Literary Event of the Week: Wong/Akbar/Peñaloza/Lewis

As you know, we at the Seattle Review of Books publish a poem by a Seattle poet every Tuesday at 10 am. We always ask the featured poet to then choose the poet who we’ll feature on the next Tuesday. It’s a chain of Seattle poetry, made up of friends, fans, and acquaintences who’ve shared some laughs on the open-mic circuit. When I asked Seattle literary demigod Sherman Alexie to kick off our spring/summer 2016 poetry chain, I was intensely curious to see who he’d choose as the poet to succeed him. Out of all the poets in Seattle, who would Alexie spotlight?

Alexie’s decision was fast and decisive: Jane Wong. It was perhaps a surprising choice, if you expected Alexie to prop up some sort of a Literary Old Boy’s Network. Wong has been reading around town for a while now and she’s been collected in outlets like (the Alexie-edited) Best American Poetry 2015 and the Best New Poets 2012, but she doesn’t have many books to her name yet — just three chapbooks and a debut collection, Overpour, coming out from Action Books this coming fall.

But read Wong’s poetry and you’ll see why so many writers in town advocate for her. Consider “Apology in the Age of Construction,” the poem she published with us after being selected by Alexie. It opens with an incredibly striking image:

We can only recall the freak accidents:
              the lightning bolt hitting the right arm
at a right angle, the bees pouring
              from an overturned truck, the crocodile
that escaped on a lawn, sipping lemonade.

Those disasters are so unique, so particular, that each one could be its own short story. (At least the bee-filled truck is based on a real-life incident — a 2015 accident in which an overturned truck dumped 14 million bees on I-5. ““Everybody’s been stung,” a state trooper told the Seattle Times at the time.) You can see the cool yellow of the lemonade against the foggy emerald of the crocodile’s skin, the person spinning (to the right, and to the right again) after being struck by lightning.

But Wong expands outward from there to the Seattle outside our windows right now, casting her eyes on the intentional destruction that comes before construction. (“We laid down layers/of asphalt in the tradition of weavers.”) She looks at the skyline full of cranes and sees, simultaneously, a slow-motion accident and an unfolding possibility and a bizarre kind of playground:

In the early morning, we mistook snow
              for falling specks of paint, a construction
site for an amusement park.

Look at a construction site without context and you see what looks like a combat zone. Look at a new building and you see a blank canvas. Look at a disaster the right way and you can find unexpected beauty. Tilt your head just right and you can hear Sherman Alexie laughing with surprise and delight at the way Wong cheerfully turned everything on its ear.

This Saturday at Elliott Bay Book Company, Wong is headlining a reading with two poets from Tallahassee — Kaveh Akbar and Paige Lewis — and Seattle poet Michelle Peñaloza. It’s a can’t-miss affair.