Report From Powells

I left from Seattle at dusk and by the time I arrived in Tumwater, Stacey Levine who was riding with me to Portland, asked, “Is it midnight?” It was only six o’cock, but once we passed beyond the ambient light of the streetlights, parking lots, and public storage compounds skirting I-5, the world was dark. At the Rest Area just north of Centralia, a man asked the people running the Comfort Station, “Is this coffee?” Stacey discovered a cat.


I would have not seen this cat even if I had seen it. I would have thought to myself, “Oh a cat out here in a Rest Area in the middle of the dark netherworld beyond Tumwater, how interesting.” I would not have allowed myself to make the connection: “What is that cat doing here? That cat will starve until dead.” But Stacey noticed the cat, understood it was starving, and immediately began to investigate.

The cat mewed. The cat raised its tail. Stacey was able to pick the cat up. The cat purred. The bones of the cat stuck out like silverware in a velvet bag. Stacey left the cat in my care. I talked to the cat in my talking-to-cat-voice while Stacey consulted the people running the Comfort Station. She returned with a massive box. And oddly Stacey’s luggage for the trip wasn’t actually human luggage but was feline luggage, a geniune cat carrier. Stacey removed her traveling items and placed them into the massive box and placed the cat into the cat carrier and then we were back on the dark highway headed south. It was as dark as if it were midnight. The cat purred.

But now we had the cat in my car and we didn’t know if the people who were going to allow us to sleep on the floor of their enormous, empty home were allergic to cats or had dogs that would eat cats or perhaps hated cats and would forbid the cat entrance into their enormous, empty home. We were going to be stay in the house near Reed College. Stacey plotted how she might rescue the cat and find an owner for the cat and prevent the cats probable death.

Stacey called her friend called Steve in Portland who runs a press called Verse Chorus Verse Press and also has a soft spot for cats. She was hoping he might volunteer to pick up the cat. But he didn’t. She called our friend Matthew at Clear Cut Press and he seemed perplexed by the cat and also didn’t volunteer to rescue the cat. Her friends in the normous, empty home would, though, allow Stacey to have the cat overnight.

When we arrived at the home, a man in his very early twenties, maybe he was even 19, opened the door. The house was empty and smelled of the convivial, musky smell given off by a great deal of smoked marijuana. He smiled lazily and tried to pretend he wasn’t stoned as I would have done at one point before old age and paranoia set in to the point where I would have no faith in playing off being stoned or not stoned and so wouldn’t get stoned because it would be a very poor time wondering if I could pretend not to be stoned or not. “A nice smell,” Stacey said and waved her hand through the smoke and he smiled and seemed relieved that he didn’t have to pretend anymore even if he was only pretending so that we could pretend we didn’t smell anything although that would just be a sheer act of pretend becuase the smell was really strong.

Steve arrived with a cat box, litter, (which he called cat sand because he was British), canned cat food, and dry cat food. The cat gobbled up the food and then lay completely still on one of the plush couches.

We went out to eat and while eating and drinking discussed with Steve the perils of small press publishing which exist in opposition to the perils of big press publishing. Neglect by the publisher is hardly the problem with small press publishing, but neglect is often the case with big press publishing, I’ve heard. With small press publishing there is exhaustion in the publisher. Every small press publisher I’ve worked with suffers from periodic bouts of collapse after working two or three jobs. Steve as a small press publisher seemed to have experience with collapse but right at that moment was carefully balancing his book production and freelance gigs so that he could sleep some, spend time with his wife, and play hookie (at ten o’clock at night) to go out and get something to eat. There is the economy of scale as well. Small publishers are calibrated to publish a certain number of books and have difficulty moving money around. There are issues with having a wholeseller rather than a proper distributor shilling the books so that while books may be published they cannot be found at bookstores. The current Clear Cut Books, for instance, or only available right now at a few bookstores: Powells and Elliott Bay and through their online web site, Buy Olympia. But elsewhere, such as Amazon, they are for some reason not ready until December. A small press book might be well published, just not well distributed.

The next day before the reading at Powell’s Worlds of Books at Burnside, Stacey and I walked around the Reed College Campus. Many of the male students wore beards. The students were busy going about their day and in the library Stacey and I found a stack of faux-Magic cards created by Reed students. Darren “mother” Platt. Position: hungry. Gear: face. Favorite: crispy stuff. Superpower: imagined self with boobs. Restrictions: lukewarm. Etc.

Stacey plotted how she might get Matthew or someone at Clear Cut to take the cat. Matthew used to have a cat, Stacey said, that was the spitting image of this cat. The cat’s name was Ms. Perfect. Miss Perfect had a dismal end. Matthew gave the cat to his mother after his child was born. Matthew’s mother lives in a forested region north of Seattle and Ms. Perfect was not pleased at her exile to this forested region. In a demonstration of displeasure, Ms. Perfect shit in the middle of the dining room table. Shortly thereafter, she made good her escape into the forest in the forested region and was never seen again. “She was probably eaten by a raccoon or something,” Stacey said as she finished the story about Ms Perfect. “Matthew probably would like this cat if he saw her.”

Steve showed up again to lead us across Portland to the Clear Cut complex in a neighborhood called “Mississippi.” Matthew was busy working on a laptop while actually playing with his son and then we all went to the park to watch Matthew kick the ball at his son while I waited for Daniel, the Clear Cut intern, to arrive from downtown Portland.

The Clear Cut house, or rather Matthew’s house, is bright aquamarine (an Army surplus color that was common after WWII but seems to have fallen into disfavor) and sits on a corner. The grass is long and uncut. The interior is filled with books on every flat surface, various editions of Remembrance of Things Past, The Sexual Politics of Meat, runs of old magazines published in Vancouver or Corvallis. The place smells of wood smoke from the poorly ventilated fire place.

Stacey asked Daniel if he would like the cat.

“I would love a cat,” he said. “If I could keep a cat here, I would keep a cat here, but I will have to ask.”

We drove to the reading at Powells where the Watery Graves of Portland had set up. Powells is a prosperous bookstore many stories tall, with vastly tall wooden shelves with new and used books mixed together. It has made the transition to the Internet age very well and seems like an important and well-used node in the civic brain of Portland. The stage was on the top floor, a long wall with tiny painting arranged to look a butterfly. There were drawing of stumps, a diorama of Douglas Fir trees, the podium was designed to look like a pile of lumber. There was a willingness to address the iconography of the Pacific Northwest that is carefully hidden and steadfastly despised in Seattle.

After Kevin Sampsell introduced us, after we read, Matthew, Stacey, and I talked to the audience. It began in a kind of questions and answer format that, thankfully, quickly dissolved. The first questions were ones such as: “How do you choose manuscripts.” This isn’t a worthless question, but conceals the real question in a kind of unobvious way: how can I get my book published by you? Matthew talked about the fact that the books he has published were pretty much from manuscripts he had already read and knew about and that for the foreseeable future the books would be ones that had come out of conversations he’d had with writers over the years: Bruce Benderson’s book about North Pacific America, for example being one of the books in the second “season” of Clear Cut. But it seemed to me that small presses are an example to any writer that if someone isn’t publishing your work, publish it yourself. Find other writers you like and publish their work. It is possible, just not easy. But I suppose this isn’t the answer to the question. But the answer moves from the “how can I get you to publish my work,” to “how can I get my work published…” which has a much wider variety of answers. Getting to a spot where there are more answers seems like a useful way of reframing the question.

Matthew agreed to allow Daniel to keep the cat. He was concerned, though, that the cat smell might compromise the overpowering reek of wood smoke in the house. Now there is a cat in the Clear Cut house. Daniel is said of the cat: the cat’s name is “christopher robin” right now and she is excellent on all accounts.

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