Circa 1991, after I had just gotten off work and boarded the #7 bus for Capitol Hill, I sat down next to a middle-aged man and began reading a small red book titled American Ones, a collection of prose poems by Clark Coolidge. The man asked me if it was a good book.
The question startled me, because most people in America pay no attention to books, much less poetry, much less poetry this clinkered and anfractuous. Yes, I answered enthusiastically. The man turned out to be Herb Levy, a pivotal member of Seattle's alternative-music and experimental-writing community.
Herb invited me to get together with poet Robert Mittenthal, who was equally enthusiastic about the writers represented in anthologies such as Douglas Messerli's Language Poetries.
I had been reading poets like Coolidge and Bruce Andrews in isolation. Now I had people to talk to. It was like finding a lost civilization whose customs and values are peculiarly familiar to you. Poets Nico Vassilakis and Ezra Mark entered the scene, the original two who came up with the idea for Subtext.
In 1993, I published Remixsponse Categoriarray, a book of verbo-visual responses to a list of invented and imagined categories. The Seattle participants to this project were so interesting that it made me think—why aren't these writers and poets more visible, available, and recognized in their own community? Also, at the time, I was day-dad to my infant son, Quixote, and was in need of adult social interaction. So, with the help of Ezra Mark, I started Subtext.
When Belltown was still a neighborhood with package liquor stores, not fancy restaurants, Nico Vassilakis coordinated a reading there in a now-defunct bookstore called Signature Bound. I think I went because Stacey Levine was reading. I bought the little book Nico made, called SUBTEXT—a little red book, stapled, and the front page says: "Subtext Reading Series, Number one, l994."
I first attended Subtext in the early '90s at the Speakeasy coffee shop, where billiard balls falling on the ceiling from the 211 Club upstairs punctuated many readings. I'd be sitting there in the dark, with a beer, trying to make sense of these incredibly convoluted pieces, and I'd be thinking that if I ever finished this novel I was starting where no word could be used more than once—Never Again—at least I might be able to present it for these people.
One of the first Subtext readings I went to was at the back room of the old Speakeasy coffeehouse on Second Avenue in Belltown—before it burned and before property was at such a premium down there. Ezra was reading some languagey-style poetry off these index cards. He had a thing going there for a while in which he would pronounce lines backward—like the words themselves backward.
One of the most memorable Subtext readings I went to was Dale Going at the Hugo House in 1999. It was the night the police moved the WTO riots up to Capitol Hill, so there were those Darth Vader police guys in the street, tear-gas canisters exploding, tanks rumbling, people yelling, sirens blaring. It was spooky.
Every once in a while Dale would look up, out the window, at what was happening, but the reading went on. It was one of the sparse Subtext affairs, 15 or 20 people. I know I'll never see another reading like that again in my life.
I reckon I have been to more events there than any other reading series. I am disconsolate! Stricken! Woeful! that they are moving off Capitol Hill. I probably won't go so much anymore, because I mostly go to events I can walk to.
After something like seven years, we're grateful to the Hugo House, but it does makes sense to change. And in fact, we're happy about it. We're more aesthetically in synch with Nonsequitur, a new music-presenting organization that is sponsoring us at the Good Shepherd Center. Though it hurts to leave Capitol Hill, it feels right to be collaborating with an organization fully in tune with our aesthetics.
The ceiling is at least three times higher.
The Subtext Collective's inaugural reading at the Good Shepherd Center (4649 Sunnyside Ave N), marking the series' 13th anniversary, will take place Wed June 6 at 7:30 pm.