It took awhile for Angela Jane Fountas to realize that what she needed to do was toss out the rules for writing. “Show, don’t tell — what’s that?” she asks me one day over tea. Good writing, she goes on, comes from a writer’s signature, the way she’s different, not the same. “I write by my gut,” she says. “I write in the dark. One sound in a sentence often leads to the next one.”
It’s working. A writer-in-residence at Richard Hugo House, Fountas picked up writing after studying film and photography. Manual typewriters were her first lure: she loved the physicality of them, the keystrokes on paper, even the white spaces. “Writing stories on the typewriter was like finding a dream that comes through your fingers,” she says, a little dreamily.
Fountas’s own writing is full of sound and the flickering collisions of images that often create a sort of altered reality. Her stories sometimes feel like fables.
That may have something to do with growing up on Long Island with an Irish American mother who loved telling stories and a father who came from a town in Greece with houses that still had dirt floors and people who made their own cheese and slaughtered their own goats. “I went to Greece when I was eleven and again in college, and both times it was another world. We drove to the dance in the next town on chairs set up on a tractor hitch.”
How could she not be a writer?
by Angela Jane Fountas
There was a room-sized forest behind her house. When in the middle, she couldn’t see out. The sky was her ceiling; sometimes it wept. She sat on her chair and knitted and wished she was in a city.
Putting her piecework aside, she climbed to the top of a piny skyscraper, branches like steps, and looked at her house, covered in moss with tiny teeth shedding spores. And that was that.
She climbed back down and forced herself to choose a direction: wishes weren’t nearly enough. If she stayed much longer, they’d send for a husband
and build a second house.
She had never seen a city in all her life, but she read books.
“Lucy Jane,” her mother said, “get inside,” but Lucy Jane started walking. “Come back,” her father said, and Lucy Jane kept walking. She knew what they were thinking: contrary.
She walked into the sunset, eyes blinded, through to dawn. Then she formed a bed of pine needles to sleep deep. She followed the sunset for days, weeks, months, and arrived at the ocean. Sitting on sand, she marveled at the sea stacks, tall as towers and inhabited for sure, but not by people.
She gathered seaweed and firewood, rubbed two sticks together until she saw sparks, and toasted some salty algae for supper.
“Only one thing to do. Walk with the sunset to my left.” And she did. Days, weeks, months, years. First she climbed up, up, up until she reached the top, barren, where there was nothing to eat, so she walked down, down, down to the foot of the mountain, where she caught fish in a stream and cooked them over a fire so big the bears came to rest. When the sky streaked pink, she rolled herself in snow and slept. Not quite an igloo, she thought.
Trudging through winter was tiring at first, her lungs taking in rushes of air that melted when it reached her heart, but the snow soon grew a crust that she could walk upon and she began to run. She skated on ice so thick it didn’t complain. When her nose grew stalactites, she decided to turn her back on the sunset.
She walked until the ground gave to her heel, then dug a hole and lined it with leaves and slept for a week to store up energy. When she walked on, she looked up into the trees and saw nests made of broken branches, not twigs. A big bird, long beak, neck like a sink’s pipe, sat in the center of each. “There is no city here,” she said, and headed south.
Days, weeks, months, years later, after seeing a fraction of the world’s wonders, she bids her journey goodbye.
When she arrives home she finds her parents, tired and sapless. “Where were you, Lucy Jane?” they squeak, and she waits for them to die. After she inherits the house, she sells it to buy a train ticket east.
The writer produced this work as a 2006 Jack Straw Writer.
Talking to Ed Skoog, you get the impression that his size — he is six feet five, large framed, friendly — has influenced the encyclopedism of his mind. In conversation he is curious, restless and interested, and he pays close attention to his responses to things.
Today he is thinking about the Northwest. “William Stafford,” he begins, “was another Kansan who also came to the Northwest. His idea was that poetry was writing to the side.”
Skoog likes this, the notion that poetry ought to happen between other parts of your life, and that it should come outside the main or normal purpose of communication. “Keats wrote ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ after breakfast one morning at a friend’s house,” he observes approvingly. “When he had some downtime.”
Skoog, a writer-in-residence at Richard Hugo House, also plays the banjo and is catholic in his taste in music, which feeds his writing. “I first wrote to be heard in a big, boisterous family given to oratory, politics and bluster,” he says. So sound became important for him early on: “You can do anything in a poem if it sounds right,” he says. “The poetry I prefer to read is formal, with rhymes and scannable lines. But it’s not what I write. I begin with something iambic but then fracture it. What I write isn’t that neat.”
His own poems often act out internal dramas that use the music in regular language. In “And the Yellow Bones of the Parking Lot,” for example, a scuffle of opening observations turns, via a movie marquee, to thoughts of things submerged, the city itself, sturgeon “in the deep lake’s vowel.”
AND THE YELLOW BONES OF THE PARKING LOT
by Ed Skoog
Perhaps on your last day in Seattle
you will get to chase the cat, as I did,
along the Northgate apartment shrubs
shared with a dentist’s office, and you too
will be the fool reclining patients watch
from blue chairs and from numb faces;
the cat wants to stay, a clawed want that hides
despite the frenzy of your hands, your mad
hollering silenced by inch-thick glass.
The Northgate Theater sign reads: Titanic.
Beyond: the patient lifeboats of Licton Springs.
Above: the grey pinstripe suite of the late sky.
Snow closed the city and left my officemate
stranded in the wasteland of the key card
five long icicle days in the breakroom.
As much of what made me leave Seattle
as made me find my way back in the dark
is his story, the coyote he watched dart
into the bulldozed field for holiday rabbits
between the Microsoft and the Nintendo,
what forms of survival, what warm sodas
and granola he scavenged from unlit drawers,
bowl of Caesar salad some project manager
ordered before the storm and he found wilted
in a conference room, fallen in like a grave.
I think the bookstores are emptier now
than when at 24 I rode the 242
across the floating bridge, dreaming of sturgeon
rounded from roaming the lake’s deep vowel,
a depth that unfolds like the road that brought me,
beneath light rain rhythmic on windshield.
And the cherry, apple, and plum in my yard
still ripen, do so on rough, hungover bark.
Above: a bat has spent all evening turning
over loops that trace their figures murky,
and although the home I left was always gone
and the one I will never catch I keep in mind,
the bat will go on however it wants to.