Afterwords, Commentary

Afterwords // Achoo! Local Feminist Readings Combine Poetry and Activism

by Jack Chelgren and Cali Kopczick, Contributing Writers

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Last Thursday night, a small crowd settled onto the red velvet couches of the Rendezvous for Allergic to Cats, a feminist reading series combining poetry and activism. This installment featured poets Elaina Ellis and Jade Sylvan (both with books out from Write Bloody Publishing), and a presentation by Ane Mathieson and Easton Branam, local advocates for prostitutes and prostitution survivors.

The event took place in the Red Velvet Lounge, a loft at the back of the Rendezvous furnished with squat tables and low-hanging, sequined chandeliers. Attendees sprawled on the couches, sharing plates of fries and swapping stories from AWP. It was a diverse crowd: showgoers ran the gamut from a woman who said she was pretty sure she’d never been to a poetry reading before to a man who chatted with us about finishing up his undergraduate poetry thesis. The varied composition of the crowd points to what makes Allergic to Cats distinctive and important. By pairing a poetry reading with an activist presentation, the series bridges two all-too-discrete worlds, exposing the denizens of each to the valuable work going on in the other. We need more poets with patriarchy-smashing on their minds, and more activists with poems in their back pockets.

Mathieson and Branam kicked off the program by discussing their research on the Nordic model of prostitution regulation. In contrast to countries that totally criminalize or decriminalize the industry, Sweden has made inroads in protecting sex workers by shifting legal focus from prosecuting workers to prosecuting pimps and johns. While acknowledging that some sex workers feel empowered by their work, Mathieson and Branam emphasized that the industry as a whole is fraught with racism, human trafficking, and child prostitution. Finding a solution to prostitution is an urgent concern for women’s rights and feminist activism as a whole; no one, Mathieson and Branam argued, can afford not to care. They’ll give a full presentation on May 6 at the Rainier Cultural Center.

To loosen up the room, Ellis began her reading by asking everyone (if they felt comfortable) to shout “BOOB!” Then, “BREAST!” Then, “TIT!” She announced that she would read a boob-shaped poem, and ran a quick lap around the room with her book to make sure everyone could picture the distinctly mammary lineation. In another poem written specifically for Allergic to Cats, Ellis wondered (through a series of survey questions) where all of her past selves were, and when exactly she’d transformed from a dog person into a cat person. Later in the night, she read a choral poem about her fear of commitment, which she’d first performed on the night she met her fiancée-to-be. Ellis beamed at the room as she read, shifting back and forth on her heels, joyfully welcoming the mountains into her home and the audience into her experiences.

The evening ended with Jade Sylvan, whose novelized memoir Kissing Oscar Wilde proved dizzying and incantatory onstage. Sylvan seemed to read mostly from memory, unfolding the “patterns of fucked-up behavior” that brought her to Paris with a photographer friend on an expedition to Oscar Wilde’s glassed-off grave. Sylvan’s memoirs dared the audience to consider the possibility that everyone is also everyone else, and that we’re all just loving each other from afar. At one point, she read a passage about wowing a bar with a poem called “On Breathing,” and followed up by reading the poem itself. For a moment afterwards, everyone in the Red Velvet Lounge forgot to breathe or clap, but Sylvan quickly joked the tension away, and after a few more passages and rounds of applause, the event really did end. Sylvan and Ellis had books for sale, and offered to draw complimentary dirty pictures in them; wordsmiths wandered over to activists to ask about prostitution laws; activists leaned over to ask neighbors about their poetry. The audience lingered for a while longer, those red velvet couches becoming the connective tissue of a feminism scene as passionate about arts as it is about social justice.

Allergic to Cats is an ongoing series as part of Cat Lady Lit, organized by local poet and essayist Jocelyn Macdonald. The next installment will take place during the Cascadia Poetry Festival, at 7:30pm on Saturday, May 3, in the Pigott Building at Seattle University.