Sure, it feels weird walking into Richard Hugo House now. A few months ago in these pages I wrote a determined if somewhat discursive drubbing of the place. I wrote that Hugo House suffers from a "small-town mentality" and a "we're-all-equals-here spirit"; that its approach to teaching creative writing is "misguided" and "annoying"; that its mission to be an "empty vessel" for the artistic community is "unambitious" and "parochial" and prevents it from being able to consistently challenge the city with compelling programming. And more or less, those statements are true. But every fall, on the occasion of its annual inquiry, the place wins me over and demonstrates what Hugo House is capable of.

Frances McCue (who is Hugo House's artistic director and who, admittedly, got a beating in my essay, but who is a terrific poet, and has been named a "writer to watch" in the Stranger Genius Award announcements) introduced the three-day event to the crowd, explaining, "Every year we choose a theme that seems to be bubbling up from the culture, and for three days we study it." Last year's theme was "Surveillance"; this year's theme was "Games."

Amos Latteier certainly made a game of his Friday-night lecture. The Portland artist was supposed to talk about statistical theory, evolution, and capitalism, but his subject so overwhelmed him that he decided to give a lecture on something else entirely: getting organized. "Organization is great and wonderful," he said, earnestly. "It also has scary and bad sides to it, like fascism." His lecture was organized alphabetically and synchronized to a visual projection of handwritten note cards obscured by Post-its (on which were drawn various species of wildlife), and included, among other ingenious connections, an analysis of the parallels between Fantasy Basketball and the governing of a 19th-century state.

On Saturday night, Sherman Alexie gave a rousing and unexpectedly moving talk about Dungeons & Dragons (he was born with water on his brain and, for various other reasons, got beat up a lot, so the fantasy game afforded him a world over which he had control) that became a larger discussion about the inscrutability of adolescents, the recent death of his father, and, ultimately, the dual function of games to both explain life and help us forget about it.

On Sunday, McCue gave a talk called "Longing as a Game." She described the act of longing as that "wires-pulled-through-your-bone-sockets feeling" and then discussed various sites of longing, including our city, our jobs, and souvenirs. "A souvenir," she said, "is a reduction of an experience that probably never happened."

Although the cultural inquiry certainly happened, it's hard to explain what I liked about it because the bizarre things I came across in the process of the weekend (a ball of twine the size of a human head was passed around during McCue's lecture) do not exist on any plane of context, and no amount of quotes and examples here is going to suffice. Indeed, the great thing about Hugo House's cultural inquiry is its irreducibility. They should do one every month.

frizzelle@thestranger.com

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