In Seattle, poetry is a surprisingly unspecific word. If a friend were to invite you to an evening of local poetry, with no further elaboration, you would basically have no understanding of what you could expect to see and hear. It could be a random collection of earnest liberals basking in their own self-satisfied anti-war ballads at some open mic, or it could be a hyperintelligent variety show like the new Breadline reading series at Vermillion on Capitol Hill, which featured a lecture from a molecular biologist last month. The geography of poetry in Seattle is vast and complex, and the only way to begin to understand it is to take a sampling of the terrain, to find out where you stand.
My favorite poem by Seattle poet Elizabeth Austen (I think it's probably one of her favorites, too—it's the very first poem in her new book, Every Dress a Decision) begins, "I reach for my yellow dress. It bursts/into flame. Anything I remember/burns again." Such a forceful way to start a poem! Much of Austen's best work rings with a note of Plath. She writes about femininity—sex, the perceived vulnerability of girls, the roles of women in religion—with a clear voice. Even her outrage sounds reasonable.
Austen is a perfect example of an entry-level poet; you can pick up her book and understand the poetry without knowing anything more about her. Some books of poetry are dense and quarrelsome—we'll get to those in a minute—but the pleasure of Austen's words are that everyone is welcome. Which is not to say she writes cheery poems about dogs—death malingers in every other corner, soaking through Czech police reports, tucked away politely in urns—but just that her language is probably your language, except she makes her language dance harder.
Further out into rougher terrain, we find poets like Robert Mittenthal. His new collection, Wax World, is stuffed with suites of poems, many of which look as dense on the page as prose. Words fly everywhere. And if Austen grabs you a little too tightly by the hair and softly hums into your ear as you read her work, Mittenthal stubbornly forces you to shut yourself alone in a room with his poems and smack them around with your hands in order to learn the music behind the words. He offers few hints, and often there is no clear reason why one word leads into the next.
Consider "Gag," which begins with the line "Permission to approach the yellow disc at a distance." Is he talking about the sun? The second line, "Enclosed in the gesture, a man twists an orange into his mouth," transforms the sunlight into the flesh of a fruit, and then, in corroboration with the title and the self-enclosing gesture, the fruit becomes an object, a bit of S&M paraphernalia. The poem continues in this way, mixing images of unnaturally sterile environments with dirt and grass and disease. A gag transforms from a voluntary instrument of rough pleasure to a plug of mucus buried in a throat and things get really dark, just before "blossoms go white." Mittenthal concludes, "It's a euphemism for the poem—a horror of thought. A parade of/names scrolled out in the colored lights." Beauty and terror merge into one until you're so dizzy, it's all the same, glorious thing.
Mittenthal leaves us in sight of the peak of literature, where the air is thin and the light is weird. Up there, you have Seattle poets like Nico Vassilakis, who are changing the very idea of what poetry can be. His latest book, staring@poetics, is a thought experiment that amounts to nothing less than an assault on language itself. He starts out in a friendly enough way:
There is an underlying desire for the product of alphabet, of any culture, to meander, to reinvent itself. We scribe anew. It reminds us that alphabet, the letter, is a drawn experience... The meanings we live with are changing.
But before long, Vassilakis is a communication-minded terrorist railing against "the hierarchy of sight" that makes language possible. He attacks common conceptions of words and reading as benign actions—"The keyboard is a house of letters./Words make a prison for letters."—and the book is profusely illustrated with full-color typographic artwork wherein he shoves letters into new formations, to keep the reader from taking the act of reading for granted. Less a poetry collection and more of a manifesto, staring@poetics pulls poetry apart at an atomic level. From up here on Vassilakis's conceptual heights, we can see the way everything that has come to this city before fits together, all spread out before us, in a new light. It's a breathtaking view.