Rite of Spring
With APRIL, Seattle Gets the Quality Book Festival It Deserves
Ever since Northwest Bookfest hacked up a Target-branded lung and died back in 2004, hundreds of people have tried to bring a book festival back to Seattle. One notable attempt to revive the literary festival at the Columbia City Event Center in 2009 was ill-conceived and awkwardly produced, costing local booksellers and publishers a lot of money for little return. Now there's a Northwest Bookfest in Kirkland (tagline: "It's Raining Books!") that sounds as exciting as chili night at a nursing home. And as we approach 10 years without a literary festival in Seattle, the publishing industry doesn't appear to be healthy enough to sustain a festival the size of the old Bookfest.
This is an issue that's close to my heart. At least five organizations have contacted me to sit on planning boards for prospective Seattle-area Bookfest revivals in the last five years. Those meetings were off-the-record, so there's not much I can reveal about them, but they all had one thing in common that doomed them from the beginning: None of them had any real reason to exist. Seattle is a city that's blessed with an abundance of readings—almost every single day of the year, usually with multiple events happening all around town—and dozens of beautiful, well-stocked libraries and bookstores. Quite simply, every day in Seattle is a Bookfest, and just shipping in Dave Barry to "headline" a weekend of readings from local authors we can see all year round isn't that compelling a reason to put on a show. Why should we go to a convention center to browse booths with a tiny selection of titles from bookstores we can visit any day of the week?
That's why last year's APRIL (the acronym stands for "Authors, Publishers, and Readers of Independent Literature") was such a shock. With not much other than a Kickstarter and a vision, local authors Tara Atkinson and Willie Fitzgerald founded a weeklong celebration of everything that's great and irreplaceable about Seattle's literature. It took place in venues around Capitol Hill and First Hill, from the Sorrento Hotel to Porchlight Coffee to Piecora's Pizza to the Crescent Lounge to the Hedreen Gallery to a dingy parking garage—where Ed Skoog was surrounded by a bunch of cheap-beer-swilling young poetry lovers, Fight Club–style, and read a brilliant occasional poem that he vowed never to share again.
APRIL was the kind of festival that causes you to reassess a whole scene—a new, young crop of writers seemed to find their voice all in one week. Between the twin poles of APRIL and the Short Run small-press convention in the fall—the third iteration of which is coming on November 30 of this year at Washington Hall—Seattle's literary map has been redrawn and repopulated with new names, with plenty of land left for discovery.
Over coffee at Elliott Bay Cafe, Fitzgerald and Atkinson explain that they didn't know each other when they were recruited by Pilot Books owner Summer Robinson to organize the store's second annual Small Press Festival three years ago. Like many Seattle-area writers and readers, they were devastated when Pilot Books closed and wanted to keep the festival going somehow; they both say the store's dedication to noncorporate literature and inclusive, clubhouse vibe are the primary inspiration for APRIL.
The slightly misleading name—no part of the festival has ever taken place in the month of April—was Fitzgerald's idea. And he initially hated it. "He made us promise we wouldn't put flowers on" promotional materials, Atkinson says. Fitzgerald elaborates on all the clichés he nixed before he would agree to the name: "No flowers, no owls, no bookworms." From the outset, the demand for APRIL was high: Last year's wildly successful Kickstarter campaign funded the 2012 festival and much of this year's too, and Atkinson marvels that most of the donations came "from people we don't know." Armed with the kind of knowledge you can't learn without putting on an eclectic festival—apparently, it's very hard to get in touch with drag queens—they've put together a formidable second year.
The first thing that you'll probably notice when comparing APRIL 2013 with 2012 is that there's no lit crawl. "In many ways, the lit crawl made APRIL" last year, Fitzgerald says, but the formula was picked up by every other arts organization since APRIL brought it to town; if they reprised a lit crawl, it "would have been the sixth in this calendar year." Instead of packing all the events into one crawl, APRIL (aprilfestival.com/#schedule) spreads the boozy events into a series of free "Happy Hour Readings" at venues including the Quarter Lounge, the Comet, and Vermillion Art Gallery and Bar.
Other events include an opening night benediction with Matthew Dickman and Rebecca Brown with a special musical guest (Mon March 25, Chop Suey, 8 pm, free); a selection of local talent including Eroyn Franklin, Jamey Braden, and Maggie Carson Romano sharing new work based on Heather Christie's outstanding poetry collection The Trees, The Trees (Tues March 26, Vignettes, 7 pm, free); a "competitive storytelling event" with the salacious title "A Poet, a Playwright, a Novelist, and a Drag Queen" (Wed March 27, Sorrento Hotel, 8 pm, $7); and a "showcase" reading featuring Matthew Rohrer, Heather Christle, and Rauan Klassnik (Thurs March 28, Hugo House, 8 pm, $7). It all culminates in the APRIL Small Press Expo with tables of small presses, literary magazines, and beautiful, handmade books, along with performances from Housefire, SPLAB, the Furnace, the Bushwick Book Club, and Breadline (Sat March 30, Hugo House, 11 am–4 pm, free). And the Friday night event is a special edition of Verse Chapter Verse, The Stranger's books-and-music series, featuring hiphop duo Fly Moon Royalty and Sherman Alexie—who has had such a successful career that it's easy to forget he's only published one book with a corporate press, easily making him the most popular independent author in town—and, uh, me (Fri March 29, Neumos, 6–8 pm, $7 adv/$10 DOS).
Fitzgerald and Atkinson are already working on plans for the 2014 APRIL Festival, and they have applied for grants with a few local arts organizations. They have ideas for what they could do with a bigger budget—flying in out-of-town talent is an appealing proposition—but "I don't know how to ask rich people for money," Atkinson shrugs. Still, poverty is not getting in their way as they present exciting young voices in fun and accessible events. It's everything that a good book festival should be, with all the bullshit trimmed away.
This article has been updated since its original publication.