If you really wanted to get to know Seattle, I guess you could talk to the mountains, which have technically (tectonically?) been here longer than anything else. But they're a bunch of stiffs. You could read the histories, as long as they weren't written by the victors. Or you could talk to the city's storytellers, comics, poets, and booksellers—the people who pull words and drawings from the flora and fauna, the gutters and gaslights.
Seattle City of Literature: Reflections from a Community of Writers, edited by Ryan Boudinot, is a compilation of that last option. This tack makes sense to me, given that we know so much of Greece from Homer, Rome from Virgil, Sumer from whoever chiseled the Epic of Gilgamesh into those old Babylonian tablets. Boudinot has arranged our story as a collection of tales about the literature scenes of yore and brief interviews about the literature scenes of today. Authors talk about where they've written, who they've written for, and what they hope to see in the future. The effect is kaleidoscopic, every story a shard of chaotic local color that forms a larger pattern of literary brilliance.
By Boudinot's own admission, though, the anthology is not comprehensive. No anecdotes of August Wilson holed up in a Capitol Hill cafe, for example, and only a quick aside about longtime UW fiction professor Charles Johnson, author of the indisputably great book Middle Passage. But there may be other anthologies. For now, this particular cross-referencing lovefest of writers geeking out on what they've heard and witnessed around town serves as a solid primer for newcomers and old-timers in the current Seattle scene.
Here's some of what we learn about Seattle from this book:
• The Homer of Seattle is the Coast Salish people, whose oral tradition started 10,000 years ago. According to Elissa Washuta's eloquent and informative contribution to this book, we're lucky to know some of those stories due to the scholarly work of Vi Hilbert.
• Aside from that rich and epic tradition of storytelling, Seattle didn't get a "literary scene" until the 1960s and '70s, when canonical poets Theodore Roethke and David Wagoner took over creative-writing workshops at the University of Washington, where they began to train up poets like Richard Hugo and Denise Levertov. All of that is according to Tom Robbins, one of the biggest literary stars to emerge from this "corner of the country" (a term that almost everybody uses to describe the Pacific Northwest in this collection).
• Seattle poets have a history of walking through plate-glass windows and surviving.
• Sherman Alexie is everybody's favorite performer.
• Seattle <3s Murakami.
• We want to claim Raymond Carver so bad, even though he lived in Port Angeles.
• If it weren't for Seattle's cafes, gutted-out industrial lofts, houseboats, and constant rain, no one would've written anything.
There are many little stories to fall in love with in this anthology, but two are exceptional. Eli Hastings—author, counselor, and assistant director at Pongo Teen Writing—straight up made me cry and believe in the therapeutic power of writing again with his story about helping a girl write a poem to her mother who'd forced her into prostitution. On a lighter but still pretty brutal note, music writer Charles R. Cross describes the romantic cross-pollination of the music and literary scenes in the early 1990s in a story that involves poet Steven Jesse Bernstein wielding a switchblade and threatening to cut off his own penis during a reading. It made me want a whole book about the subject.
History rhymes, said Mark Twain. That's especially true in literature. For instance, the APRIL Festival, an annual celebration of independent literature that includes readings in dive bars and hotel lobbies all over the city, looks a lot like the raucous beginnings of Judith Roche's literary Bumbershoot parties/readings. This makes me hopeful.
Not all the stories in this anthology reaffirm the common notion that this "corner of the country" is chiefly defined by weirdness, wildness, and horror. In a quiet, introspective story about seeing the poet David Wagoner simply exit a beat-up sedan, stuff some papers into a briefcase, and then walk up the steps into the Hugo House, YA fiction writer Deb Caletti reminds us how much work it takes to maintain a vibrant literary culture, how mundane most of that work is, and, yet, how little light it takes to inspire someone to pick up a pen, start an organization, or otherwise create some space to work in a city that made space for them. Here's to mehr licht!