Michelle Peñaloza has lived in Seattle for almost exactly four years. In that time, the poet and essayist — she’s the author of the chapbooks landscape/heartbreak and Last Night I Dreamt of Volcanoes — has become a ubiquitous Seattle literary figure, both on stage and in audiences at literary events throughout the calendar year. Peñaloza's announcement that she will be leaving town at the end of February sent a shock through the community. She’s more than just a sharp observer and a deft and graceful poet — though she is that, too. She’s become an integral part of the literary community’s support system. It’s hard to imagine the city without her.
Peñaloza made time to talk over the phone in the middle of a very busy transitional week in her life. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Thank you for making this time for our readers. I really appreciate it; I know it's a very busy time for you. I guess, first of all, I am wondering if you'd be willing to talk about where you're going and why.
I won't get too specific, but basically I'm moving for love, so that my partner and I can be together full-time in California. That's reason, I think, to leave.
So say somebody in California asks you what the literary culture in Seattle is like, and what your experience has been. What do you think you'd say to them?
It's a very vibrant scene. I would say that I was very sad to leave it and that I've loved my time in Seattle. I've met so many incredible people, and I feel like I've been lucky to have such a great amount of support. Not that I don't work hard or anything, but I feel like I've been very supported as a writer in Seattle. I feel like I've had a lot of opportunities with Jack Straw and the Made at Hugo House Fellowship, and teaching at Hugo House. I was a visiting writer at Seattle U. I would say that my personal experience has been a very good one.
So you would recommend to Seattle to another writer who's asking your opinion about whether she should move here?
Yeah, it's the best city that I've ever lived in as a writer. Granted, part of that is where I am in my writing life, too. I finished grad school maybe two years before I moved here, so I was in a different spot than I'd ever been in my writing life. I think those just dovetailed in a very fortunate way for me in Seattle.
Also, I feel like it's big enough that there's lots of stuff going on. In fact, sometimes too much stuff going on. I feel like there's some months in Seattle that are just insane — like, October is always crazy because people have been coming down from summer. There's just reading upon reading upon readings.
I would say, I guess, if you're looking not to be too busy, I don't know if Seattle's the place for you.
Is there anything that you think that Seattle could do to be more supportive for writers?
One of the things I noticed when I first moved here, and then I sort of became part of that same pattern that I had noticed, is that a lot of Seattle readings series ask the same people to read. You'll see someone who's reading everywhere all the time for like a year. I feel like maybe spreading it around more, doing a better job of thinking like, "Oh, I just saw that person read. Maybe I should save them for later."
I feel like I've been that person before, where people were like, "There she is again! Geez, she's everywhere." I don't want to sound ungrateful, but I also think that a way to be more supportive of writers in general in Seattle is to not always have the same people read.
One other thing I would say is to organizers who run reading series or do anthologies or any sort of curation of writers is: try hard to make sure that if there are five readers in an event, don’t choose four white people and one brown person. Make sure that there’s always more than one person of color reading at an event.
You have so much geography in your work. Place is essential to your writing and I'm wondering if you thought about how moving from Seattle will affect your work or if you think Seattle is going to be represented in your work in the near future.
Every place I've lived has sort of made a mark, but I think Seattle will always be a part of my writing, whether or not it is obvious. Because I feel like Seattle's the first place, personally and professionally, that I ever felt fully myself. I know that sounds sort of lofty, but when I first moved to Seattle, I had just come out of pretty traumatic personal — for lack of a better word — shit that I was dealing with. I was escaping a lot of things.
Seattle was a city that, personally and professionally, welcomed me with open arms. I know that that's not necessarily a typical experience — people talk about the Seattle freeze, and they talk about how the literary scene can be hard to break into, but Seattle has been so special to me in that way.
Then, also, I met such incredible people here. It’s just a really close community of writers that I admire and that motivate and impress me.
Do you plan on coming back and reading anytime soon?
I don't know about readings, but I will be back this summer because I'm going to be teaching a Scribes class at Hugo House with Imani Sims, which I'm really excited about, but I don't have any readings or anything lined up.
Was there anything that you've been thinking about in these last few weeks as a Seattleite?
I guess what I would say is that I'm going to really miss Seattle. I think that's apparent from what I've been saying. But I also am excited to begin a new chapter of my life with my person in a different place where we can be together all the time.
Seattle has been a real home for me. I will be really sad to leave it but I've built solid relationships with people and with this city that I feel like I could come back and be welcome again. I guess I just want to say thank you.