What Does a Healthy Literary Community Look Like?

 

In 1995, I convened a meeting of a few writers interested in my notion of creating an Open Mic series in Auburn. The meeting happened on an August evening in the B Street Plaza, which I nicknamed La Plaza de las Cabezas because of the little cement heads that festooned it. Auburn’s notions of public art were sometimes quite quaint. At least a couple of the heads had their noses busted off then—and still do today.  Anyway, the group eventually decided on the name 19th Draft: Auburn’s Literary Arts Group and some of the regulars involved in that meeting, or the early sessions included Danika Dinsmore, Chuck Goodwin, Margaret Dingus, John Corr, Daniel T. Fleming, David Hoskin, Rachael Strom, Steve Bull, Gerald and Brendan McBreen and others. We started meeting in Auburn’s Best Café thanks to the owner Tory Goben. We put out an anthology, Woodfrogs in Chaos which was a metaphor for what we were trying to do in the town. The frog is a sign of a healthy environment, whereas we felt a poetry series was a sign of a healthy cultural ecosystem.

 

Danika and I talked about a center that would bring poets from out of town (taking advantage of her Naropa connections), have workshops, work with youth in and out of the schools and have our weekly writer’s open mic, which quickly evolved into a critique circle called the Living Room, after the Taos Poetry Circus open reading. One day, standing outside one of the many abandoned storefronts in the downtown area, I said to her: If we were to put that center HERE, what would you call it? She thought for a moment and said, The Northwest SPokenword LAB. A break appeared in the sky above us, a sunbeam illuminated us and angelic music was heard in the background. At least, that’s what I told people. It was not too long afterwards that I came up with the shortened “Splab” and we got the space for $600 a month. I’ll never forget the tone of Ed Cavanaugh’s voice when I asked him to give us a deal because we were a non-profit corporation. He said, $600 a month is a good price and YOU KNOW THAT! It wasn’t. A former livery stable, it was a 100+ year old building that had a leaky roof, loud and inefficient heating and has since been torn down. A cleansing ceremony we did with local Indian Doctors as these Shakers liked to call themselves released one entity that may have been kicked in the head in the back of the place.

 

I had founded the non-profit corporation It Plays in Peoria Productions in 1993 to carry out the task of syndicating weekly radio programs that I was producing for KMTT-FM, The Mountain and to KZOK, KJR-AM & FM, KMPS-AM and FM, KING-FM and as many as 18 stations at one time. This entity would serve as the 501(c)(3) umbrella for SPLAB! (We began to spell it that way, all caps and an exclamation point.) Our first grant application went to the South King County Public Health and Safety Network, which was one of three such quasi-governmental networks in the county looking to deal with issues affecting youth and other groups in the county. I had served on the committee for a year—having been nominated by then Mayor Chuck Booth—and felt that Danika and I had a good chance of getting a grant from them.

 

The network LOVED our idea of Literary Arts as Teen Crime Prevention. The notion was that if “at-risk” kids could be inspired to channel their deep emotions into a writing practice, and we created a safe place for that to happen, the kids would avoid getting into trouble in the streets. The network loved the idea. They told us to collaborate with the city. Here’s where the darkness begins. I told the network Chair Kathi Skarbo that I’d be happy to collaborate. At the only meeting I attended, despite the fact that I told them I had served on the network committee, I was told I had to reduce my $50,000 budget as much as possible and abide by Auburn School District language guidelines. As a poet, you can imagine how that went over with me. I balked. The city tried to cut SPLAB! out of the funding pie and even told me they were going to take a Request for Proposals for other agencies more willing to shape the program exactly as THEY would have envisioned. Basically they wanted to take the teeth out of it. The network’s sub-committee chair Jean Hueston immediately recognized it as “a city of Auburn power grab” and our SPLAB! got $6K for the $50K worth of programs and the enmity of a few city and school district bureaucrats and elected officials. Ah, the sordid world of non-profit America is revealed!

 

We never did get along great with the schools. Sure, they let us volunteer as guest poets on occasion once we passed muster with the Curriculum Instruction Advisory committee. (CIA!) Danika’s M.A. and innovative curriculum development helped that happen, but the city’s power structure never embraced us. King County Arts Commissioners Lynn Norman (now on the city council) and Nancy Colson never stepped foot in the place, but the King County Arts Commission loved us and supported us in every way they could. The State Arts Commission responded to our first grant request with a comment the likes of They can’t do all that for that kind of money! so we never applied to them again. Yep, we were basically volunteers, but boy did we have some fun! My political connections also helped leverage some funding. I had been Chair of the 31st District Democratic Organization and both Kent Pullen and Chris Vance of the King County Council approved a good amount of funding from their discretionary funds. Pullen saw a libertarian and entrepreneurial spirit in me and I think Chris felt he could mollify one past critic of his stances on various legislative issues, but also wanted to support arts, much to his credit.

 

Among the events were the Teen Poetry Slam, the Super Bowl of Poetry, the Allen Ginsberg Memorial Open Mic Poetry Marathon, the Spirit Wisdom Council, In the Spirit of Beaver Chief, with the late Indian Doctor leading what was basically a Shaker Indian Church circle and the Visiting Poets Series, which facilitated visits by Anne Waldman and Andrew Schelling, Ethelbert Miller, Joanne Kyger, Victor Hernandez Cruz, Michael McClure, Diane di Prima, Ed Sanders, Bernadette Mayer, Wanda Coleman, Jerome Rothenberg, Eileen Myles and others. Yes, all these folks in a space that had a legal limit of 39, though 50 to 60 crowded in thanks to underwriting credits that aired on KUOW and my plugs on KPLU and the syndicated radio programs of It Plays in Peoria Productions.

 

One of the things that I never understood about this effort that has always bugged me was that folks would come for McClure or Anne Waldman and never be seen there again. I thought that the notion of community, which was what I was trying to build, would be grasped by literary arts fans within the region and they’d come to SPLAB! a few times a year. Perhaps we could have been more explicit about selling season subscriptions. No dice. I guess the 60 mile round trip was too much. Even the 30 mile round trip from Tacoma was apparently too much because an open mic began at a nearby New Age center in Auburn, the Blue Moon and folks would come from Tacoma for that, but never (or rarely) set foot into SPLAB!

 

Some of the great articles on what we did are linked at:

http://splab.org/archives/articles/curfew2.jpg - on our Teen Curfew Open Mic Poetry Protest;

http://splab.org/archives/articles/rabble.jpg - South King County Journal article;

http://splab.org/archives/wordscape1.html - Wordscape feature. (Remember Wordscape?)

http://splab.org/archives/articles/livery.jpg - Tacoma News Tribune article;

http://splab.org/archives.html - is the link to all the archives we were able to save.

 

            Well, eventually Danika got sick and took a job out of town. I could not make things go financially, what with a weekly syndicated radio interview program to research, produce, syndicate and sell underwriting for—all the while being ½ time Dad of a young daughter. Then, funds that were going to arts groups began to be re-directed to firemen and police officers in New York City in the wake of an event that got everyone’s attention in late summer 2001. Funding for the arts before September 11th was problematic. Afterwards it was nearly impossible. Eventually, I let the weekly Living Room split off. The new group called themselves the Striped Water Poets after the meaning of one of the original Indian settlements at the confluence of the White and Green Rivers, Ilalqo, which has been translated to mean Comes Together or Striped Water. (My serial poem re-enacting Auburn history A Time Before Slaughter was conceived during the SPLAB! years and encouraged by Visiting Poet Joanne Kyger.)

 

            As I look back on SPLAB!, I can see several things that I would suggest as critical in a literary community. As writers generally do their work in solitude, they need critical feedback and a chance to share their work with other like-minded folk. Some critical elements of community include:

 

§                    A comfortable place to share new work, get critical feedback and learn new writing exercises, even create new ones.

§                    An intergenerational setting.

§                    Exposure to master poets.

§                    Exposure to a wide variety of teachers, poetry genres or schools.

§                    Support for their writing practice.

§                    Information on where to publish and where to hear other work in the community.

§                    A place where they can be themselves.

 

This is why the SPLAB! mission was:

An intergenerational SPokenword Performance, Resource and Outreach center, dedicated to Poetry, Story-Telling, Conversation, Debate, Consciousness and Building Community through Shared Experience of the Spoken and Written word.

 

WPA

 

When I was considering moving from the Board of the Washington Poets Association in September, 2007, to being the Board President because no one else would step up, I asked my friend Sam Hamill for advice. He said that I could probably do some good things there, but Don’t expect anyone to thank you and expect the poetasters to fight you. Sam, as usual, was about 97% correct. I did get at least one or two thank you’s after I stepped down. One of the best things I did in November, 2007, was get the Board to agree to sell the stock the organization had been clinging to for several years. What has the stock market done between November 2007 and the date of this writing, November, 2008? (Tanked. Thanks, Paul.)   

 

What I did as President of the WPA could be the subject for another article and you’d certainly get some different perspectives about my tenure depending on who you asked. But a couple of things became quite clear to me after my time there. I was able to understand these things more deeply thanks to ongoing correspondence with Amalio Madueño (who ran the late Taos Poetry Circus for many years, the model of a long literary conference, as far as I am concerned,) José Kozer and Sam. Sam and I usually get our best discussion on these and other poetry-related events during our regular golf matches. Basically, it comes down to the fact that there are two kinds of people involved in any literary scene, and Ezra Pound knew it in 1908, when he said More people want to be poets then are interested in poetry. There are those who gravitate to poetry for socializing and reinforcement of needy egos and there are people interested in deepening their gesture. This is revealed in the rush to publish and the need for validation through outside sources.

 

When it comes to cosmology, the duality can be seen as those who experience the universe as a machine (see modern health care) and those who experience it as an organism. (This is why the term organic appeals to me in terms of the writing that Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser and others espoused, though only Duncan and Denise Levertov were known to have used the term organic.)

 

Hugo House

 

In 1997, another writing center opened in the Puget Sound region. This was called the Richard Hugo House and named after the poet from White Center who once worked at Boeing. The Hugo House from day one had something SPLAB! never had, namely a funding source. Supported by the same funds that would go on to fuel the Breneman Jaech Foundation, this was what separated Hugo House from all the other writing centers, and would-be writing centers. (Breneman Jaech also gave SPLAB! a couple of grants.)

            Of course running SPLAB! and seeing the Hugo House emerge, I was always making comparisons, in my mind anyway. We had our Allen Ginsberg Poetry Marathon. They had a Stein-a-thon organized by Nico Vassilakis and honoring Gertrude Stein. That only happened once and, as far as I know, there was never another all night poetry event at Hugo House. They booked poets like Donald Hall, we booked Jerome Rothenberg. (New Critics vs. New American Poetry is the basic difference here.) There were other contrasts I could use as examples.

 

Subtext left the friendly confines of the Speakeasy Café after a fire took out that venue and that series was welcomed into the House, ensuring that the most adventurous poetry in town had a home at Seattle’s literary arts center. The Seattle Poetry Festival found a place at Hugo House for a couple of editions and it seemed like a good fit.

            And it was not until a changing of the guard at the Hugo House, when founding director Frances McCue stepped down, which coincided with SPLAB!’s demise, that I started offering proposals of my own to Hugo House. I felt that there was more of an opening in attitude there that had not existed before. Until that point, Hugo House had seemed cliquish to me. I have since taught a one day Organic Poetry course at the House, two six-week extended courses, and one at the East Side location they have been affiliated with now and then--Park Place Books in Kirkland.

 

            Since the new folks took over from Frances McCue and started making their own improvements, poetry has not fared as well as I would have liked. Yes, the Cheap Wine and Poetry event has been established at the House and I have been featured as part of that series. But, the longtime renters of upstairs space, Floating Bridge Press and the Raven Chronicles saw their agreements expire and have had to find new digs. (They both ended up at the Jack Straw Foundation headquarters in the U District.) Subtext moved to a beautiful new space, the Chapel in the Good Shepherd Center. Hugo House Executive Director Lyall Bush was forced out on or about September 11, 2008. In an article published by The Stranger, Bush was quoted as saying his model was Seattle Arts & Lectures[1]. What this all comes down to, as I will argue again and again, is cosmology. (Charles Olson would say poetics and he’d be right.)

 

Poetry is part of the Gift Economy. This is the energy which fuels any subculture, any community. It’s an exchange in which products and services are given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future quid pro quo. Sam Hamill goes so far as to say that the poem itself is a gift to the author, and if he or she does not treat it with gratitude and humility, the Muses are not happy.

You can even see evidence of a poet’s cosmology in their biography on the back of their books, or in announcements for readings. Is the bio concerned with craft and influences, or it is a list of awards won, sometimes even including second and third place finishes in certain contests along with the judge who bestowed that third place honor. Can we scream COMPETITION/ DOMINATION any louder?

So I wonder, is the Hugo House in it to make a profit, to stay in business, to expand their membership and their program offerings? Are they there to help writers deepen their gesture as much as possible through providing exposure to master poets, providing a comfortable atmosphere for writers to improve their craft? Is there a place for that writing which has no concern with being a product? Does the Hugo House now see the universe as mechanistic, meaning the way to measure progress can be seen only through revenues and attendance, or an organismic one—which is much harder to quantify. Blake once said that there is no competition among true poets, but the mechanistic model is all about competition and domination.

 

These questions are not easy ones, nor do I propose to answer them here. I appreciate that the Hugo House exists and hope to facilitate workshops there again. I would hope that the powers-that-be there would see what I, ,and other experimental poets offer, and promote it as much as any offering there, but I have no control over that. I guess when it comes to affecting change in a situation like this, one can be active in trying to shape the Hugo House into something more to their liking, or start their own damn center. With at least a half million dollar annual budget (at least it was several years ago when I last checked), they certainly have a leg up over anyone else in the literary arts community with designs on starting their own writing center with regard to funding.

 

4:43P – 11.1.08



[1] http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/Content?oid=675038