Timothy Egan

By Alison Stagner, SAL Events Coordinator and Sonder Editor

As part of our Required Reading series, we share a list of three essential works from SAL’s featured writers. Up this time: Seattle-based New York Times columnist and nonfiction author, Timothy Egan.

“But is he going to talk about politics?”

It must be the unprecedented vitriol of our election season, but I’ve been asked this question several times over the SAL box office line, concerning Timothy Egan’s lecture later this month. These Egan fans are looking for a quick “yes” or “no,” and phone courtesy demands a prompt response, but I’m always stumped as to how to answer this question in three seconds or less. Because, to give a full response as to whether Egan will be focusing on America’s current political transformation or on his latest historical wonder, The Immortal Irishman (2016), I would have to start talking about potatoes—particularly, Irish potatoes.

Nobody knows how potatoes crossed the Atlantic from the Peruvian Andes to Irish shores in the 1500s. As Egan tells us in his new book, it’s possible they washed up in the wreck of the Spanish Armada (thanks, Queen Elizabeth!). What’s more certain: an easy-to-grow source of Vitamin C, potassium, and carbohydrates, potatoes quickly became the fuselage of Irish food, the central means of existence in Europe’s most impoverished country. And what’s also certain is that when a mysterious fungus swept across Irish fields, leaving “black-topped and broken” spoilages of earth everywhere, open rebellion was bound to happen.


In 1845, an English delegation of agricultural experts toured the fields of Ireland and announced, “We can come to no other conclusion than that one half of the actual potato crop of Ireland is either destroyed or . . . unfit for the food of man.” Now, there’s a popular misconception that Irish farmers had a monoculture, relying too much on one kind of crop. Immortal Irishman disputes this idea: Egan describes how three-quarters of the land were actually devoted to the production of beef, wheat, oats, barley, and corn.

The real trouble here was that Ireland was a nation of tenant farmers. Most of its land was owned by Anglo landlords, most of its food exported as money crops. The Dark Ages scale of famine that resulted pushed Thomas Francis Meagher, immortal Irishman in question, into a backyard revolt against the British Empire.

General Thomas Francis Meagher, in 1863.

Read more…

Book Review: A Life in Parts by Bryan Cranston

By Julia Cook

I don’t need to watch Breaking Bad.

It’s a blasphemous thought, to which my boyfriend does not respond well. “But we’re seeing him in October,” he cries. “You’re reviewing his book!”

With any great actor, you don’t need to meet his character to have a talk with him. And that’s how Bryan Cranston approaches his memoir: with a subtle nod to Walter White, he lets go of any assumptions towards his audience. Whether you grew up with Hal or served under LBJ, this is a fireside chat with Cranston, one that’ll have you glued to the speaker.

From the first gut-wrenching scene (and there are a few), A Life in Parts becomes less about the characters and more about Cranston’s tools to play them. But a dry work of theory this is not. Cranston’s childhood—Wonder Years set just outside LA—comes complete with disappointing father, embarrassing school play, and two bleeding, headless chickens. It’s engaging not just for the anecdotes, but the way Cranston tells them. Read more…

Writing Advice from Ada Limón

By Alison Stagner, SAL Events Coordinator & Sonder Editor

When SAL’s luminous 2016/17 Poetry Series opener Ada Limón visited Roosevelt High School last Thursday, there was a surprising moment in the classroom.

Asked about the writing exercises she uses in her own classes, Ada described a technique she ordinarily practices with much younger children: a group effort poem, composed aloud, in which students go around popcorn-style, completing the sentence I love _____________.

“Why don’t we try it?” challenged the English teacher, Tom Nolet.

Despite being designed for eight-year-olds, pretty soon, this exercise had the high school students on fire. As one student after another piped up with their contributions, the entire class went quiet, tuned in to the rhythms of one another’s speech, to the small, unexpected details they managed to stitch into the notion of “love.” It was an exercise that asked students to be vulnerable, spontaneous; and vulnerability must be the origin of creativity and innovation, because even the kids slouched in the back row were smiling and nodding along.

Given a little jolt of inspiration just hearing about this exercise from Alicia Craven, WITS Program Director, I turned to the SAL audio archives to pull more genius advice from Ada Limón’s reading at McCaw Hall on October 5th. Here’s everything she had to say from ending poems, to finding her own voice, to dealing with failure—plus one hard lesson she learned from poet Philip Levine.

On love poems:

“I have been fascinated by the idea of writing love poems for your friends.”


On taking lessons with Philip Levine:

“At one point, I was reading a lot of Kenneth Koch, and I brought in a poem that had really long lines, that wasn’t very narrative at all… It was kind of scattered. Phil was staring at the poem, obviously thinking, What is this? My friend Kazim Ali said, “But Phil, aren’t there some beautiful lines here?” And he responded: “Yeah, there are some beautiful lines, I just wish she had put them in an effing poem.” (He didn’t say “effing,” though. He wasn’t censoring himself.) It really kind of wrecked me for a while, but at the same time, I have always remembered that: even if you’re saying a lovely, lyric sentiment within the middle of a poem, if it’s not building a poem, then it doesn’t matter.”


On failure and rejection:

“Failure is fascinating because that’s the entire process of writing. You’re never living up to the reality of what’s happening in your head.”

“You shouldn’t listen when [critics] tell you the bad things. But you also shouldn’t listen when they tell you the good things. Both of those can wreck your creative process. It still has to be about the attempt.”

Read more…

“A Few Blades of Grass” by Zainab Al-Bahadli


A Few Blades Of Grass

I was born to a seaglass house
Softened by the rough edges of the sea,
Chipped and clouded though it was
I was born.
Upon my birth I shattered it
Gripping a dagger and a forget-me-not.
I was born in a well
Filled to the brim with gold paint
And sand
Pouring into my mouth
So that I could no longer cry.
Bricks jutting out from all angles.
I was born an almost-but-not-quite-put-out cigarette
Flicked out a car window
That they thought couldn’t do any real damage
But watch me burn.
I was born with the scars of my family tree
Impressed upon my ribcage.
I was born to a castle
Doorways shadowed by those rich
Not in money
But in words.
I was born in a desert
I was caught in a shrub
I was born. Read more…

Introductions: Ann Patchett

On September 19 at Benaroya Hall, international bestseller Ann Patchett spoke of the life-changing process of writing about her own family in her new novel, Commonwealth. SAL Executive Director Ruth Dickey introduced and interviewed Ann for this event, which opened SAL’s 2016/17 Literary Arts Series.

By Ruth Dickey, SAL Executive Director

I first fell in love with Ann Patchett’s writing through her nonfiction work Truth and Beauty.  While I was deeply moved by her chronicle of her friendship with Lucy Grealy, it was her description of waiting tables at TGI Fridays that stole my heart – cleaning the taxidermy by the ceilings, rolling silverware into napkins, the particular horror of waiting on former classmates, all while hoping for a different life. As she writes, “Without writing, I was another waitress like all the other waitresses in Nashville who were waiting for their big publishing deal. They wrote songs. I wanted to write a novel. I was starting to see it was all pretty much the same thing…”

How extraordinary – this candor. That behind every waitress could be Ann Patchett; that someone as gifted as Ann Patchett once waited tables and worried about doing so forever. I’ve gobbled up her novels since, carried to a home for unwed mothers, to the jungle of the Amazon, to meet magicians in Los Angeles, or dignitaries and an opera singer held hostage in an unnamed South American country. In these disparate worlds, Ann Patchett lovingly creates characters so aching and real that what stays with me is not the exotic worlds, but the unfolding lives of her characters there. Read more…