Our poet in residence for June, Katy E. Ellis writes narrative poetry that feels as lucid and as clear as a photograph. In "To Squamish Waters,, she tells a Duwamish man's story about the high cost of reincarnation, and "All Signs Are Dares" is the story of a bracing nighttime car ride that becomes more dangerous — even deadly — than it needed to be. Both are complete stories that in prose wouldn't feel out of place in a story collection by a Northwest writer like, say, Raymond Carver.
In fact, Ellis is Seattle through and through: born and raised in Renton, Ellis now lives on Vashon Island. From the moment her very first creative writing teacher in 9th grade handed her books by Tom Robbins for inspiration, she has been an eager participant in the Northwest tradition. Ellis says the teacher was reticent to let her participate in his class because he believed that "freshmen can't write poetry," but her hard work and determination earned her a rare privilege: by the end of the year, the teacher ceremoniously announced to the class that he was wrong, and that freshmen were capable of being poets.
Ellis continues in the Seattle tradition — she's a big Tess Gallagher fan and cites Is, Is Not as a recent favorite collection — in both her writing and in the communities she builds. When I ask about how community informs her work, Ellis offers a jarring answer: "I was excommunicated from my childhood church," she says. She laughs and adds, "that is such rich fodder right there."
The manuscript that Ellis is working on now, titled Stranger Land, explores that connection to place and to people. "I did a lot of travel around the time of my excommunication," Ellis says, and the book begins with those travels. "It's about being a stranger on the outside of religion, and also being literally a stranger in different countries."
Additionally, the book is informed by Ellis's position as a local of a city that is growing at a ridiculous pace, "I do think about feeling like a stranger in Seattle now."
One of the ways that Ellis has helped to build community in Seattle was through the WordsWest Literary Series, a West Seattle poetry reading happening monthly at the C&P Coffee Company. Ellis founded it with poets Susan Rich and Harold Taw,
After five years of readings, WordsWest is coming to a close next week, on Wednesday the 19th. Why, at a time when West Seattle is growing faster than ever, are the curators hanging up the series?
"It's a lot of work," Ellis says. "There are so many details and things that we do to make it a nice series that it's hard to keep up. Five years seemed like a good round number, and we wanted to end on a high."
It really is quite a high note: Readers at the last WordsWest include Elizabeth Austen, Quenton Baker, Rick Barot, Claudia Castro Luna, Christine Deavel, Lyanda Lynn Haupt, Rachel Kessler, J.W. Marshall, Greg November, Renee Simms, and Ann Teplick. "It's hard to give it up," Ellis says, "but I also look forward to that freedom. I feel like I might hermit for a little bit."
But Ellis is already putting out feelers for writing groups to join and artists to share work with. It's all part, she says, of her search for "a thing that's bigger than me and bigger than all of us."
And Ellis refuses to close the door on WordsWest forever. "We want to leave a door open to have one or two events a year." Just because the monthly series is over, she says, "it doesn't mean WordsWest is totally dead."