Can Peer Pressure Save The Planet? A Conversation with Robert Frank

We’ve long known that our choices are heavily influenced by our social environment. Town Hall’s Alexander Eby sat down with Cornell University Professor Robert Frank to explore his new book’s message about how peer pressure can help combat climate change. Frank will be at Town Hall on 1/20. Tickets are only $5 (and free for anyone under the age of 22).

AE: At the core of your research is the idea of “behavioral contagion”—people adopting behaviors modeled by those around them. What are some ways this phenomenon can create problems for us?

RF: Here’s a simple example: We often cite secondhand smoke as the reason for our many taxes and regulations on smoking. But what we don’t acknowledge is that the far greater harm that arises when someone takes up smoking is to make others more likely to smoke. Behavioral contagion can act to our detriment, as with smoking, but also to our benefit, such as when installing solar panels or buying electric cars makes others much more likely to do so.

AE: Critics are skeptical of individual action to combat climate change, such as eating less meat, turning off lights, or buying more energy-efficient appliances. If we really want to solve the problem, they say, we need robust changes in public policy. You say that you once embraced those criticisms, but that your study of behavioral contagion has led you to a more nuanced view. Can you explain?

RF: Critics are right that without strong collective action, our efforts to combat warming will fail. After all, there’s not much tangible benefit for the planet if I recycle but nobody else does. But changing personal behavior has broader effects than many of us realized. Most importantly, it deepens our identities as climate advocates and increases the likelihood that we will prioritize acting on those values—voting for policies to fund green energy and knocking on doors to help elect politicians who will support those policies. 

AE: Do you see a generational component connecting social influence and action based on environmental values?

RF: One clear split is the divide between younger and older voters. The former are far more committed to decisive action on climate change, and are more burdened by the practical consequences of inequality. Older voters are more prosperous, on average, and better positioned to oppose the large tax increases required for any serious effort to combat climate change and inequality.

AE: You say that opposition to more progressive taxation is rooted in a cognitive illusion—that, contrary to what most prosperous voters seem to believe, paying higher taxes wouldn’t require any painful sacrifices from them at all. Can you explain?

RF: No tax proposal on the horizon would threaten prosperous voters’ ability to buy what they need. But since higher taxes leave these people with less money to spend, it’s totally natural for them to worry about whether they could still afford the special extras they want. But because such things are inherently in short supply, the way you get them is to outbid others who also want them. And your ability to do that depends only on your relative bidding power, which is completely unaffected when you and your peers all pay more in taxes. The same penthouse apartments with 360° views end up in exactly the same hands as before. If enough people understood why higher taxes wouldn’t require painful sacrifices, progress in securing funding to face environmental challenges would suddenly become possible.


Join us on 1/20 to hear more from Robert Frank on harnessing the power of social influence to help build support for environmental policies. Tickets are on sale now

Some Information about Misinformation: A Conversation with Samuel Woolley

 

Information literacy is an essential ingredient in a healthy democracy. Samuel Woolley will arrive on Town Hall’s stage on January 9 to discuss his new book The Reality Game. It shows how the breakneck rate of technological change is making information literacy nearly impossible. Woolley argues for a new culture of invention, one built around accountability, and especially transparency.

He recently sat down with Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley to discuss bots, bias, and Facebook.

JS: What initially got you interested in misinformation?

SW: I first got interested in digital misinformation during the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street—offline protests that made serious use of social media tools like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube to organize and communicate. I noticed, during these protests and participants’ use of digital tools, that the internet wasn’t only getting used for democratic ideals or to aid the people fighting back against authoritarian regimes. In fact, it looked like the regimes and their supporters were also using these same social media platforms in attempts to artificially amplify their own talking points. They were building armies of fake accounts—known as sock puppets and, when automated, political bots—to massively spin things in their favor. A small group of researchers, including my collaborator Philip Howard and I, quickly discovered that these coordinated “computational propaganda” (as we began calling them) campaigns were also being used to attack and defame opposition leaders. Bot armies were simultaneously co-opting the hashtags the activists were using to coordinate and filling them with misinfo, spam and noise—making it so the platforms became less viable tools for communication. After running early analyses on these circumstances, we began to widen our net to focus on whether similar tactics were being used around the globe. The punchline is well known to most people now, but suffice it to say that we found similar tactics being used during almost all online conversations surrounding the elections and other important events we examined—from Australia to Venezuela.

JS: What can we do, John and Jane Q. Public, do to combat it? How can we tell fact from fiction these days?

SW: I think that the public should have hope for several reasons, and also that there are several things we can do to combat misinfo, disinfo, and computational propaganda. First, it’s important to note that the very fact that we are having serious public discussions about the problems associated with misinfo and “fake news” (though I prefer not to use this particular term) is a win for truth. Those who work to spread fiction, for political purposes or otherwise, have a much harder time spreading junk news and other informational garbage when people are savvy to the problem—as some have said, “sunlight is the best disinfectant” when it comes to such issues. When my teammates and I first started studying and reporting on these problems in 2013, it was very difficult to get anyone, let alone tech firms, to pay attention. Now, stories about misinformation are everywhere you look. 

Social media firms are also responding, some more effectively than others. 

There are also tools people can use to track social media bot accounts and false narratives. BotOmeter allows people to plug in Twitter accounts handles and, using numerous parameters, learn if a suspicious account is actually automated. BotCheck.me, from RoBhat Labs in Berkeley, has similar uses. The team at RoBhat also have tools like NewsBotAI, which assesses bias in news articles, Surfsafe.me, which assesses author credibility, and FactCheck.me, which works for cluster automated behaviour and improve response times to misinfo attacks. On top of this, teams at the Center for Media Engagement at UT Austin, FirstDraft, Data and Society, the SMaPP Lab at NYU, the Digital Intelligence Lab at IFTF,  the German Marshall Fund, the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council and others are constantly releasing top notch research and deploying exciting new tools to combat misinformation and bolster solid reporting.

JS: Are our social media channels too far gone? Twitter, I know, recently banned political ads. Will that prove at all effective? Why/why not?

SW: The largest social media companies,Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, etc., face the serious challenge of catching up to a problem that has existed on their platforms for a decade. For the longest time, they were doing little more than deleting the automated accounts they chanced upon. They did not, by their own admission, do nearly enough about the issue of political manipulation on their platforms. They set their sights on growing as fast as possible without thoughts to the informational repercussions that came with this massive scaling. It’s hard for me to see this unfettered growth, alongside the disregard for how they were damaging democratic communication, for anything other than greed and negligence. Finally, though, the executives at the companies are beginning to take responsibility and they are deploying serious resources towards fighting back against misinformation and other forms of manipulation online. 

Really, though, it is the researchers and engineers at these companies who I have the most faith in. They are the ones with the serious know-how, and they’ve shown they want to do something. It was these employees that spoke back against Zuckerberg’s recent move to allow to allow politicians to spread disinformation in Facebook ads in the name of “free speech.” It was them who fought back against (and eventually sunk) predatory payday loan ads and Google’s Project Maven AI drone project with the pentagon. Recent moves by Twitter to ban all political ads, or by Facebook’s near opposite move to allow some forms of political disinformation in ads, feel a little too cut and dry for my taste. These companies are being heavy-handed, likely for the sake of optics and marketing, rather than taking a nuanced approach to the problems. I mean, what exactly constitutes a “political” ad? And how can they allow the most influential among us to spread totally fake narratives? It seems like the companies are trying, and even trying hard, but that they’ve still got a lot of work to do. This makes me wonder, what new social media platforms will arise? How will new channels be built, from day one, in efforts to prevent the flow of misinfo?

JS: Facebook—friend or foe?

SW: Facebook, as I’ve mentioned, has a lot of problems and shoulders a serious share of the blame for the current fractured state of the global information ecosystem. Zuckerberg, Sandberg, and other executives at Facebook have become well known among the tech crowd, from external researchers like me to current and former Facebook employees, for tightly controlling their firm. They would do well to make the process of fixing the problems they’ve helped to create by allowing more democratic input from their own employees and outside experts. They should listen, and listen well, to their research team—which is full of capable, well-trained, social and computer scientists. 

Google also shares a huge share of the blame, but has gotten much less attention, mostly by remaining mum and towing the bogus line that they are “just a search company.” As if the world’s largest search firm hasn’t had a hand in allowing the information we see and consume on their engine to be manipulated and disinformative at several junctures throughout its brief history. They also own YouTube, which researchers like Alice Marwick and Becca Lewis have shown to be rife with white-supremacist, racist, and other seriously problematic content. Google needs to step up in a very big way. Twitter, because of its smaller size, is more a bit player in this drama—though they get a lot of attention because journalists and policy wonks hang out on the platform. In recent months, Twitter has arguably been doing more than its larger rivals to fight back with its political ads ban and other moves. What we chiefly need, though, is more collaboration between the firms. Right now they aren’t taking these issues on as a team. They are still trying to hide their cards from the companies they see as their opponents in the market when really they should be focusing on their opponents in the fight for the truth.

JS: Fake news stories. Twitter bots. Deepfake videos. What’s next on the misinformation front?

SW: I think the next frontiers for misinformation lie in innovations in Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, and extended reality media. I’m also concerned about the realization of individualized political ad targeting and things like politically motivated geofencing. To date, the vast majority of social media bots we’ve seen have been clunky and brutish, usually just massively amplifying likes or re-posts on behalf of one political idea or person or in opposition to another. 

They’re the cheapest tool that has gotten the job done for those hoping to manipulate public opinion. With social media firms stepping up their responses to misinformation, and with innovations and price drops in AI tools, it’s likely we will begin seeing more convincingly human AI accounts. Whether these accounts will actually be able to convince people, rather than polarize and disgust them in the way their clunky-automated brethren have, remains to be seen. But we should be planning for AI to be deployed for manipulative information operations. Also worth thinking about: will AR and VR tools be used to spread propaganda? If so, how? I list examples in my new book of some ways this is already happening in places like China and beyond. We’ve got to get ahead of such uses of our emergent technology before they grow out of hand.

JS: Is technology moving at too fast a rate for us to keep up with it in regards to misinformation? 

SW: Yes and no. Yes, technology is growing too fast and we could really benefit from a “slow” technology movement like that discussed by Janell Burley Hoffman and others. We need a new direction in tech that focuses on thoughtful, ethically-made tools that are built with human rights in mind rather than growth and profit. But no, too, because I’m a firm believer that politics, scandal, and points of concern move like a pendulum. History shows us we tend to swing from one extreme to another, politically, culturally, economically, socially. We are lucky when we exist in times of relative balance. The way technology has allowed disinformation to scale through automation, and the way that features like anonymity prohibit our ability to catch the “bad-guys”—these things are scary but they aren’t insurmountable. Technology is not a runaway train, we aren’t dealing with HAL or Skynet here, we still have control and there are still many, many, things we can do. We can, for instance, built tools with the best features of humanity in mind. We can design for benevolence, equity and fairness. 

JS: What do you suggest the government (local/state/federal) do to stem this tide?

SW: Generate sensible policy! I say “sensible” because many of the attempts I’ve seen, from Europe to Brazil to the US, lack technological viability and tend towards heavy-handedness. We need governments and policy-makers to consult very closely with public interest technologists and social scientists who study technology so that they create laws and regulations that actually combat rather than complicate the problems at hand. I’m proud of politicians and political entities like Mark Warner and the City of Seattle that have worked to actually combat misinformation online. My other caution is, though, that we need systematic regulation to this problem. Fragmented laws—for instance amalgamations of divergent regulation at the local, state and federal levels—could hurt us in getting things done a lot more than they could help.


Learn more when Samuel Woolley talks misinformation on 1/9. Tickets are on sale now.

Sacred Music of the Renaissance(s)

Despite being born nearly 350 years apart, jazz legend Duke Ellington and Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli have more in common than it might seem.

Both Ellington and Giovanni were pivotal influences on the music of the Renaissances taking place during their lives (Harlem Renaissance and Italian High Renaissance, respectively). As well, in the latter portion of their careers both wrote “sacred” music. 

Much of Gabrieli’s music was written to match the acoustics of the halls for which it was composed. His reverent motets and dazzling sonatas would have echoed from the mosaic-covered vaults of Saint Mark’s Basilica and other Venetian churches in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. 

On December 21 Early Music Seattle presents a holiday concert celebrating Gabrieli’s masterful arrangements. They may not have access to the unique layout of Venice’s San Marco church—with its two choir lofts facing each other, which enabled Gabrielli to create striking spatial effects—but certainly the vaulted ceiling and custom-built acoustic reflector of Town Hall’s Great Hall will amplify the effects of dialogue and echo that permeate Gabrielli’s work. 

In much of Gabrieli’s composition, precision is key. Some of his pieces were even written such that certain instruments could be heard clearly from among the entire orchestra. We’re excited to hear how the state-of-the-art acoustics in the Great Hall complement these pieces of musical canon. 

Just as Gabrieli’s compositions were written for large, carefully arranged ensembles, Ellington’s sacred concerts also relied on collaboration—featuring jazz big band, gospel choir, tap dancers, and more. These concerts were no small undertaking, and have rarely been performed live because of the immense number of musicians required. 

Earshot Jazz has been presenting works from Ellington’s three sacred concerts for 30 years, performing pieces which Duke himself considered to be some of his most important creations. They’ll do so again on December 28. Ellington released three albums in his sacred concert series—the first recorded in 1965 and the last recorded in 1973, just six months before his death. Despite the somewhat somber quality of the third concert, Ellington remained proud of his sacred performances, even referring to them as “the most important thing I’ve ever done.” 

Now, after so many decades (or centuries), these two musicians have one more thing in common—their music will be on Town Hall’s stage this month!

Join Early Music Seattle and Earshot Jazz for concerts featuring compositions from two of the most groundbreaking musical minds of their times. Tickets are on sale now.

The American Xenophobia Paradox: A Conversation with Erika Lee

The United States is known as a nation of immigrants—but it is also a nation of xenophobia. Erika Lee,director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, takes the stage at Town Hall on December 10 with an unblinking look at the irrational fear, hatred, and hostility toward immigrants which have been defining features of our nation from the colonial era to the Trump era. Tickets are only $5 (free for anyone under the age of 22) and are available now.

Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley sat down with Lee to briefly discuss political power, racism, and Benjamin Franklin.

JS: What initially got you interested in the topic of xenophobia? 

EL: I have always been fascinated with America’s history of immigration, one that has been marked by both a tradition of welcoming immigrants and a long record of xenophobia – an irrational fear and hatred of immigrants. But the 2016 presidential election and Donald Trump’s explicitly xenophobic campaign still took me by surprise. Then he was elected. My students, many of whom were first generation immigrants and refugees, asked me, “How did this happen?” I didn’t have the answers. I knew that I owed it to my students—and to all Americans—to try and figure this out.

JS: For the layperson, what IS xenophobia?

EL: Coming from the Greek words xenos, which translates into “stranger,” and phobos, which means either “fear” or “flight,” xenophobia  literally means fear and hatred of foreigners. But I think that it is important to think about xenophobia beyond this literal translation. It is an ideology: a set of beliefs and ideas based on the premise that foreigners are threats to the nation and its people. It promotes an irrational fear and hatred of immigrants and demonizes foreigners (and, crucially, people considered to be “foreign” or outsiders). And it is a form of racism; it defines certain groups as racial and religious others who are inherently inferior or dangerous—or both—and demonizes them as a group based on these presumptions. When we think about xenophobia in these ways, it becomes clear that it is not only about immigration; it is about who has the power to define what it means to be American, who gets to enjoy the privileges of American citizenship, and who does not.

JS: As a nation of immigrants, why the paradox? Why do we fear the very thing we are supposedly proud of?

EL: This is one of the biggest puzzles that I try to figure out. The U.S. is indeed a “nation of immigrants;” a nation built by immigration. And while we have allowed generations of immigrants to come to the United States, that welcome has not always been uniform across groups; nor has it translated into full equality. There have always some groups that we have been wary of; to the point of demonizing them and labeling them threats to the United States and to the American people. Whom we have welcomed or banned has often been defined by race. European immigrants—while not uniformly embraced into the United States—have certainly faced less systemic xenophobia and discrimination than non-Europeans. When we understand xenophobia as a form of racism, this paradox, I think, is easier to understand.

JS: How does xenophobia work? Why does it endure? Who does it benefit?

EL: Xenophobia is often understood as something that rises and falls depending on what is going on in the United States. When our economy is good, when we are at peace, when we are unified as a country, we are more welcoming. When we are suffering through an economic downturn, are at war, or fractured as a society, we are not welcoming. 

History shows that while economic and other concerns certainly help to make xenophobia thrive, it is not just an inevitable consequence of national anxieties. It is actively promoted by special interests in the pursuit of political power. It has also endured because it has been an indelible part of American racism, white supremacy, and nationalism, and because it has been supported by American capitalism and democracy. And it has succeeded through repetition. Targeting and discriminating against one group of immigrants makes it easier (and normal) to do it against others. Even as Americans have realized that the threats allegedly posed by immigrants were, in hindsight, unjustified, they have allowed xenophobia to become an American tradition.

JS: You note how Benjamin Franklin ridiculed Germans for being “strange.” Did the Founding Fathers have the thought that they could very well be “strange” to the native populations being immigrants themselves? 

EL: In fact, it worked in the opposite way. America’s white settlers did not think of themselves as “foreigners” or “immigrants” in the same way that we use the terms today. They believed they were destined to possess and rule over the lands that became American colonies and the United States. They identified Native Americans and African Americans as America’s first “others;” those who were threats to the colonies and then the United States because they were unfit to American citizenship and racially inferior. 

JS: Chinese exclusions, Japanese internment camps, the Muslim ban – we have a long history of negative treatment towards immigrants. How/why do we target certain populations at certain times? What are the ingredients to cause this hysteria?

EL: Xenophobia thrives best in certain contexts, such as periods of rapid economic and demographic change, war, and cultural conflict. This, in part, helps to explain why and how we have targeted Chinese, Japanese, and Muslim immigrants. The anti-Chinese movement spread during the economic recession during the 1870s; the incarceration of Japanese Americans and the targeting of Muslims in America happened during World War Two and after 9/11. 

But xenophobia is also about racism and political power. Chinese, Japanese, and Muslims have all been portrayed as inherently more foreign, and thus, more dangerous than other immigrant groups. As such they have been targeted for racially discriminatory policies like African Americans and Native Americans. And the campaigns against them—especially the anti-Chinese and anti-Muslim ones—have been actively promoted by politicians as part of larger political agendas and as a way to mobilize voters. 

JS: Are we making progress as a society to eradicate it?   

EL: I’m sorry to say that at the end of writing this book, I am much less hopeful that I was at the start. The Trump era has revealed just how powerful and effective xenophobia remains in the United States. 

JS: What can a citizen do to help in this regard? 

EL: I believe that the first step is to understand how our anti-immigrant attitudes and laws have been steeped in racism then and now. In the past, we used explicitly racist language. Today, code words like “law and order” and “national security” obscure policies that are still racist in their intent and execution. 

Another concrete action that we can all take is to remain informed about immigration issues and how immigration works so that we can be prepared to recognize “fake news,” mistruths, and distorted facts.

We also need to be resolved to the idea that solving xenophobia will not happen overnight. This is a much bigger and deeper problem than just electing a new president. It is deeply rooted in our worldview, our politics, and our laws. 

Lastly, we can all get involved. There has been a tremendous backlash to Trump era immigration policies. If you agree that this administration’s approach to immigration is hurting, rather than helping our country, then let your voice (and your vote) be heard. 

Hear Lee speak more about xenophobia at Town Hall on December 10. Learn more here.

Parking Driving You Crazy? Some Ideas for Getting Yourself to Town Hall

We hear you. We really do. Parking in this city can be a bear and Town Hall is situated smack dab in the middle of the city on First Hill at 1119 8th Avenue with construction continuing on our block as they build a new park and a pair of elegant apartment towers next door. What to do?!

Some thoughts:

Public Transit

Metro Route #2 stops right next to our building and we’re just 4 blocks from the 3rd and University light rail station.

Biking

We have 14 bike parking spots on the corner of 8th and Seneca. There are also a plethora of bike share options out there. I suppose the question you need to ask yourself is what color bike do you like best?

Walking

It’s good for you!

Luxury blimps

They haven’t quite hit the Seattle market, I’m afraid.

Drive and park

We understand a lot of these options may not be feasible for you. Driving to the venue and parking close by is often the only answer. Unfortunately, there is no on-site parking at our venue—but street parking is available. We are also located near several parking garages. These include the Washington State Convention Center, Crowne Plaza, and the Buck Garage, amongst others.

For a more comprehensive list of parking options you can go to our website here.

We will be sure to keep you informed if we ever offer blimp service. We agree it would be a pretty cool way to beat this whole Seattle traffic racket. Thank you for your understanding, and we hope to see you soon at one of our upcoming events! You can see our full calendar here.

Calling All Teachers—Make Town Hall a Part of Your Curriculum!

Everyone deserves access to creativity and big ideas. That’s one of the founding ideas that drives Town Hall’s programming, but we think it should be true even beyond the stage. Here’s a look at some of the resources Town Hall offers for local educators all across Seattle.

This September we launched our 22 & Under program, and now all Town Hall-produced events (everything listed as Science, Civics, or Arts & Culture) are FREE for everyone age 22 and under. If you’re interested in checking out which events are free for youth, take a look at the 22 & Under page on our website. 

Town Hall is also a great source of classroom tools. Our extensive media archives and YouTube page host volumes of talks and events from previous years on every subject under the sun. In addition to online resources, you can also contact us to request classroom sets of books (in sets of 30!) from previous Town Hall talks. Plus, we offer series cards with either the Color Wheel, Branches of Government, or Periodic Table (matching up with our Arts & Culture, Civics, and Science series) that can be used as teaching tools or even just cool bookmarks.

Whether you’re a student or a teacher, you can visit our 22 & Under page to sign up on our mailing list.

Keep working to further your education—or make Town Hall the destination for your next field trip!

A Light Conversation with Shannon Perry

There’s more to see at Town Hall aside from the plethora of events that we have taking place (you can check out our calendar here). There is art to see. Town Hall commissioned several artists to create permanent pieces that can be found throughout our building. In the southwest stairwell, for instance, you’ll see artwork on light boxes done by Shannon Perry.

Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley recently sat down with Perry to discuss babies, glass powder, and tattoos.

JS: How did you become aware/get introduced to Town Hall?

SP: I’ve been attending talks, book releases, and concerts at Town Hall for years. The arts and literature community got me acquainted with the space originally. 

JS: Why did you want to work with Town Hall with your art?

SP: Town Hall provides space for such a diverse array of talented performers, authors, and artists from all over the world. I’m proud to have my art featured in the space. 

JS: What was the inspiration for your Town Hall artwork?

SP: I was pregnant while working on this project and gave birth shortly after I completed the drawings. It was a massively transitional time for me and my identity was torn between my rebellious pre-motherhood life and wanting to provide a stable, structured environment for my son without losing touch with the theatrical idealism of youth. The recurring vine is representative of life marching ever onward, and the vignettes placed throughout mark moments  of feeling within that timeline viewed from this new and intimidating precipice. More generally, it’s about growth. The piece is a reflection, both on Town Hall’s redevelopment and the experiences I’ve had there—and the different perspectives I’ve had at each event over the years crystalized into a sort of floating timeline.

JS: What was your favorite thing about creating this piece?

SP: I got to work with a great team of people, most specifically Bradley Sweek of Amiga Light, who has been a longtime mentor to me. Seeing my illustrations screen-printed with glass powder and melted into glass felt really special and permanent. I’m a tattoo artist by trade, so I work with permanent art all the time but being able to hold the glass and feel the tangible weight of it was a super gratifying experience.

JS: What was the most challenging thing about this project?

SP: This project helped expand my skill set to making larger pieces of work that are fleshed out over time. Typically I work on pieces I can finish in one or two sittings, due to the constraints of creating art on people’s bodies. I’m excited to see what new projects I will create as a result of finding out how much I enjoyed moving into a larger and more tangible framework!

JS: What do you hope Town Hall attendees get from the piece?

SP: I hope they can create their own stories and experiences with it. Most of all, I hope the humorous aspects of some of the themes will serve as a wink to children, punks, misfits and grandmothers alike.


JS: What’s next, artistically, for you?

SP: I’m working on a series of screen prints of new illustrations, some of which I’d love to eventually see turn into murals, or possibly a children’s book for all ages? I am always excited to see what the future brings, at least pertaining to making art!

Waxing Poetic with Sarah Galvin

There’s more to see at Town Hall aside from the plethora of events that we have taking place (you can check out our calendar here). There is art to see. Town Hall commissioned several artists to create permanent pieces that can be found throughout our building. In the south stairwell, for instance, you’ll see a poem written by local literary luminary Sarah Galvin.

Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley recently sat down with Galvin to discuss her process, the poem, and gargoyle people.

JS: What’s your arts background?

SG: I started writing seriously in second grade. I was obsessed with Lord of the Rings and Narnia, and tried to write a novel about gargoyle people living on a planet made of ice cream. People told me I might be older when I finally got to publish, and I remember feeling so frustrated. I wanted to publish a book RIGHT NOW. I think as a service to little kid me I will actually try to publish that book, which was about 90 pages long, at some point. I started writing poetry when I was 14, after reading Ginsberg’s “Howl.” I was very into stream of consciousness writing at that age and what came out of that obsession was terrible. At 16 I began going to performances by this one-man-band called Sexually Active Corpse. SAC, a man named Will Waley, sang pornographic, surreal nursery rhymes over beats made with a Casio and an assortment of children’s instruments. My first real poems were sort of an imitation of his lyrics, which listed the hypersexual, surreal behaviors of a multi-gendered “speaker” with the ability to change bodies and travel through time, among other magic powers. The poems inspired by Will were also terrible. I finally began to write real poems when I realized that music, a beat, and a tune provided Will’s art a layer of meaning and a source of momentum that I needed to create somehow silently on the page. My first source of guidance for this was Joe Wenderoth’s “Letters to Wendy’s” which is (depending on who you ask) an epistolary novel or a series of poems using Wendy’s restaurant comment cards as a formal template. After gaining a rudimentary understanding of how to structure prose poems from “Letters to Wendy’s,” I started reading all the poetry I could find, and picked up techniques as I read.

JS: How did you become aware/get introduced to Town Hall?

SG: After I was accepted to University of Washington’s poetry MFA program, I went to see my soon-to-be thesis advisor, Heather McHugh, read at Town Hall. I had been freelancing at The Stranger, and when I walked into the auditorium, several people I knew from the paper smiled at me and beckoned to me to enter the room. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. I started to cry. I saw Heather, up on the stage, dressed as a bird in a flesh-colored spandex bodysuit, and all these people from the paper I could hardly believe had admitted me to work with them, and thought, “how do I deserve to be in this beautiful place with these geniuses? How can this be where I belong?” Ever since that night, I have had tender and reverent feelings about Town Hall. I believe it is a cathedral of art in Seattle.

JS: Why did you want to work with Town Hall with your poetry?

SG: It was an incredible honor, given my first experience of that space and what it has come to symbolize to me, to be asked to contribute a poem to be permanently on view there. I felt like I was completing something that began the first time I walked into Town Hall, answering for myself the question of whether I really could create anything worthy of the space. It is a magical place for me, in a way, the place where I went in a few steps from making a child’s art to making grown-up art. Town Hall for me has always physically manifested a right of passage. I was a student, now I hope it’s time for me to teach, to beckon the next generation of artists into that grand hall.

THE STREET LIGHT TODAY IS AN ANGEL OF THE LORD

Because you had never seen a seagull, your description of the one
that flew into the store where you worked inspired
the manager to call the police.

I want everything to be like that bird, so overwhelmingly itself
that it is its own spotlight,

but 90% of things are the guy sitting next to me who punctuates
statements like “I’ll pull together some numbers for you” by
pounding the table so hard, my coffee bounces.

His animation lacks the meaning of emotion it references, like
an elaborate set with no play.

There are so many sets. The absence of a play seems like an emergency,
considering the amount of wasted resources,

but there’s not really anyone to call
about that kind of emergency, which perhaps is
why people pray.

JS: What was the inspiration for the piece?

SG: Richard Kenney, one of my professors in grad school, was talking about poets in a lecture. He said something about how people look at poets like they’re crazy in their exaltation of mundane moments. Something like: “Without poetry, you walk up to somebody and say, ‘the streetlight today is an angel of the lord,” and they think you’re nuts. But you really saw that.” Exaltation of mundane moments is what poetry is all about. The primary project of art in any medium is to lift the veil of familiarity from life, which we need in order to function (imagine being blown away by every streetlight! You would never make it home from work.) When art works it makes every experience it exhibits feel like you’re experiencing it as a child again. Shortly after I met my wife five years ago, she said when she first got to Seattle as a teenager she worked at Urban Outfitters, and one day a seagull came into the store. Being from North Carolina, she had never seen one of our gigantic stretch Hummer seagulls before, so she called security and told them a “large waterfowl” had entered the building, and they better come quick. They of course laughed when they saw it was just a giant Dick’s fries-fed Seattle Seagull. It’s a love poem—I adored the exaltation of something familiar in her response to the trespassing seagull. Over and over, she makes my world new, gives me inspiration, and this poem expresses that facet of our love. Art is the core of our relationship in a lot of ways.

JS: What’s your process with your poetry? Is it systematic (specific times/places you write)? How much editing do you do after? 

SG: I usually start with words from a conversation I found interesting. In this case it was Richard Kenney’s lecture. But it can be a sentence from a dream, something from social media, a poorly translated restaurant menu. I don’t think initially about what it “means,” I just follow a train of associations to create the poem. It feels like a desire to answer a question, like, what did that random sentence mean to me? Why do I keep thinking about this image? And because of the inspiration, my poems usually get their momentum from a poetic device called “anaphora” in which the same image or concept recurs and develops throughout a poem. I will write for four or five hours, finessing the same small set of words, then let the draft sit for a week or two, after which I dive back in for an intense round of editing that lasts vastly different lengths of times based on the length and complexity of the poem. Very occasionally, a poem just appears in 20 minutes in exactly the form it should be.

JS: Are there specific messages you’re wanting to convey in your work or are you opening it up to readers to give their own interpretations?

SG: I would say I hope the readers wind up in a similar emotional space after reading my poems, but I want that to be specific and personal to each of them. I want them to finish the poems with a sense of conclusion, yet with more questions than they had before they started reading. And I want them to feel deeply excited by the questions. You know how when people in cartoons turn invisible, sometimes somebody throws flour or a sheet over them and you can see someone’s there? That’s how poetry works for me. It outlines meanings that are too complex to be directly expressed with words. But I try to make the poems accessible—I want every reader to see that the invisible cartoon character is Donald Duck and not Mickey, even if they see an outline and not all of his features. It’s not language poetry, which tries to de-commodify poetry by completely relying on the reader to create meaning.

JS: What do you hope Town Hall attendees get from this particular piece?

SG: Well, as I mentioned the only words that can express what a poem is “about” are the exact words of the poem itself—I’m fond of the idea that “poetry is ‘about’ something the way a cat is ‘about’ the house—but this one is about love, and how when you really love someone, their day-to-day experiences fill you with wonder, awe and endearment. It’s also about how, as humans living through late-stage capitalism, we spend much of our time trapped in a sort of quantitative experience of life, and the little moments of love and art that free us from that. I hope people will read the poem and feel a renewed appreciation for the people they love and the moments of beauty those people bring. I hope they feel compelled to tell the important people in their lives they love them, and to make art.

JS: What’s next, artistically, for you?

SG: I just finished a new manuscript, which I sent to Black Ocean, the press that absorbed my previous press Gramma’s catalogue (which includes my most recent book, Ugly Time) when they closed down. I’ve been teaching a bit and want to teach way more! I love it. I just pitched a few classes to Hugo House, and ideally at some point I’d love to teach a class or two a quarter at Cornish, UW, or Central. I’ve been looking into how to make that happen. I also teach one-on-one writing lessons, so if you’re reading this and are interested, get in touch with me through my website! For those of you who have taken my classes, I’m sorry to say the price of the class no longer includes unlimited Jell-o shots, as I stopped drinking a year ago, but there will probably still be candy. Also, I like to write at least a couple of essays or reviews a month, and at the moment I have nowhere to publish them, so I’m looking for a publication to freelance regularly for. Oh, and I turned my blog, the Pedestretarian, a series of reviews of food found on the ground, into an Instagram, and I may either find a publication that will publish the reviews as a regular column, or start my own little printed publication. I’m also working on a book of essays.

Behind the Otto Bar

Otto Haas moved to Philadelphia in 1909 from Germany to expand his company, Rohm and Haas, which became wildly successful. In 1945 he used some of his wealth to start a foundation to address post-war social needs, and his children and grandchildren have continued his philanthropic legacy. His grandson thinks Otto would have felt very at home at Town Hall: “Otto cared so deeply about his local community, and he made sure no one was ever left behind. He would appreciate Town Hall’s commitment to making a place where everyone is welcome and can afford to take part.”

Otto’s commitment to his community was evidenced throughout his life, work, and approach to running his business. He believed it was his responsibility to ensure that his employees could live a good life. During the Depression, he worked hard to make sure no one ever lost their job. As Duncan noted “They might have to make do with a different role for a little while, but he did whatever it took to make sure their livelihoods were secure.”

Outside of public life, Otto was known for his mischievous sense of humor, love of the outdoors, and gathering with his family. Town Hall is grateful for the opportunity to honor his memory in our own gathering space, the Otto bar in the Wyncote Foundation NW Forum.

Portrait of Otto Haas by Kathryn Rathke.

Town Hall’s Feeling Jazzed

October at Town Hall kicks off with the 31st annual Earshot Jazz Festival. The season’s lineup is diverse and eclectic, with everything from classic swing sounds to avant garde experimentation and collaborations by modern masters. Here are just a few of the jazz offerings you’ll find at Town Hall this month.

10/6 – Trailblazing trumpeter Bria Skonberg has been described as “one of the most versatile and imposing musicians of her generation” (Wall Street Journal). Whether you’re looking for a sound that evokes Louis Armstrong, or just curious to see a Millennial take on the world of hot jazz, this concert is not to be missed!

10/12Two powerhouse duos shake the stage on this Saturday night. First, witness the collision of two definitive styles, with the expressive improvisational vocals of Fay Victor alongside the practiced elegance of pianist Myra Melford. They’re followed by Indian-born jazz drummer and producer Ravish Momin and Haitian percussionist and turntablist Val Jeanty for a hypnotic and genre-exploding electronic exploration of jazz rhythm. 

10/17 – Some consider Cuban pianist and composer Chucho Valdés to be the most influential figure in modern Afro-Cuban jazz. He’s brought that energy to his latest project, a piano jazz trio that integrates the sounds of the sacred batá drum, a central feature of ritual music in the Yoruba religion. Experience the latest project of a jazz master who’s been shaping his school of music for over 50 years.

10/25 – Drummer Tyshawn Sorey is no stranger to Town Hall. He was onstage at the Cornish Playhouse in March, 2018 for the Summit In Seattle, a historic collaboration alongside three other movers and shakers of the modern jazz world. Now he takes the stage for the first time back in Town Hall’s newly renovated building to bring the house down with the help of his hand-picked quintet.

11/1 – It’s delightfully challenging to even begin to describe the 18-piece Belgian ensemble Flat Earth Society. Despite their size the group doesn’t play like a jazz orchestra or a Big Band. Their eclectic sound defies expectation, and that seems to be the way they like it. There’s nothing else for it, except to experience this provocative, disruptive, and utterly absurd performance for yourself.

Can’t get enough Earshot at Town Hall? Check out the full lineup below or click here!

10/5 – Jazz Showcase: Jacqueline Tabor, Marina Albero, Mandyck/ Johnson/ Bishop

10/6 – Bria Skonberg Quartet

10/10 – Jazz Up Jackson Street: Benefit for Washington Middle School & Garfield High School 

10/11 – Orrin Evans Trio with Jeff “Tain” Watts

10/12 – Afro-Electric: Fay Victor and Myra Melford, Ravish Momin and Val Jeanty

10/15 – Seattle Modern Orchestra

10/17 – Chucho Valdés Jazz Batá

10/18 – Cécile McLorin Salvant with the Aaron Diehl Trio

10/21 – Anton Schwartz Sextet

10/23 – Jay Thomas East West Alliance

10/24 – Jenny Scheinman and Allison Miller’s Parlour Game

10/25 – Tyshawn Sorey Quintet

10/26 – Kiki Valera y su Son Cubano

10/30 – Egberto Gismonti

11/1 – Flat Earth Society

11/2 – Jazz Showcase: Bill Anschell Standards Trio, LaVon Hardison, Tarik Abouzied/Joe Doria/Cole Schuster

11/5 – Emmet Cohen Trio

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