Indeed, after the unprecedented domination of crude and lateral logic on our local and national networks, aren't we finally ready to listen to the voices and read the writing of people--politicians, artists, business owners, teachers, and social researchers--who have been sifting slowly through layers of debris and complexity?
One Seattle writer I'd like to see more often is Michael Perez-Hureaux. He's a cultural critic and teacher with fluid and well-articulated views on a wide array of subjects, from September 11 to the way police violence intersects with class and race issues. You don't have to agree with Hureaux's lefty politics; he doesn't care. He just wants you to think as deeply about issues as he does.
As a writer, Hureaux's voice is strongest when he's riffing, as he did in a recent e-mail concerning police brutality. "Seattle is a glorified company town," he writes. "I don't believe that white working-class communities here are yet in a place where they are responding in an intelligent way to black activist outreach on the issue of police violence." He goes on to speculate about police violence becoming more prevalent and tolerated in white working-class communities as it creeps closer toward the middle class.
Hureaux recently moved back to the Northwest from New York City, where he taught in a Harlem high school for five years. Before moving east, Hureaux had worked as an actor and performance poet in Seattle for close to 20 years.
I met Hureaux for coffee at Victrola one drizzly late-June afternoon. I'd seen him perform several poems at the Center on Contemporary Art on June 20; he read quietly and forcefully that night, as if he were translating his poems from another language into English.
Hureaux tells me he's Dominican-Haitian on his father's side. His black short hair is eccentric with curls, and his eyes are lined at the corners. He resembles a wrestler with an intellectual bent; he looks the way I imagine South American philosopher Paolo Friere looked as a young man. He wears wire-rimmed glasses, a black jacket, and Levi's. What distinguishes him from the hipsters in this too-hip cafe is his lack of self-consciousness, and the quality of his voice. It's tall, with the resonance of stacks of books in a vault, high stacks on a wooden table.
Hureaux tells stories, of a kind, that compliment how his dark hands look holding a large cup of cappuccino. The stories are generous, foamy. When he was younger, right out of high school, he was a conservative libertarian. He lived in Alaska, but had to leave the state, jumping bail to stay ahead of a petty theft charge. He liked standup comedy and vaudeville. His parents thought he'd be the next Charlie Chaplin. He loved Ayn Rand back then.
Now, he's a Marxist. "It happened over time," he says, "in response to the economy in the last 20 years. The economy is crap now. Rather than fixing or regulating it, workers are expected to adjust to the new grind." He is fascinated by the rise and demise of American leisure time--specifically, how it connects to the rise and fall of the labor movement.
Hureaux has an expanded definition of "working class" that includes, for instance, doctors who work for HMOs. As a high-school teacher, Hureaux is proud to be at the core of the working class. "I want to be where the working poor move," he says, "or inside the schools, not singing to the choir." He wants his students to be more critical about their environment--to think about what they do in their leisure time, and to question how and why they are being commodified. (He uses the word "commodified" often).
Lately, Hureaux has been writing essays on social change. He refers to these essays as "the most exhaustive work I've done." From Hureaux, that means a new kind of commitment. He debuted as a performance poet back in the '80s, when the iconic Seattle performance poet Jesse Bernstein was slamming texts and drugs (Bernstein was Hureaux's next-door neighbor). Hureaux was also involved in Seattle theater projects; he worked, from 1986 to 1991, in a performance group that helped interpret and give story lines to the works of Langston Hughes and Sonia Sanchez.
By the late '90s, Hureaux was on a poetry-slam winning streak that culminated with a championship tournament at Bumbershoot. Around the same time, he was getting burnt out on the open-mic scene around Seattle. He says that he discovered the power of his poetic voice more when he stopped worrying about playing to the audience--but when Hureaux moved to New York, he also hoped to get new inspiration from the slam-poetry scene there.
"I saw the same dumb shit I saw in Seattle," he says. "I'd get to a slam and think that if I wrote that piece I wouldn't read it." These days, Hureaux looks to the underground hiphop movement in Seattle for the most exciting things happening in poetry. He refers to acts like Source of Labor, Marcus Joe, and Chris Frank.
With his mixed passions for Marxist politics and vaudeville circus kings, Hureaux may be the right man, circling back home to Seattle, at just the right hour.