Photos by Kelly O
Chances are, you've encountered Ellen Forney's cartoons in The Stranger. For years, she's published how-to cartoons, illustrated sexy Stranger reader personal ads, and drawn covers for the paper. (Much of that work has been collected in two books from Fantagraphics: I Love Led Zeppelin and Lust.) With the possible exception of Stranger Literature Genius Jim Woodring, Forney is the best cartoonist in Seattle. Her curvy, self-assured line work is deceptively simple, and her fastidiously designed page layouts are easier to read than to not read: Each page of Forney's cartoons has been intentionally crafted to suck your eyes in at the top left corner and release them, sated, at the bottom right.
For the last four years, Forney has been at work on a sustained narrative completely unlike anything she's ever done before. ("The last year in particular was like running a marathon," she says.) The resulting book, a graphic memoir called Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me, is the kind of transformative work that changes an artist's career forever.
Marbles is the shockingly honest story of Forney's life with bipolar disorder. It's a massive leap in form and content from her other work. The relationship between the pictures and words has changed—at times, the pages look less like comics and more like handwritten illuminated manuscripts. As Forney demonstrates the manic ups and terrible downs of her mind, she also investigates some deeper questions: How much of her art (and the art of hundreds of other geniuses through history) is wrapped up in being bipolar? It's completely unlike any other book on mental illness you've ever read. PAUL CONSTANT
During the War
I lived in two houses, one apartment,
took notes on a cocktail napkin
and a record store receipt my salary
almost covered. I abandoned my longing
to be more serious, and grew out my hair.
Summer, I shaved to bury my mother,
mourned a full season on the couch,
television bright across shag carpet.
The train I rode around America
was empty; the country was half-empty,
like the zoo on Monday. I wept at the president,
threatened to barefoot across the border,
but in the end only rolled down the window
to wave at a stranger who looked familiar.
You can't swing a stick at a Seattle-area reading without hitting Ed Skoog. Partly, that's because he takes up space—he's a broad, tall man who changes the weather patterns in a room just by sitting quietly. But mostly, it's because he's everywhere: in the audience of events celebrating local writers, attending readings by visiting poets, teaching writing classes over booze and ice cream at Hugo House, or headlining the APRIL Lit Crawl with a cheap-beer-soaked reading in a parking garage. The Seattle literary community without Skoog is an unthinkable thing.
Does he ever worry about overexposure? He shrugs. "Everything seems interesting, especially in the last couple of years," he says. Seattle's literary community "has shown a remarkable level of intensity and vitality," creating lots of "exciting and valuable" work. But this kind of vibrant community, he says, is "fragile—it probably will disappear, and I don't want to miss it."
This frenetic availability is at odds with what Skoog believes to be the duties of a poet. "Poetry works because of its silence and its reserve as much as its exuberance," he says. "What happens before the poem and what happens after the poem" is as important as the contents of a poem, and the poetry that he chooses not to write is just as important as the books he publishes. This restraint produces razor-sharp, lucid work that is at once stately and striking. His debut collection, 2009's Mister Skylight, feels full of novels, about the death of a parent, about drinking, about repurposed asylums, about home and leaving home: "My last look around the house," he writes in "Season Finale," "took so long that the vine/climbing the rosebush climbed/into my eyes." Such potent imagery is shoehorned into three and a half lines; then there's that double "climb," at the beginning and end of the third line, giving an impression of difficult but inexorable progress, of rising. Just imagine all the words that aren't there. PAUL CONSTANT
More of the Same
But even with my mouth on your thigh
I want my mouth on your thigh.
At the center bite of bread I want the whole loaf
toasted, and an orange. On a sunny day
I want more sun, more skin for the weather.
I’m in Seattle wishing for Seattle,
for this walk along the water, for her hand while I hold it:
I want to tie my wrist to a red balloon.
I’m counting my tips.
I’m counting the tips I could have made.
I want the television on, the television off.
In the ocean, I want to float an inch above it
and when my father finally held me
like a stripe of seaweed over his wet arm,
I was kicking to get away, wishing he’d hold me
like he held me while I was kicking away. Listen to me.
I want to leave when I’m walking out the door.
Kary Wayson leads a double life. Even though she's won a Pushcart Prize, appeared in Best American Poetry 2007, and published a debut collection of poems in 2009 called American Husband, "I'm very much a waitress named Kary," she says. "Many people have no idea that I write poems." She doesn't fully occupy the restaurant world because she's not very social, and she isn't a part of the literary scene because, since age 17, she's spent her nights waiting tables.
Her work, too, is riddled with doubles. Her favorite rhythm is two syllables, or pairs of double syllables: "But I myself/will by myself/beside myself/be sitting—right/where she should be—" she writes in a recent poem, referring to a "daughter," a word that appears again and again in her poems, even though Wayson doesn't have one. "I guess I was also the mother to my mother," she said the other day, when we were talking about her life so far. Her mother was in and out of psychiatric hospitals when Wayson was little, and divorced by the time Wayson was 5. She and her mother no longer speak, even though they look exactly alike, and Wayson sometimes runs into her mother's twin, who lives nearby.
Wayson's main subject—filial anxiety—makes her do a lot of second-guessing. She called her dad when she was chosen for Best American Poetry 2007, then called back to ask him if she should pull the selected poem because it calls him a "bitch." Plus, there's the whole second life of sorts that came with her recent decision to date men after 20 years of dating women. In a new poem, she writes: "It's new to be beautiful/and boring. It's like counting to two/and turning around/and counting to two again." CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE