All writers are regional writers. From haiku to textbooks, writers always manage to somehow stuff the place they live inside whatever they're working on. Even if they never once write about the actual place where they live, there's still a home haunting the text. Consider Frank Herbert's Dune: You might argue that the harsh desert planet of Arrakis bears no resemblance to the Northwest where Herbert was born and raised, but it was inspired by Herbert's newfound ecological concern. Dune is a cautionary tale about what the Northwest could become, a story about the heartrending absence of the greenness that we take for granted, when the forests and the mountains are sucked dry, leaving a brutal landscape behind. I'd argue that Northwestern writers are even more regional than writers in many other parts of the world. This is a landscape that embeds itself into the consciousness of people who live here, that changes a person more than other places. Writers are not immune to this place; if anything, they're more susceptible.
Lately, there's been a lot of talk in many circles about Cascadia. It's a redefinition that expands to absorb the entire bioregion; Cascadia stretches clear down to Northern California and way up past Vancouver. The idea has been around for decades, but lately groups have been possessed by a powerful urge to define the place and the people, to come to a conclusion about what Cascadia really means.
From Thursday to Sunday, hundreds of people will be taking part in the second Cascadia Poetry Festival, an event organized by local poetry collective Seattle Poetry Lab (SPLAB). The festival brings dozens of authors to town from all over Cascadia and includes a small press fair, workshops, panels, open mics, poetry slams, and readings. Highlights include a presentation from Cascadia Institute founder David McCloskey; a panel about geography and activism; and the concluding reading featuring Seattle poets Heather McHugh, Frances McCue, and Maged Zaher, along with Vancouver poet and activist Stephen Collis.
It's important that poetry is embracing the idea of Cascadia because poetry is at the forefront of literature: It embraces and exhausts trends faster than prose, it allows for more experimentation, and poetry's exquisite little bursts of passion are perfect for the beginning of a movement, when everything feels new and alive. The Cascadia Poetry Festival is probably paving the way for a larger and broader-aiming Cascadia Book Festival 10 years down the line, when the idea has a little more definition and when some of the harder edges have been shaved down. But this is where everything gets hashed out, where the poets drink and fuck and fight about Cascadia, and what Cascadia means, and whether Cascadia is even worth the trouble.
There's no way to pin down a time when Cascadian poetics began. Sam Hamill, a poet and cofounder of Copper Canyon Press, cites Theodore Roethke's poems "North American Sequence" and "Meditations of an Old Woman" as a launching point. Paul Nelson, the founder of SPLAB and the unofficial director of the Cascadia Poetry Festival, calls Roethke's reading at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair a kind of coming-out party for Cascadian literature. Stephen Collis identifies the 1963 Vancouver Poetry Conference, in which "primarily American poets" like Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, and Charles Olson came north to British Columbia to seed the city's poetic voice. Many of those San Francisco Beats moved to Vancouver in the years following the conference. Collis identifies that moment as the time when the "strange culture on the West Coast" grafted onto the older western pioneer ideas of personal freedom to become something separate from the plains and the desert. At the same time, Nelson recognizes the poems of Canadian Earle Alfred Birney, a naturalist and socialist from the early decades of the 20th century, as a Cascadian trailblazer. When it comes to finding a starting point for Cascadian literature, nobody is right and everybody is right.
And yes, the names that come up are all men's names. Nelson admits that with "50 years of hindsight," the beginnings of Cascadia are patriarchal—there was "an immature masculine, almost a boy, psychology" to it, he says. But times, thankfully, have changed; women are an equal part of the Cascadian Poetry Festival, with a couple women-only events besides to discuss exactly this history and culture of disparity.
George Bowering, a Canadian writer who has served as Canada's Parliamentary Poet Laureate, points out that Cascadian writers have a familiarity with the land that writers from elsewhere simply don't share. Bowering points to Desolation Angels, the book about Jack Kerouac's time on a fire lookout in Mount Baker National Forest, as an example. Kerouac is awed by nature the way a born-again Christian is awed by God, but he's significantly apart from it. On the other hand, you have Cascadian writers like Gary Snyder, Bowering explains. "If you showed Kerouac a piece of skin from an animal," Bowering says, "he wouldn't know what animal it was from. Gary Snyder would." Nelson cites Snyder as a guiding light for identifying Cascadian values and themes.
Lately, Cascadian flag stickers—a Douglas fir silhouette in front of a field of blue, green, and white stripes—have been popping up in Cascadian cities. Anarchists are embracing the concept of Cascadia, and some of the poets I've interviewed admit they've heard whisperings of a Cascadian separatist movement. Nelson believes that those in favor of a free Cascadia would find a lot to embrace at the poetry festival. "If we behave as a separate entity culturally, that will change things" on a political and social level, Nelson says. If you want to be a Cascadian, you first have to learn how to read and write like a Cascadian.