A Tune Inspired by A.E. Stallings

At our 2017/18 Poetry Series event with A.E. Stallings, folk songwriter Jaspar Lepak dazzled our ears with an original song as part of the Bushwick Book Club program — it’s on repeat at the SAL offices right now! Below, listen to Jaspar’s song, which asks, “Why should the Devil get all the good tunes?” and read the poem by Stallings that inspired her.


Read more…

Yes, And . . . God: Humanity’s Muse

Tomorrow, Tuesday, November 14th, scholar of religions Reza Aslan will give an original, multi-media presentation on his new book, God: A Human History, an interfaith exploration of how different ideas of God have both united and divided us for millennia, as part of our 2017/18 SAL Presents Series. Tickets are still available here!

In anticipation of Reza’s talk, WITS Writer-in-Residence Cody Pherigo presents us with his reflections after reading God: A Human History, a book he found to deeply resonate with the human impulse to be creative. (Plus, a Reza Aslan-inspired writing prompt!)

By: Cody Pherigo, WITS Writer-in-Residence

God: A Human History by Reza Aslan traces a paradoxical tight-rope path from our prehistoric ancestors to the present, and the many ways we’ve conceived of and related to god(s). He opens with an introduction titled “In Our Image,” and immediately I knew this would be, for me at least, a path that also echoes the creative writing process.

While much of the text is classically academic and thus devoted to (as any research worth its salt and sugar) dozens of pages of endnotes, I detect, too, the shadow of a poet. One of my favorites lines comes early on, as he renders a new story of Adam and Eve. Aslan says that while Adam may take up to a week to hunt and bring home a lump of meat, Eve and their children gather daily a prorated equivalent amount of food—plants, fish (netted), small prey (trapped and clubbed), and nuts, which have the same amount of protein per pound as meat—plus, “nuts do not fight back” (save for those with allergies).

We begin with Part 1: The Embodied Soul, where the idea of a “soul” emerges as an innate feeling and deep knowing, the source of our “religious impulse.” Here, Aslan suggests what may be humanity’s first belief: a kind of animism, or, I’d offer imagination. What I noticed for the duration of reading God: A Human History is a continuity of pillars within the creative process, from symbols and metaphors to the development of language, writing, and the problem/blessing/turn of translation. To me, these creative “bones” parallel and mirror the religious impulse, what Aslan shows is an impulse that is at the root of what it is to be human.

One of the first gathering places for spiritual experiences were caves—all over the world, they have been been adorned with drawings placed so intentionally onto the cave walls that, Aslan suggests, “The cave becomes a mythogram; it is meant to be read, the way one reads scripture.” Here, too, was found evidence of animal bones burned, as a sort of incense or “mediating element.” What’s interesting here is the metaphor and resilience of bones, how they act as a stand-in for bodies past, bodies passed down the way words and stories are passed down, and both for posterity. Or, the repetition of a story—the idea of a soul making its way from body to body, retelling itself.

Later, he cites a key turning point in humanity’s lifestyle: the switch from hunter-gather to farmer, which, he posits, may revolve around the building of our first major temple, the Göbekli Tepe, as the center of “the birth of organized religion.” This transition in human lifestyle was a “revolution of symbols” (Aslan credits Jacques Cauvin here). I wonder, too, how this changed our relationship with metaphors, as humans have put themselves in the “center of the spiritual plane,” where humanity’s story about god seems to switch from fiction to memoir. Read more…

A.E. Stallings & A Quiz on First Love

Some of are afraid of traditional poetic techniques such as sonnets, sapphics, meter, and rhyme. But then again, some of us—like A.E. Stallings—are fearless, and use these forms to make contemporary experiences feel timeless. In this post, local poet Gabrielle Bates describes her first encounter on the page with Stallings’ work, which you can hear Stallings read and discuss live on Monday, November 13th, at McCaw Hall as part of SAL’s 2017/18 Poetry Series.

By: Gabrielle Bates

As a junior in college, I took a class that would change the course of my life, in which we read four contemporary collections of poetry: When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz, Crush by Richard Siken, Rookery by Traci Brimhall, and HAPAX by A.E. Stallings.

When I encountered A.E. Stallings’ poems for the first time that fateful semester, one of my eyebrows rose. This was a contemporary collection, and yet, here before me was, of all things, rhyme. And not sneaky, mid-line or slant rhyme, but strong, audacious rhyme—exactly where I expected it, in plain sight. I was embarrassed for Stallings; didn’t she know rhyme was embarrassing? That it was old? That old techniques = embarrassing techniques?

But quickly (by the end of the first poem, in fact) I realized it was I, not Stallings, who had something to learn about what poems should and should not, can and cannot do.

That blatant rhyme, which at first seemed to me Stallings’ fatal flaw, is actually, I think now, her great power. I find myself re-astonished by its wiliness (and my own inability to anticipate it) every time I read her work. The overt formal elements of Stallings’ poetry are bait that allows for her great switch. Skepticism heightens attention; meanwhile, complex, gut-punching, deeply human insight is sneaking through the back window to appear poignantly, unmistakably before us. Read more…

“Black Courage,” by Angel Gardner

Black Courage

There are wolves in wolves clothing
Telling the weak
That the sheep are the ones to fear,
You are that sheep baby boy.
Courage runs in your blood,
So you will be tapped into.

We live in a world where the authority
Shoots patterns into unarmed citizens
We live with crisp folds in blue uniforms,
Profiling our melanin.
Trying to connect imaginary holes
In speech leaking innocence,
Shoving bullets into bellies
And elbows into faces. Read more…

Five Reasons to See Reza Aslan

We can think of many reasons why you should join SAL on Tuesday, November 14 to hear Reza Aslan, acclaimed scholar of religions and bridge-builder between faiths, present an original multimedia lecture on humanity’s struggle to make sense of the divine. Here are our top five:

By: Emmy Newman, SAL Intern

1. He doesn’t play spiritual favorites. Reza Aslan is nothing if not considerate of varying religious beliefs, having belonged to different sects himself. When Aslan moved to the United States with his family, he describes their religious beliefs as “tepid Islam.” In high school, Aslan adopted the zealous Christianity of his friends as he questioned how to feel closer to his idea of God. Later in life, he returned to Islam, not because he found Islam to be more true than Christianity, but “because Islam provides me with the ‘language’ I feel most comfortable with in expressing my faith. It provides me with symbols and metaphors for thinking about God that I find useful in making sense of the universe,” Aslan writes.

2. He is patient and compassionate when discussing contentious topics. Aslan was interviewed on Fox News in 2013 about his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. In what has become his most famous soundbite, Fox News’s Lauren Green asked Aslan how he, as a Muslim, could write a book about Jesus, a figure distinctly not of his faith. Aslan kept his composure during the interview, attempting to clear any confusion by stating, “I am a scholar of religion . . . who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades, who also just happens to be a Muslim.” But Green remained unconvinced and continued to berate Aslan by reciting xenophobic reviews about the book, such as a reviewer on foxnews.com announcing, “It is not a historian’s report on Jesus, it is an educated Muslim’s opinion on Jesus.” Throughout the interview, Aslan stuck to the facts of his scholarship and research. Read more…

What’s It Like Being Youth Poet Laureate, Anyway?

By: Lily Baumgart, 2017-18 Seattle Youth Poet Laureate

Simple answer: amazing. When I was announced as the 2017/18 Youth Poet Laureate, I was in shock. My uncle had taken a video of Matt Gano announcing the winner and for days afterwards I’d watch that video over and over, making sure that it was my name that had been called.

I am still in shock and to some extent, disbelief. Sometimes it feels like too much responsibility for me; I go to school, I work, I do circus arts; without a schedule I have to conform to, writing can easily slip into an afterthought. But through the YPL program, I have been granted a reason to write seriously, to put it on the top of my to-do list. I am grateful for the responsibility and opportunity that come with the title.

The YPL Program is designed to give voices to youth writers who are committed to their poetry and civic engagement. Having been granted this position, this year has given me not only a louder voice, but it has also made people take me and my writing legitimately. I work closely with my two incredible writing mentors, Matt Gano and Aaron Counts, to edit my work, come up with lesson plans, and compile my manuscript. They are the light at the end of the tunnel—I can’t even begin to imagine working through this experience without them. With this title, I have also been able to branch out from SAL events to others, like guest teaching at the Hugo House and reading at the Teeny Awards.

Although all of these opportunities are incredible and wonderful, my favorite part of being the Youth Poet Laureate is getting to work with the other amazing writers in my cohort. I enjoy their company and I love spending time with other teenagers who are just as passionate, if not more, about poetry as I am.

Read more…

WITS Voices: An Exercise in Identity

By Danny Sherrard, WITS Writer-in-Residence

The subject of the exercise is identity, and I’ve heard scary stories. The idea: to bring up themes like race and gender using you (the teaching artist) as the lab rat on the first day of class. What happens is you ask, Who am I? or, What do you know about me already? and the students respond based on what they’ve derived about you from your appearance. You write down what they say on the board and use the themes that surface as jumping-off points for various discussions about identity. And I’d heard that what the students say can sometimes be, well, shattering.

One story that was reiterated by a fellow teaching-artist was about how a student told her she was, Just a privileged white lady going through a mid-life crisis and teaching out of guilt.

Another story involved a colleague being told that he was, Probably not cool enough when he was in high school, so he had to try and be cool in high school now.

The idea, too, is to be completely honest and open about your experience. So, if a student says something like, You act like you’re from Seattle, but I think you grew up in Bellevue, and you grew up in Bellevue, you might respond with, I did grow up there. I’m 425, not 206, it’s true. How could you tell that? and so on to keep creating honest dialogue. The rules are clear: No Sugarcoating. Thus, if the response is in the affirmative to any of the above statements, you’ve gotta say, Yes, you’re right, or, Yes, you’re right and . . . despite how devastating it might be for you.

I think that after the exercise had been introduced to me, I was also told, Get ready: things can get pretty rough with this one.

Nonetheless, I determined I would try it . . . Read more…

Writing “So Far Away”

When Ta-Nehisi Coates took the stage in 2015 to discuss his breakout memoir, Between the World and Me, as part of SAL’s Literary Arts Series, local folk musician and Bushwick Book Club artist Reggie Garrett was inspired to write a song based on the book, which has been called “a searing meditation on what it means to be black in America today” (the New York Times).

In anticipation of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ sold-out return to SAL on November 5 to discuss his latest, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, we’re sharing a performance of Reggie’s song, “So Far Away,” which can be found here. Read on for a reflection on Reggie’s creative process and the meaning behind his lyrics. . .

By Reggie Garrett

Writing “So Far Away” was an interesting experience.  From time to time, there are those songs that seem to just write themselves.  It’s almost as if you didn’t write it, but something out there used you to put it into the world.  “So Far Away” was something like that, once I got the idea.

I had already written several songs for Bushwick Book Club performances when I was offered the opportunity to put something together for a joint SAL & Bushwick presentation.  I was a bit nervous – it felt like stepping up into the big leagues.  I’d already read a few pieces by Ta-Nehisi Coates (I do like the Atlantic), so I was drawn to choose him from the list of potential authors.

When I got around to reading Between the World and Me, I was blown away.  It was the first thing I’d ever read that truly felt like my own experience of being Black in America.  I’m not sure if it was his language (the particular choice of words), the tone, the specific situations he described – but something about that book nailed me.  Of course, I recommended the book to everyone I knew.

As far as the song was concerned, I considered all the violence perpetrated against Black Americans over the years.  Thinking about more recent events, it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard or come across very much about this issue in music or the arts.  Granted, I don’t listen to a lot of rap or hip-hop, so I can’t say that it hadn’t been addressed – I just wasn’t aware.  I decided I should say something. Read more…

“You Do Not Have To Be The Moon,” by Emrys Foster

You Do Not Have To Be The Moon

You do not have to be the moon.
You do not have to follow the sun
always in its footsteps
you do not have to take fleeting breaths of cold clear nothing
through deep craters like gills
you do not have to shed a light on those below
you do not have to illuminate the sleeping world
and silent, never close your eyes.

You do not have to be the ocean.
You do not have to follow helplessly
the pull of the moon
you do not have to let the tides control you
you do not have to rage, nor destroy
nor nurture
you do not have to bear the weight of a thousand ships
and watch them as they sink. Read more…

Introductions: Stephanie Burt

On Monday, October 9, at McCaw Hall, the electrifying Stephanie Burt read us poems from her latest, Advice from the Lights, schooled us on indie rock, and gave us some stellar new reading recommendations to stack our shelves with. SAL Associate Director Rebecca Hoogs introduced and interviewed Stephanie for this event, which opened SAL’s 2017/18 Poetry Series.

By Rebecca Hoogs, SAL Associate Director

It is a delight to welcome one of poetry’s brightest lights, Stephanie Burt, to the SAL stage. Burt is the author of four collections of poetry, including the just-released Advice from the Lights, and several volumes of criticism, including last year’s The Poem is You, a collection of 60 poems from the last four decades accompanied by illuminating essays.

Burt’s writing, especially in the latest collection, deals with an array of hoods: childhood, girlhood, parenthood, selfhood. I scribbled so many kinds of hoods in the margin that I grew curious—what does hood as a suffix actually mean? It is, of course, not a covering, but a state of being. And digging into the etymology, I found it literally means “bright appearance.”

Burt’s poems in this collection reveal not one state of being, but many states of being, many states of many beings. And isn’t that the pleasure of poetry? Of getting to have it both ways? Or double meanings? Triple? Of getting to be so many places at once and so many selves? “‘Few of us are finished,” Burt said in an interview. “None of us ever find moments when we have at last enunciated the single, true, real, authentic, satisfactory self: Instead we can work to articulate that self as it changes and multiplies and evades us, whether or not we do so with our changing bodies’ physical appearance, whether or not we do it in poems.” Read more…