Willie Fitzgerald on the Seattle Scene Report
From author and APRIL co-founder, Willie Fitzgerald, comes a boat load of information about writers, presses, bookstores and events in Seattle. Heading to Anchorage, Alaska? Why not stop by Seattle on your way!
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On a clear day in Seattle you can see great, craggy mountains to the west, slightly less craggy mountains to the east and a single, perpetually-snowcapped and so-large-you-forget-about-it mountain to the south. The parking signs all use the cardinal directions—“No Parking West of Here”—and so you’re always thinking like a compass. It rarely rains the way people think it does (we have few torrential days), but all winter it’s dark and wet, and the sky is flat and clouded-over and it glows with a weird, dull fluorescence.
Paul Constant, late of the Stranger (and one of the finest book writers in America, whether he’s on a masthead or not) said that the weather forces writers inside, giving them no choice but to stay at their desks and work. I don’t know if that’s true, or just pathetic fallacy talking, but whatever the reason, Seattle’s a hell of a town for writers and readers.
What you’ll hear if you come to Seattle is that it’s a city of transplants. There’s always a lot of coming and going. And maybe because of that constant motion there are a lot of collisions and intersections happening all the time: writing meeting music, visual art, theatre, dance, drag.
At Sarah Galvin’s book launch, bizarro drag performer Jackie Hell croaked her way through Tina Turners “Private Dancer” and then threw nickels at people. We have poetry readings that turn into house shows and vice versa. Poet Denise Levertov is buried in the same cemetery as Bruce Lee. Constant intersections.
Allow me some shameless self-promotion: Four years ago, a few friends and I started APRIL, a festival of small press publishing. Every spring, we hold a week of events that culminates in our small press Book Expo. APRIL events are always a bit weird—we’ve held readings in derelict parking garages, one-night-only art shows inspired by books by Heather Christle and Mark Leidner, and competitions between poets, playwrights, novelists and drag queens. This year, Rebecca Brown will host a séance for the spirit of Alice B. Toklas, and we’re throwing a Twin Peaks-themed release party for Shya Scanlon’s new book.
Richard Hugo House is one of the central planets in the Seattle literary solar system. Hugo House is a place where you can take classes from people like Charles Baxter, Roxane Gay, and Mary Miller, attend book launches and readings, see a play or an absurdist variety show, or just hang around and write.
There are so many others, too. Seattle Arts and Lectures always brings heavy-hitters, and whatever you think of Ryan Boudinot’s controversial (to put it, uh, diplomatically) MFA essay, the UNESCO City of Literature project he’s fronting is important and exciting.
Bookstores, Bars, and Elsewhere:
Holy shit, do we have some bookstores. Leading the way is Elliott Bay Book Company (which I like to call Book Church), an enormous, spectacular store in Capitol Hill. We’re also very lucky to have Open Books: A Poem Emporium, one of a handful of all-poetry bookstores in the country.
Beyond that, you’ve got Third Place Books, the University Bookstore, and Queen Anne Book Company, along with a host of great used bookstores (my favorite is probably Magus Books in the University District).
And look, writers love to drink. If you’re a writer in Seattle, chances are good you’ve spent time at Vermillion Art Gallery and Bar, the Blue Moon Tavern (the alley behind which is named for Theodore Roethke, patron saint of Northwest Poetry) and Café Racer. All three of these places hold readings, drawing nights, book launches, art shows, performances—the vital stuff that gets writers out of the house and into each other’s company.
Oh, and we also have a library that looks like you could ride a light cycle up it. Lookit this fuggin’ thing.
Readings and Events
The thing about readings in Seattle is that there’s one every night. Seriously. Between Elliott Bay, Third Place, the University Bookstore, the talks at Town Hall, the Seattle Poetry Slam, and the smaller, scrappier events at bars, art galleries and elsewhere, literary events can (and often will) dominate your calendar. You might come across a reading by Richard Chiem, Rebecca Brown, Jane Wong, Peter Mountford. Maged Zaher, Elissa Washuta, or so, so many others.
My personal favorite is the Six-Pack Series, run by the Washington Ensemble Theatre. Six-Pack features three poetry or prose writers and three playwrights or actors writing to themes as intricate and thought-provoking as “Too Art to Fart” and “Too Drunk to Fuck.” Classy stuff. Honorable mentions: Breadline, a multimedia art experience that happens sorta-quarterly and the up-and-coming Seattle Fiction Federation.
Comics & Zines
Seattle has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to comics and DIY publishing. There’s a free newsletter called Intruder that showcases some of the best underground comics artists in town (full disclosure: my brother is a founding member). We’re home to Fantagraphics Books—probably the best comics publisher in the world. They’ve got a store down in the post-industrial warrens of Georgetown where you can pick up the new Love & Rockets collection or browse back issues of Dan Clowes’ Eightball. It’s nuts.
Seattle’s also home to ZAPP, the Zine Archiving & Publishing Project, the largest zine library in the world. They’ve got sci-fi fanzines from the 40s, issues of Subterranean Pop (the zine that would eventually birth record label Sub Pop) and tons of other stuff.
My favorite part of the comics/DIY scene here is Short Run. Short Run is an all-day fair of comics, zines, and books that happens every fall. Last year there were at least 1000 people there, and probably 200-something vendors. I bought a collage zine with Guy Fieri on the cover and a comic about Japanese psychedelic rock illustrated by Minh Nguyen.
Presses and Journals
Seattle is lucky to claim Wave Books, Copper Canyon, Chin Music Press, Alice Blue Books and a bunch of others. There’s also been a recent groundswell in literary journals—specifically, Pacifica Literary Review, the Monarch Review, Spartan and Pageboy.
We’ve got a bit of a symbiotic relationship with Portland, and so we poach events and writers from Tin House, Octopus Books, Poor Claudia, YesYes Books, Future Tense and others.
The Elephant in the Room
For all the titanic influence Amazon has on the publishing industry at large, it’s hard to discern its effect on Seattle. Seattle still buys a ton of books from independent bookstores, we have a great library system, and arts donors, by and large, support the literary arts. The way Amazon is really affecting the Seattle writing community (and, really, the city at large) is more apparent in demographics and cost of living.
Capitol Hill is, for all intents and purposes, the center of the arts community in Seattle. (It’s centrally located, it’s got the densest population, the most bars, and the most artists). But that’s changing quickly. The city is becoming more expensive and more homogenous (read: white) as more and more tech workers—many employed by Amazon—move to the neighborhood. Some of these newcomers
are great. Others are cartoonishly entitled, boorish, violent, and take-your-pick-phobic. It’s a contentious issue, but the endgame is already apparent: in the next decade or two, Capitol Hill will be thoroughly condo-ized and scrubbed of a lot of what’s made it such a great place for the arts community.
So where will Seattle’s writing community relocate? I honestly don’t know. (Also, I should really mention here that a ton of writers live off the Hill; Capitol Hill is just a convenient microcosm of the development that’s going on all over the city). I get the feeling that Capitol Hill will remain integral to the scene (especially if Hugo House and Elliott Bay stay put), but writers and artists are already seeking out neighborhoods that are a more affordable, like the Central District, Beacon Hill, and the International District. My hope is that those artists work hard to integrate themselves respectfully into these areas, which are already home to incredibly diverse populations.