Joseph Riippi’s emotionally searing writing serves as an exhaustive overview of whatever subject he chooses to write about. In Because, that subject was himself. In the chapbook Puyallup, Washington: An Interrogation, out now on Publishing Genius, his subject is the city of the title. Throughout, Riippi delves into the city’s occasionally improbable history, along with its precarious location. I checked in with Riippi via email to learn more about the chapbook’s origins and its connection to his other recent work.
You’ve said that this chapbook is something of a companion volume to Because. What was your initial impetus to write it?
I started writing Puyallup… as a kind of distraction. I always seem to have a project I’ve got on the front burner and then another I’d rather be writing on the back, and Puyallup… was the “rather be” project for a long time while writing Because. After I finished the first draft of Because (when it was still about three times the length it would be in the end, just a mess of “I want” sentences in a single 100k-word paragraph of catharsis) I was pretty much emptied of sentiment and any real emotive, self-driven writing. So I wanted to take a break for a couple weeks, switch burners and cook up something that was more calculated and outside myself. In that sense I think of Puyallup as the exact opposite book of Because, but since I wrote them at more or less the same time, I see them as opposite sides of the same coin, companions.
How much of Puyallup’s history were you already aware of before starting to write this?
I knew the broad strokes. I knew Ezra Meeker founded the town because it’s taught in grade school in Puyallup. Plus, the town is only three or four generations old, a lot of the original families still live there. I went to junior high with a kid named Meeker; I worked on a berry farm every summer from sixth grade on and so met a lot of farmers with family trees rooted in the town’s founding. Other things, like the Puyallup Fairgrounds and the Puyallup Indian Reservation, I knew some history but hadn’t really dug beyond the surface. And what I knew was all the oral myth, stories people told about renovated houses or farmland. “Ezra Meeker once slept here”; “Ezra Meeker used to grow barley on this acreage.” But I’d never actually looked things up in archives and such. Never really needed to. I guess you could say I knew the first sentence of each of the pages, but after that needed help.
When did you realize that Ezra Meeker was going to recur as a figure throughout the chapbook?
I knew I wanted to start with Meeker because he was the original founder of the town. Beginning with him and the Puyallup Tribe made sense, if only because chronology dictated as such. But as I dug into Meeker he just got more and more interesting. Even as I was looking up stuff about the Indian Treaties and so forth, Meeker kept showing up as a juror in a trial, a witness, something. I remember giggling at the ridiculousness of how things just fell into place; a couple days into it I was reading something completely unrelated for fun, this book of New York history, and I came across a mention of Ezra Meeker taking a team of oxen and a prairie schooner down Broadway in Manhattan, across the Brooklyn Bridge
. I wish there were photographs of that, it was just like, “Come on!” Plus, Ezra looks like Walt Whitman, so he’s just too good of a character not to let drive the thing. Especially in Edward Mullany’s illustration of him in the book.
What was the process like of deciding to publish this as a chapbook, rather than in another form?
It was never going to have the length to become a full book, so that was off the table. I just wanted to make something that would give a reader a quick hit, a single sitting impression of the town. A little standalone pamphlet seemed perfect, almost like one of those travel guides you might get in a museum shop or at an airport. One of the goals with the book was to illuminate the tension between the extremely detailed information that exists about any town (latitude/longitude, census data, etc.) and the fact that every town has that sort of profile. Think about those “Top Ten” travel guides—they’re all about completely unique places, but all have the same exact format and size; you can say “there’s no place like home,” except every place is home to someone.
Also, after spending a lot of time looking at these great archival photographs online, I really wanted modern illustrations for it. Edward Mullany was kind enough to jump in and do the cover and a few drawings—I just love how that turned out. At the same time I sent the text to Adam Robinson for advice on what to do with the thing, and he ended up doing it with Chapbook Genius to coincide with AWP in Seattle (about thirty miles from Puyallup). Lucky timing, again.
Washington State has loomed large in both this and Because; do you see yourself revisiting it again in anything you’re working on now?
I’ve got a novel coming out October called Research: A Novel for Performance, and the word “Washington” doesn’t even appear. (I’ll admit, though, I just had to check). The novel I’m writing now takes place partly in the Northwest, but more in a retrospective way, and unnameably so. But I grew up there; the northwest is a special place. I’ve got blood in the dirt there. I can’t imagine I won’t write about it again.