Christine Fadden on Port Townsend, WA
In December 2013, I left the mountain town of Story, Wyoming (population 800 and yes, what writer on Earth wouldn’t want to spend part of her life in Story), twenty-four hours before the snow fell twenty-four inches deep, and remained, so I heard, until summer.
I white knuckled that rickety-ass U-haul truck across the Snoqualmie Pass before I even knew I was a Twin Peaks fan (hear, hear, to the late bloomer; I Twin Peaks binged in 2014—it was my first time).
Crossing the Cascades, ‘twas, “Goodbye, endless sky and fiancé; goodbye, sweet horses and tween bestie Shyanna. Hello, Pacific Northwest, naturally. But where, exactly?”
Portland would have been the logical choice. I’d lived there on and off since 1982—oh so very pre-Pearl, oh so very pre-Portlandia. I loved the lit community in Portland—every Saturday for two years, I’d broken and grown my writing bones in Tom Spanbauer’s basement. But. Portland. Big(ger)! Portland. Crowded! Wyoming had changed what I craved.
Cue Port Townsend. I had never been, but there was a cute cottage for rent, the kind of cottage writers retreat to. So, my mom and I headed north on Interstate 5 and northwest on Highway 101. We ate lunch at Sweet Laurette’s, and an hour later I paid rent knowing only one thing: Port Townsend had a great bookstore. Voila!
Writers’ Workshoppe and Imprint Books is the year-round hub of Port Townsend’s literary scene. Founders Anna and Peter Quinn curate a book selection to die for. You go in, say the day before Christmas, and it’s one book for Mom, two for me, one book for Cousin, three for me. If you lead a works-in-progress workshop there (which, for the sake of transparency, I do), you’d better leave by the side door—the one that doesn’t pull you past everything you live for.
In this bookstore, you can let your literary mania spill out: “Did you hear the H is for Hawk interview on NPR? Oooh, I want this one but vowed no more hardcovers. Should I take the poetry class? I’m not a poet. Shit. My vision is going; I need readers. Who, off the top of your head other than Munro, can you think of for seamless time shifts? Yes!”
The staff at the Writers’ Workshoppe and Imprint Books knows what writers want, and what writers need—postcards (because we’re all romantics) and locally made Writers’ Block chocolate (because it works).
And of course, they pull in the best local and national talent.
Bookstore goddess/author, Kristy Webster, held her debut book launch party for The Gift of An Imaginary Girl, here in December—it was standing room (and standing balcony) only. Local author Julie Christine Johnson, whose debut novel In Another Life comes out this month, will pack the house as well. Lidia Yuknavitch’s (go Portland!) weekend workshops sell out immediately. The bookstore has hosted Dorothy Allison, Adrienne Harun, Pam Houston, Kim Stafford, and Gary Lilley.
Author David Haynes, who teaches creative writing at SMU and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, comes to Port Townsend to hide out (I won’t say where) and write every year for a month. Haynes says: “Writers are always on the lookout for places that feed their soul. I need a place of great scenic beauty—with a great coffee shop in sneezing distance. Port Townsend fits the bill.”
There are reasons Goddard runs its low residency MFA program at Fort Worden State Park, and why Centrum hosts not only its annual writers conference here, which has been alive and kicking for over forty summers, but its newest baby too: the Spring YAWP (Your Alternative Writing Program). YAWP was launched, as the website says: “as a reaction to the branding, marketing, and career networking of AWP.”
Hellz-yeah! Port Townsend may be small, but it’s feisty. It’s the real deal in terms of being a place where art and the artistic spirit reside.
And then of course, up the road from Centrum sits Copper Canyon Press. O, Dean Young, Tung Hui-Hu, Jericho Brown, Lucille Clifton, Natalie Diaz, and the late C.D. Wright! The press has been granted exclusive North American publishing rights to Pablo Neruda’s lost poems; and last May, local translator Red Pine read alongside musical guests, in a special presentation of the poetry of Stonehouse, a fourteenth century hermit and poet.
Did I mention Port Townsend takes the artistic spirit seriously?
Last April, Artist Trust held its EDGE professional development residency for literary artists at Fort Worden for the first time in its seven-year history. “It’s a gorgeous location to hold a focused, professional development intensive. Artist Trust is very pleased with our partnership with Centrum to offer EDGE in Port Townsend,” said Executive Director, Shannon Roach Halberstadt.
This town is a nature, food, and hard apple cider loving writers’ paradise. It’s a literary history loving writers’ mecca too. Raymond Carver is buried an hour away and John Steinbeck’s boat Western Flyer is getting a $2 million facelift here. The new owner plans to turn her into a seafaring science lab for school kids (maybe he’ll create a Western Flyer visiting writer-in-residence one day as well—hello!).
Port Townsend is a far-flung dot on the map. It is earthy, arty, salty, and at sunrise or sunset, golden. I’m thankful I landed here. The owls are totally what they seem—not.