They remind me of a clan of mythic underground gold miners who chip away in the dark, heeding only poetry while the city above them takes its hairpin turns through the violent end of one century and into the start of the next. The Subtext collective's monthly poetry readings go on during all sorts of weather, for example in the midst of the 1999 WTO conflict: While tear gas and concussion grenades blammed crowds of citizens on Broadway, a small group of hungry poetry-eaters sat in a half-lit room at the Richard Hugo House, listening to California poet Dale Going's quiet, precise lines, distracted by the chaos outside, but not wanting to turn away from the written word even then.
Since 1994, the founding members of the dedicated circle of poetry lovers and poets known as Subtext have been curating and presenting experimental/innovative poetry events, and this week they celebrate their ninth anniversary. Their readings began at the old Signature Bound Booksellers, part of pre-gentrified Belltown, then moved to the Speakeasy Cafe, which burned to the ground. Now the readings happen at Hugo House the first Wednesday of each month.
The founding members have like-minded aesthetics, and they tend to shun popular, easy-access writing or poetry that isn't a little (or very) challenging. Core members Nico Vassilakis, Bryant Mason, Ezra Mark, Jeanne Heuving, and Robert Mittenthal rarely argue about which poets to invite to read; as Subtext founding member Nico Vassilakis puts it, "Our tastes are all different, but different in the same way."
They like to bring in poets who are highly, if not painfully, self-conscious of language--its look and sound and the way it does not always equal meaning. Poetry world luminaries who've come to Seattle for Subtext readings over the past years include a number of poets from Vancouver, BC, like Robin Blaser, Lisa Robertson, and Peter Culley, as well as Americans Lynne Tillman, Leslie Scalapino, Anselm Hollo, Alice Notley, and Dodie Bellamy. The series also tends to match lesser-known local writers with established visiting writers.
"Most [people who attend local poetry readings] think we're pompous bags of shit, but we say, 'There's no other place that offers what we offer,'" says Nico Vassilakis, who recently published a small collection of poetry, The Flattened Missive, that received very high praise from Bay Area poet and genius Ron Silliman. Another founder and poet, Ezra Mark, puts it, "You don't see a lot of poetry at Subtext readings that begins with 'I,' that sort of presupposition that there's an unconstructed, 'natural' self who speaks. In writing, having a 'voice,' or being tied to a style--it's a bit of a shtick, isn't it? I think we realized there was an audience in Seattle for innovative/exploratory/experimental work, whatever you want to call it, but work that pushes the boundaries of how text can mean and operate. I mean, you don't have to be part of the [standard publishing] book machine."
The collective is thriving. It sends out fliers for each season, but doesn't take out ads and doesn't do much promotion for the readings; admission price is either $5 or a donation; there has never before been an article in the local press about this group, which shows tenacity--sticking around for years when so many local reading series evaporate.
"I heard that someone said we're elitist," Mark says. "I'm a little flattered that someone bothered to notice us."