The Picture of Success

Write Riot Poetry Slam Featuring Ela Barton

Y’all, I am beyond excited for the Write Riot Poetry Slam this week.

The coolest part of being a literary event coordinator is getting to talk to some of your favorite writers. That’s why I got into this whole racket, anyway. I’m a fan girl, no two ways about it. This week I get to be a fan girl about the fantastic Ela Barton. And if you aren’t one yourself already, get ready to fall in love.

Introducing: Ela Barton

Ela Barton is a Black and Filipino, queer poet and artist living in Seattle, Washington. She is the 2007 Bainbridge Island Poetry Slam Champion, a four-time finalist of the Seattle Poetry Slam Grand Slam (2009,2010, 2011, 2012) and the first woman to win Jack McCarthy’s Evergreen Invitational (2011). In 2008, Barton placed 23 out of 72 at Women of the World Poetry Slam and in 2013, placed 16 out of 72 at Individual World Poetry Slam. In 2014, Barton was placed first in the Rain City Slam Championship earning her a spot on the first Rain City Slam National Team. At National Poetry Slam 2014, Rain City Slam placed 7th in the nation. Barton has taught Creative Writing and Performance Poetry at Bent: A Queer Writing Institute. Ela has been featured on National Public Radio and CITR 101.9,, Button Poetry, and King 5 (Seattle) News. Her work has been featured on Adrienne: A Poetry Journal of Queer Women by Sibling Rivalry Press. She is founder of the Rain City Poetry Slam and adapted the concept of Vancouver’s “Mashed Poetics” to create a similar monthly, music inspired, poetry show, Liner Notes.

*     *     *

See what I mean? All of the feelings.

Along with being a completely badass poet, Ela is also one of the people that helped me get Write Riot off the ground. She patiently answered every panicked message I sent her way, offering me nothing but reassurance. We owe her, like a lot. So how about we show her how we really feel, by coming to see her perform this Thursday? What do you think? I think it sounds lovely.

The Write Riot Poetry Slam
Thursday, February 19th
At the Honey Moon (in the alley behind the Pepper Sisters)
Sign ups for the Open Mic and the Slam start at 8:00 pm sharp
Show starts at 8:30
Free to attend, but you must support the venue (we love them!)
$2 to slam, but, as always, come talk to me if you can’t swing it.
We aren’t going to let money  get in the way of good work.



On Schedule

I am a woman with a plan.

I consider each moment of my day, each activity. I write lists upon lists, burying myself in yellow legal paper. I enjoy organization, find it deeply satisfying, almost arousing. I suppose it makes sense that one of my jobs is planning a writing conference. When I turned twenty five, I made a list of things I would do by the time I was thirty. Reading it, my friend Bob laughed at me, saying that I would never get all of it done, that my goals would change. And sure, they’ve changed in the past three years, but I’m actually on course to finish that list, thank you very much.

I like order because I like control, the idea that I’m able to hold some part of my life in my hand, the dream that I’m able to make some sense of what is constantly occurring around me. The hope that I can protect myself from both the unknown and the known. Of course, I can’t. I have had enough (quite excellent) therapists to know that I can’t actually control anything. But it never stops me from trying.

On January 25, 2015, my nephew Benicio del Roy Thomas Jessen Lohafer was born. I was there, and I have to tell you, birth is the wildest thing I have ever witnessed. Forget all that noise you see in the movies, with the lightly perspiring woman who labors for approximately fifteen minutes, only to be handed a (unrealistically clean) baby. All I saw was sheer, raw determination. Passion. A little fear. Maybe more than a little blood. Standing across from my baby brother, I was terrified, afraid I was going to get in the way, almost tripping over the cords at my feet. And still, we stayed. I tried to help, to encourage, knowing full well I wasn’t really doing anything, anyway.

Before the baby was born, I tried to reorganize my schedule for two weeks, making sure I’d make it to the birth in time. At the bar, half of the staff was on call, just in case. All of my regulars would ask me whether or not my nephew had arrived, probably sick of hearing about it already. There was one instance of false labor; I was working at the bar and I starting calling my co-workers frantically, desperate to get to the hospital. When I told my boss what was happening, she started laughing. “I’d bet $100 the baby doesn’t come today.” She was right. He didn’t show up for another week. No matter what I did, this unborn child would not follow my carefully constructed schedule. Apparently, that’s not really their thing. Maybe this baby is going to teach me to let go, a little.


Benicio,  you are, without a doubt, the best thing that’s ever interrupted my work week. You have perfect timing.


On Finishing Your MFA in Poetry

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Everything you hate about yourself.

Everything I hate about myself, who?

Shut up, you’re a failure.

*            *            *

I am writing terrible jokes about therapy. This is my life after graduate school. Each day is filled with an exciting cycle of emotions: joy, indignation, crying, panic that I’m doing it right, panic that I’m doing it wrong, concern that I haven’t gotten married yet, exhaustion, jealousy, obsession, joy, crying, momentary awareness of my place in the universe and the terrible beauty of being really alive, disgust at my body, more crying, and subsequent obsessing over every woman my boyfriend has ever dated.
Then I go to work.

Sometimes I wonder if my brain has simply filled in the gaps that classes took up, hungry to work out a new issue, a new emotional hazard. I used to write critical responses to pop culture, grade hundreds of pages of English 101 papers. I would bartend, write poems, volunteer for a feminist literary organization, edit a graduate school journal, and then get high, eat dinner and go to sleep. Grad school anxiety came with the dead weight of imposter syndrome, a constant fear of getting caught, of not being good enough or smart enough. It didn’t matter how much I was doing, I was never doing enough. Sure, it was completely unsustainable, but at least it gave the days a rhythm. A structure.

Now I am free of structure. Full of student debt. Still bartending but also working my first honest to god grown up job, as the planner of a writers conference. I get to email authors who make me swoon; I re-read their rejection letters like they’re secret notes from a crush, Thanks for asking, but I’ll be out of the country.
Most of the time, I deal with writers who are closer to home, my friends, even. On good days, their emailed confirmations feel like tiny victories: yes! One of us! We’re doing this thing! On bad days, they feel like proof positive that I’m still one book deal behind.

I don’t write anymore, hardly at all. On lunch breaks, I try to scribble out a few words, song ideas for a musical, plot notes for the short stories I want to finish. It isn’t enough. My boyfriend and I make plans for my new writing structure; we will make sure I focus on my craft, now that I’ve moved into my new studio apartment. We won’t spend all winter watching Friends on Netflix. But it isn’t enough. I am always the thing that is in my way, always creating conflict. Some people keep themselves from their art because they are afraid of success, afraid of their own greatness. Sometimes I think I avoid writing because I would rather do almost anything else.

A few months ago, I taught a poetry workshop at the Fairhaven library. The median age was 65. These students were invested, excited; they wanted to hug me before class. Walking into the room, they would see me and say, “Oh! You must be the poet!” They made me feel like a real writer and I fucking loved it. During the session, I talked about what a turn does in poetry. I said the turn was something that caught the reader off guard, was completely unexpected, but still felt earned. You might not have known it was coming but it still made sense.

This essay wants to end in the dark, wants to tell you there’s nothing that can be done. That all of your hard work will never amount to anything you can put your hands on. And it might not.

But, you will keep writing. And I will keep writing. Because we have no choice.

Hello, again. It’s been such a long time.

It’s been such a long time, that I went ahead and finished my MFA. And moved. And got a new job. I may have been quiet here, but I have been writing. If you’ve been with the blog for a while, thank you. If you’re new, welcome to this writing space. I’ve had a few things published lately: here and here.

We’ll have plenty of time to catch up, later. First, I want to tell you about a wonderful thing that’s happening next week. I’m starting a poetry slam. It’s going to be called the Write Riot Slam, and it will be at the Honeymoon (in Bellingham) on Thursday, December 11. Sign-ups for the slam and open mic are at 8:00 and the show is at 8:30. It costs $2 to slam but if you can’t swing it, just talk to me. Free to attend. All ages. Our first featured performed is the fantastic Roberto Ascalon, one of my long time friends from the Seattle poetry scene. I am so excited to see him perform. I am so excited to see all of you perform.

Let’s be honest, that first show will be messy. It will take us a while to find our footing, but I know we will. If poetry has taught me anything, it’s that it can really help you pull together in a time of need. And I need you. We all need you. We need your ideas and your words. And a little bit of your bravery. We need your patience. We need your excitement.

I hope I see you a week from Thursday, friends. Until then, be kind to yourselves.

Variations on a Theme

Birds and People

*For Darci Duncan

When you are always renting,
you become familiar with never
owning a thing. You can relax
into your temporary state,
not knowing when
your landlord might kick you out.

The house is riddled with other
people’s clothes, furniture,
boyfriends. You might not be
the first person to hang that painting
but it looks better here, anyway

Down the street, your roommate
is rummaging through a free pile.
Yesterday, she was at the bins
Every time you see her,
she’s wearing something new
Hasn’t paid full price in years

You wonder if you can learn
how to wear a stranger’s clothes
with grace. Worry that the previous
owner will laugh at your attempts
with their leather jacket.

Until you see your roommate,
grinning, again, at her latest find.
Peacock feathers pinned in her hair,
you would never doubt
that they belonged together.

Everything in Season

When you’re buying an avocado,
he says,
it’s not quite like buying any other piece of produce.
You can’t just give it a quick rap on its side,
to judge firmness or readiness to eat.
You have to take it in your hands.
Sure, some would say that’s an infringement of
trust, that your grocery store companions would
never appreciate you manhandling their
fruit that way, but there’s just no way around
it. Grasp it lightly, press, ask yourself,
‘what’s the time commitment I’m
willing to make here? Am I thinking
fajitas? Or can this fruit wait a hot
minute, and become something better still
on my window sill in a couple of days?’
It’s important to consider these things.
You could be going out of town, and then
the poor thing is just going to go to waste.
If left alone, for too long, it might grow legs
and start thinking for itself, or, worse,
fraternizing with any number of exotic
vegetables. Those carrots, you know,
can be kind of easy. Slender and welcoming,
they have no qualms about getting what they
want. Who could blame them? Is it their responsibility
to keep track of your groceries? But stay
with me, here, I think we’re losing
sight of the big picture.

Beautiful and Talented

Dear internet,

I’m angry. I’m angry and it isn’t cute. It isn’t attractive. It doesn’t come with a hilarious anecdote or a filthy story. I’m angry for myself and I’m angry for all other female artists. I’m angry because my body, my physical appearance, seems to be tightly bound to the general reception of my art. I’m angry because I’ve been told to be docile, receptive, passive. I’m angry because I’m too often described as “beautiful and talented”, as if the “talent” aspect of that is shocking, unexpected.

Last night, a man approached me after my show. He told me he really enjoyed my set; he said many kind things about my work. I accepted his praise with gratitude. I turned to leave. He grabbed my hand and kept going. I became really uncomfortable. I did not move. I tried to excuse myself from the situation, and he ignored all of my efforts. He began to describe what I was wearing. He was leering. I took my hand back. I cut the conversation short. I left.

I feel embarrassed because I didn’t do more. This man crossed clear boundaries. At the very least, he ignored basic social cues, out of ignorance. At the very worst, he was totally aware of his actions and decided to disregard what I might have been feeling and trying to communicate. I’m angry that I didn’t stand up for myself. I’m angry that I feel shame about this at all, when shame doesn’t belong here. I’m angry that I stood there. Why did I stay there?

I stayed there because this is what I’ve been taught. Female artists are raised to be humble, to lay themselves down at the feet of their following. A woman who makes demands is seen as a diva, an individual who asks for too much, due to their inflated sense of self. I have been taught that this man was being nothing but kind, that I should wear something less attractive if I don’t want that kind of attention. In short, I’ve been taught that it’s my fault. It is not my fault. It is not the fault of any female artist. How long will it take our society to place blame where blame is due?

I have chosen to take action. To stand against situations like these, to be emphatically clear about my own personal boundaries after a show. However, those individuals that cross the line are responsible for their own actions. Old man, you knew better. I tried to be gracious and you took advantage of it. No more. Do better. There is no room for your brand of misogyny here.



A writer whose vagina should have little to nothing to do with how her work is received, in the same way that one wouldn’t expect special treatment for being a writer who happens to have an elbow.

The Inherent Danger of Exotic Fruit

Oh, spring fever, you are upon us.

Yes, it is June. But here in Bellingham, this month is nothing more than the cruel tease of summer. The sun is out long enough to convince you it’s swimming weather, but is gone before you’ve so much as put one vitamin D deprived limb in the water. The women in my town remain both hopeful and obstinate, banishing leggings and tights from their wardrobes and bringing out short shorts far too early. The theory is that you can convince the season to change, if you are perpetually ready for the next season.

Here’s the other problem with spring fever: I have a crush on every boy. Of course, by I, I really mean we, and by boy, I mean whomever you might have a crush on. Clearly, this is not a time for red flag dating. The guidelines are simple; if you see any red flags, you leave. For example, you’re having dinner with someone and they casually mention that they voted for Bush both times. Red flag. Get up and go. Of course, everyone’s red flags are different. Theoretically, when you meet someone with these tendencies, you would call it quits right there, without getting involved. Doesn’t that sound mature? Sensible, even? Be warned, spring fever has a complete disregard for your responsible inclinations. There are sunsets to reckon with. Sangria comes back into play. Sure, this guy is super homophobic, but he has a boat! And you can reach him, change his mind, probably, by making out with him! Right?

Best to take up a lot of hobbies. And since you’ll need something to distract you from poor decision making, how about coming to my show this Thursday? I promise, I did write something on my residency, though I might not be able to write again until September. The show is at the Honey Moon and it’s called Thirty Days in the Wilderness. Troi Gale will be opening it up and I will be accompanied by the incredible Sarah Goodin. It starts at 8:30. There’s a patio, and mead, and maybe there will even be a spell of warm weather. Come and make some good decisions. Or bad ones. Either way, you know I won’t be the one to judge you.

Lessons in Public Speaking

Hello from the wilderness!

I know, I know, if “I have access to internet” than apparently “I don’t want it!” Such impassioned terms! So many promises! Well, I have been writing like crazy, and I couldn’t keep it in anymore. Also, if I make the promise, I can change the promise. So here we are. In the wilderness! And connected to the internet.

Holden Village is exactly as fantastic as I had hoped it would be. It’s also very different then I had expected. I’m writing some weird material….and it makes me a little nervous. But I press on, and hope for the best. I have many stories for you, but those aren’t for right now. The internet that I do have, I only have a short amount of time. Time is of the essence!

The poem I have today isn’t about this place, exactly. But its subject matter has been on my mind and I had to write about it. That’s all. I come home in about two and a half weeks, and I couldn’t be more excited. If you’re in Bellingham, you can come see me June 7th (TONIGHT!). I will hosting the inaugural Grown Ass Poets’ Society show (special thanks to Robert Lashley for coming up with the name). It is going to be at the Green Frog and it will be featuring…..drum roll……Buddy Wakefield! And Jack McCarthy! This is going to be a show to end all shows, you don’t want to miss it. So, to review:

Grown Ass Poets’ Society!
Featuring Buddy Wakefield and Jack McCarthy
June 7th, at 7 pm at the Green Frog on State Street

I will be hosting! Get there! I will hold you, and tell you about my adventures. Hell, I might even buy you a drink.
Home can’t come soon enough. Now, to lead us into the poem, here’s one of my new favorite quotes.

“God instructs the heart, not by ideas but by pains and contradictions.”
-De Caussade

When you Decide to tell your Church Group about Domestic Violence

you’ll stumble, at best
at worst, you’ll cry
Not in the classy way –
how they show it in movies –
A stern professor approaches the microphone
delivers an impassioned plea for justice,
a message that demands the best of his colleagues
He’s almost made it through the entire thing
when suddenly the music swells
and he’s caught,
our stone man now transparent
One tear running from retina to jaw line
a more honest hero than we’ve ever known.

when you do it,
you won’t make it through the first stanza.
The poem you picked
because of its subtleties,
turns out to reveal your weakness
more quickly than a politician’s intern
You are crying in earnest now
soggy and pathetic
Your voice, a pitiful sliver of what it once was
Worse yet, they’ll listen to you
Cock their heads to the side
and start nodding
bring you tissues
and say,
keep going.

Once, in this very sanctuary,
you watched a man
trying to light the candles for the service
The altar was a dreadful thing,
too small for his thick frame to maneuver around
He lumbered back and forth,
the flames paper thin
his body, his weight,
so earnest to do the Lord’s work

You felt embarrassed for him
Couldn’t believe he would
put himself on display like that
And look at where you are today,
wailing, publicly,
with no dramatic music
to soften the blow

Best to go as quickly as you can
No use pretending
to gather yourself
Sob through the whole
goddamn thing –
you have to get
the candles lit,

Later, in Wenatchee

“Write like hell.”
-Amanda Bettis

Here we are, at the Amtrak station in Everett, WA.
The word of the day is trust. Yesterday, the word of the day was bourbon. Perhaps, if we’re honest, the word of last week was bourbon. Yes, let’s be honest. Best to start things right.

In one hour, we’ll be boarding a train for Wenatchee. Tomorrow, we’ll get on a ferry for some unknown port, Lucerne. Why not finish it off with another bus ride? Into the mountains. We’ll get off the bus at Holden Village. These bags are heavy. Maybe the community will smile, knowing that you packed too much. We are going to turn off our phones, our computers, our anxieties. We are going to learn to trust.

You might be asking yourself, has Jessica lost it? Has all of the last minute packing caused her to remain stuck in this awkward third person writing tense? It is possible. I am sleep deprived. But this style choice is intentional. I am trying to use grammar to express this feeling of gratitude. I am about to enter into one of my greatest adventures. I would be remiss if I did not thank all of those individuals who got me here.

Do you know what a hard sadness is? It is impossible to describe without sounding trite, dated. It inhabits its own cliche because when you experience it, it is all you experience. For a long time. I have not found any new language for it. I only write what I observe, what I feel, what I know, what I want to know. I know that this strain of melancholy takes root in my chest. Wraps arms around lungs. An unwanted house guest. But I don’t want it to leave, not really. It becomes familiar. December, nearly two years ago, I was introducing it to all my friends. My friend Jon grew to know it well. Amanda, Anna, and Jessica. Hanna, with her gentle suggestion to politely ask it to leave. Not a chance. All the space he had once taken up, the three years of inside jokes, the muscle memory, our vernacular, I gave it to this selfish guest, this hungry, angry, blind thing. They say time heals. Fuck time. Time during despair is your condescending minister, suggesting you give it all to God. You say, God doesn’t fucking want it.

Measure progress, instead. The first fifteen minutes in the morning, when you didn’t think about it first thing. Choosing this salad. Choosing to eat. One less drink. A brisk walk that reminds you of running. Remembering to call back a friend, finally. You are starting to go places.

I am going places. I am living my life’s dream for thirty days. Do you think I got here because of my obnoxiously fantastic breasts and humble nature? I got here because of you. This morning, on a bus, I asked this irritating house guest to leave. I don’t even like this metaphor anymore, but we are going to stick with it, for consistency’s sake. I told that motherfucker to get out. That it’s time for me to participate again, to have some purpose. To probably pray and maybe fall in love. To promise to exercise and only do it some of the time. To moisturize. To stop biting my nails. To call my mom back. To follow this ambition somewhere, anywhere. To appreciate the city I live in. To start a band. To at least continue to talk about starting a band. To forgive all individuals involved in the end of things, we all only do the best we can.

This is my last blog post for a month. I don’t think I will have internet access where I’m going, and if I do I don’t want it. I promise to tell you all about everything when I get back. I can’t promise to not be irritating with all of my new, off the grid, faith based tendencies. I do promise to come home. To keep my filthy mouth. To pour you a drink at my bar, ask you how you’ve been. If you want to hear more about my adventures in writing land, come to my show on June 14th. It will be at the Honeymoon again, at 8pm. I am going to be performing with Sarah Goodin. It’s called Forty Days in the Wilderness. Sure, I’m only going for thirty, but I like to keep the Jesus image intact.

This train I’m on, with all of its easy poetry about coming out of the woods, whole and fulfilled on the other side. Let’s let it write its own poem. Today, it is taking me where I need to go.
Thank you for taking me where I need to go.

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