Every Thursday, Ooligan Press invites a poet whose work is included in Alive at the Center, our forthcoming anthology of poetry from Pacific Northwest writers, to blog for us. This week, we are pleased to feature Kevin Craft, a poet from Seattle, WA. Please enjoy his post!
A Year (And Twenty) in Seattle Letters
Even before I moved to Seattle in the fall of 1993, I knew the first order of business for a writer newly arrived in the Northwest was to pay a visit to the great Elliott Bay Book Company store in Pioneer Square. Indie bookstores were still thriving in Seattle then, along with flannel shirts and grunge guitars, and everyone west of the Mississippi knew that Elliott Bay was among the biggest and best—not least for the torrential schedule of public readings they maintained, sometimes hosting three or four per day. Book groups and magazine staffs used it as a meeting space. Twenty years ago, as a central hub for literary community, Elliott Bay Books was the main game in town.
One of the first poets I saw there was Philip Levine. He was at the peak of popularity then, the buzz of his National Book Award for What Work Is still chasing him around, and the reading was well attended. At Elliott Bay Books, to get to the readings, one descended into an underworld of brickwork and bookshelves lining a spacious cellar room adjacent to a serviceable café. If the reading room was full, as it was that winter night, crowds would spill out into the café, squeezing into odd sightlines for a view of the stage. As Levine peeled off poems from The Simple Truth (which went on to win the Pulitzer in 1994), I remember thinking that the grist in his thin voice was perfectly pitched to the basement gallery in which we were huddled. There we were, denizens of the old underground city, street level to the original Pioneer Square, listening intently as a new city rose up around us—a city of brick and breath and word.
This was before Richard Hugo House had opened its doors, or Northwest Bookfest, or Town Hall. Open Books (at a site further west on 45th) was not yet the sleek, warm, poetry-focused institution it is today. Seattle Arts & Lectures was still in its infancy, bringing a handful of prominent writers to town each year, with the Poetry Series and other expansions still a few years off. There was Castalia at the University of Washington and Red Sky Poetry Theatre on Capitol Hill. The highlight of the literary calendar for many poetry readers was the UW Roethke Reading each May (Galway Kinnell packed Kane Hall in May 1994), and Bumbershoot in September, which at that time still had a vibrant literary festival and book fair stitched into its jam-packed schedule. In retrospect, it seems like the end of an era. Very soon thereafter, Amazon came online. Indie bookstores struggled in its wake. Meanwhile, all the major institutions noted above began transforming Seattle into the busy writer’s town it is today.
Here’s a claim I hear oft-repeated: that poetry is irrelevant, losing ground in our noisy media culture—indeed, that poetry is dying. Looking back on this boom in Seattle literary culture, it certainly doesn’t seem so to me. Nor do I think Seattle is exceptional in this regard. Other cities have undergone similar expansion in the literary understory and canopy alike. I’d argue that poetry has never been more popular in the history of the planet, except maybe for the time when it was the only game, sitting around a hunter-gathered campfire or on the pebble beach of an Aegean island. And in the spaces we now inhabit, online, all writers can be their own editor, publisher and audience, all at once. The web has aided and abetted the proliferation of poetry, as it has with all the arts, for better and for worse.
On this last point, I am glad to live in a city where the physical nature of literary community, even literary ceremony, still means a lot. To judge by the calendar of events, we enjoy getting out, rubbing shoulders, hearing writers young and old hawk their wares. This past year alone, Seattle has witnessed a steady stream of exceptional events in a variety of venues, suggesting the irrepressible vitality (not to say promiscuity) of verse culture. Even as more reading series and festivals tumble out of our social networks and spill into the bars, cafés, and streets, it’s worth pausing to celebrate the energy and selfless devotion that goes into producing these public engagements.
For my money, the highlight of 2012 in poetry readings was Dean Young’s appearance in October at Seattle Arts & Lectures. It was the first reading he’d given in three years, the first since his heart replacement surgery, and the poignancy of his public reemergence hung in the air. As a speaker, Young was wry, casually profound, offhandedly insightful, just like his poems on the page, which—because of what he calls their “speed of association,” their surrealist quirks and turns—are as suited to the digital age as Levine’s poems were to the Reagan era. I felt his voice make a giant living room of Benaroya Hall, heard the audience (a full house) laugh and lean forward, as one. That moment in the after-reading interview when he thumped his chest with mock bravado and then, catching himself as the audience gasped, said, “Whoa, I guess I need to be more careful with that,” was pure arterial catharsis. With one beat, we all had our hearts replaced.
Up the hill, at Richard Hugo House (which welcomed new Executive Director Tree Swenson back to the Northwest in April 2012) the Literary Series continued to flourish, pairing writers with musicians and other performers to create and present new work around a specific theme. Begging no questions, local favorite and national hero Heather McHugh made a memorable appearance there in February to riff on the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” though she saved her best self for the public launch of her new philanthropic organization, Caregifted. At Caregifted, she devotes her prodigious energies to calling attention to those (mostly invisible in the public sphere) who spend their lives caring for others, and giving them a little creative time away for themselves. The opening event, at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in September, featured the duet of Robert Pinsky and jazz pianist Robert Hobgood, and demonstrated how poetry is first and foremost an instrument of compassion, that the fundamental generosity of the arts is the bedrock of true community.
Elsewhere, Castalia continues to hold its own, and has, by moving off-campus and into the Hugo House’s cabaret space, reinvented itself as one of the city’s liveliest events. Established by Nelson Bentley in 1970, it is one of the longest running reading series anywhere (though perhaps it’s time for them to branch out a bit and break with the now familiar formula of featuring a UW faculty member in every reading). Along with Cheap Wine & Poetry, Hugo House’s homegrown series, it is one of the biggest draws in town each month.
The Seattle Public Library often hosts civic-minded readings in the downtown center’s steep-seated auditorium. In March, they produced a very fine tribute to Chinese dissident poet and Nobel-prizewinner Lui Xiaobo. This bilingual reading took place simultaneously with readings around the globe, to build and publicize a community of solidarity with the imprisoned poet. Among the non-uses of poetry, nonviolent protest remains a potent subterranean force, witnessing (if not immediately rectifying) injustices, recording them into our cultural accounts. The Seattle reading was headlined by new Washington state Poet Laureate Kathleen Flenniken, whose debut reading at Open Books later that month for her second book, Plume, produced a chain reaction of its own among the crowd packed into that radiant room.
Several marathon-style readings stood out to mark our long northern summer days: In June, over the course of twenty-four hours, day and night, Jack Straw celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with dozens of writers who’ve participated in their radio programs; and, in September, Richard Hugo House made the case for “change” with 100,000 other poets around the country, though—after five nonstop lively hours—one could be forgiven for thinking most of them reside in the Northwest.
In May, Poetry Northwest brought the Kate Tufts award-winning poet Katherine Larson to read at its “Big Bang” Science-Po Symposium (which took place in several locations, from Capitol Hill to the Everett Waterfront) mapping out another kind of literary community by exploring ways in which the languages of poetry and science overlap. And in December, at Hugo House again, between a book fair and a champagne toast, Copper Canyon Press marked its fortieth anniversary with a string of guests reading selections from its deep catalogue. The focus of this event was not so much the people involved in the press, but squarely (and roundly) on the act of reading itself. Warm and sociable, the occasion manifested not just end-of-year holiday spirit, but the physical extension and camaraderie of the page.
Kevin Craft lives in Seattle and coordinates the Written Arts Program at Everett Community College.
His first book, Solar Prominence (2005), was selected by Vern Rutsala for the Gorsline Prize from Cloudbank Books. He has also edited and published five volumes of the anthology Mare Nostrum, an anthology of Mediterranean-inspired writing. His poems, reviews, and essays have appeared widely in such places as Poetry, AGNI, Verse, Ninth Letter, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southwest Review, The Stranger, and West Branch. A Bread Loaf Scholar in 1996, he has been awarded fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Bogliasco Foundation (Italy), the Camargo Foundation (France), 4Culture, and Artist Trust.
Craft is the current Editor of Poetry Northwest, the region’s oldest literary magazine. He has also served as Director of the University of Washington’s Creative Writing in Rome Program since 2003.
Kevin’s poem “Vagrants & Accidentals” will be featured in the complete Alive at the Center anthology as well as the Seattle edition. Both books will be available April 1, 2013.