I just finished Dark Reflections by Samuel R. Delany, a novel about a black gay lyric poet coming of age just before Stonewall named Arnold Hawley. I saw a reading with Delany, and he read from the book and said he wrote it because he wanted some way to concretely explain the choice that young writers were making when they dedicated themselves to writing. To explain what decades of neglect, poverty, and earnest focus (and it’s corresponding blindness) is like to a young person is nearly impossible. In the book some of the affecting moments include Hawley — who is not just a great poet, but a sensitive and picky reader and someone that any writer would recognize I think as the writer they aspire to be — include a dinner scene in which Hawley has been dragged from his book crammed studio apartment to drink wine and listen to much younger editors argue and talk about things they only half know about. Hawley has no way to provide much to the conversation not because he doesn’t know about the subject, but because he knows too much. Anything he added would sound like a correction, or worse a history lesson. They reference strands of thought that Hawley had deeply read in, participated in, had anticipated before they even developed, as they had happened. Hawley buys donuts in another scene for the warehouse workers who are putting stickers on the hundred books in the print run of his his bestselling title. He has just won a major, although obscure poetry prize, obscure even by the obscure standards of the poetry world. It the only notable prize he will win his lifetime. It results in a modest amount of poetry-world fame and then afterward an even more bitter sort of obscurity since he briefly seemed to be about to rise from oblivion.
When his editor who infects Hawley with her optimism wants to buy donuts for the warehouse workers packing his books after the after the prize, putting prize stickers on the books, she doesn’t have money to get the donuts. Hawley buys them. The cost of the donuts sets Hawley back and he learns to eat oatmeal for dinner. There were 300 books.
Just about anyone who has been a college student is familiar with this sort of poverty. It may not be the lack of money, but rather what money there is must go to food and rent or to clothes and gas. To purchase a good meal, to buy an expensive book, means you go without heat or gas or proper food for a time. In college there is the promise of this ending when you get a full time job. For Hawley or the career adjunct that never gets into the tenure track route (nearly all the labor at a contemporary university) then a lifetime of oatmeal dinners, Ramen, and late night writing. For labor in education, this is life: a perpetual mid-semester poverty streak that lasts to death.
Although the book is grim, it gets to those moments of transcendence or grace that sometimes happen I think to writers or anyone who dedicates themselves to a life of thought. I don’t think such moments are unique to writers, but the particular trappings of the moment are: Hawley discovers a new book or author. Hawley suddenly finds himself working a piece that engages him and that he can’t put down. It is unimportant then that he can’t really afford health care or meat.
I read at Hugo House a few nights ago night with the editors of Moss. Hugo House had a planned use sign out of it. I remember when the place didn’t yet exist and was a kind of a rumor. It was briefly going to be among the mansions above East Lake on Capital Hill (north of Harvard) but the neighbors didn’t want an institution there. And so it ended up in the particular building it is in now (but not for much longer). The building has been the New City Theater. I remember from time to time. a reader would recall some event that had happened at the theater. Even before that, it been a funeral home, and so there were always wishful stories of the place being haunted. Once Hugo House occupied that building what it had been became a layer of the deep past, and Hugo House inevitably seemed to always have been at that location. And soon that structure, that time and place will be another layer submerged beneath the present.
My second public reading was there in 1997 or so at the second or third reading of Rebecca Brown‘s Sketch Club reading series. She’d come to a Raven Chronicles reading at Red and Black Books on 15th where I read with Paul Hunter and Peter Ludwin, and Karen Allman Meade worked in the store that night. Brown asked me to read the same piece at her reading. Red and Black is also long gone. I read in the Cabaret Space. The room was packed. It was the first time I saw and heard Trisha Ready read. I don’t know remember much about it, but six years later after having a couple of books published I spent nearly three years at Hugo House hosting events for other writes in that space as a writer-in-residence. The house and the stage was a kind of tool for getting writers like Arnold Hawley in front of readers like Arnold Hawley. That was how I saw it then.
I have only been back to Hugo House a few times since June 2005. I think last night’s reading was the last time since 2010. I was going to read from a new book from Publication Studio last year with Trevor Dodge and Sarah Lippek, but then the events coordinator at Hugo House, Peter Mumford, seemed concerned about the possible turn out at the event. So thanks to Karen Maeda Allman (again!), I ended up reading at the Elliott Bay Book Company across the street.
Almost all of the city I know has vanished.Charlie’s on Broadway is gone (The attempt at Charlie’s resurrection was about as successful as attempting to restore a rotting deck plank.) All of South Lake Union is now Amazon. The Elliott Bay Book Company moved from Pioneer Square. The Speakeasy burned down years ago. Titlewave Books on Lower Queen Ann is long gone. The original Red Robin is no more; nearly all of the comfortable Seattle dives have finished their diving into oblivion. Nearly every person who made up the community that I knew in the 1990s and 2000s has left town. It has changed so much that when I mentioned the paltry literary offerings that Bumbershoot offered this year, Connor of Moss said, “they have literary events?” Bumbershoot’s literary fair, a kind of annual ritual of the small press world in Seattle, seemed a curio, like the location of Woolworth’s or Ben Paris downtown, like the water park on Alki, Luna Park, each a podunk Atlantis.
I begin to wonder how can culture much less a regional culture withstand such an onslaught of forgetfulness?
Seattle continues to exist as a kind of Venn Diagram of itself with the old circles withering or rotting into non-existence. Vitality and dynamism depend on destruction. The old is replaced. The cells in our body die and vanish. New ones made of new stuff form. We are not who we were ten years ago or twenty years ago. In the early 00s I wrote an essay called “Seattle is a Vortex” about the perpetual motion of Seattle. I wrote, “The shock of Seattle’s instant architecture makes me keenly aware that all of this asphalt, concrete, steel is just a by-product of something else.” At the time I thought it was culture and thought of culture as a kind of guiding local animus.
If culture is existence of context and proximity and context is not confined by geography and proximity is not confined by locality then culture itself is as malleable and transitory as an Internet forum, a web page, a human body. Eventually the aspects of culture that we like, that seem like part of us, will get a 404 error. Where there used to be a notable dinner, there is now a mixed use building with a Subway sandwich shop on the ground floor. Eventually the reason our long lost friend isn’t answering our FaceBook message is because they are dead.
In this light of the impending 404 of the Hugo House Building an institution that still returns my texts but is too busy for coffee, I felt a kind of Arnold Hawley moment when at the end of the Moss reading someone asked, “What do you think about a Pacific Northwest literary culture?”
It wasn’t that I had nothing to say. It was that I had too much to say — and I would have to start from the beginning again.
There is a Northwest literature culture. It is understood and known by academics in Italy. But here in Seattle and Portland, we don’t know it. It is like trying to see our own face without a mirror (or iPhone.) When we do look into a mirror — such as the show Portlandia — we say: you are a lie, there is more to it, do I really look that way? We are a region with a very poor memory, and not much interest in the present, and a fear of the future. We are interested in what people should be doing, but don’t have much time for what people are actually doing.
Culture can be I think a model or map of our own collective identity. It is an uncomfortable thing to consider, I guess. Better to use Photoshop on our profile photos, pretty up our histories, defer to old TV shows that made the mundane seem at least interesting, somehow.
Here is Clark Humphrey writing about Seattle Lit Culture in 1998 in the The Stranger in an article titled, “We Are Here! (Aren’t We?)” or about six years later Christopher Frizzle’s summary of “The Regionalism Wrangle” between me and Lyall Bush at Hugo House, titled, “A Fog-Machine Word.” Frizzle’s summary: “Briggs: ‘My argument is that there’s a cognitive need for people to understand their environment.’ … Briggs enters the face-off with the burden of being, well, completely wrong.” And at about the same time, the UW press anthology, Reading Seattle: The City in Prose. Charles Johnson wrote in the introduction of the book, “No prose anthology, in my view, could be more helpful – to immigrants or lifelong residents – in delivering Seattle’s relatively recent but startlingly rich history and diverse literary voices.”
I’ve been involved with other anthologies as well, the ghostly follow up to Zero House Press’s Good to Go that never actually appeared. I remember the first anthology, Good To Go, did appear and it was touted in Seattle 1991 hyperbole to do for Northwest Writing what Sub Pop did for Northwest Music. There was Clear Cut Press’s The Clear Cut Future and The Rendezvous Reader: Northwest Writing.
Many more anthologies have appeared. Each attempting to say there is a here here, such as An Anthology of Northwest Writing: 1900-1950 (University of Oregon Press), Iron Country: Contemporary Writing in Washington State (Copper Canyon Press), Northwest Passages: A Literary Anthology of the Pacific Northwest From Coyote Taels to Roadside Attraction (Sasquatch Books), Northwest Edge: Deviant Fictions (two girls), Northwest Edge: Fictions of Mass Destruction (Chiasmus Press).
There is of course of a regional culture and a regional literature but it goes hand-in-hand with a critical culture that seems to have Alzheimer’s. When I began reading the history of Northwest literature in the context of articles in the Seattle Post Intelligencer claiming that although our region had an identifiable art movement (The Northwest Mystic Painters) and our grudgingly, by the mid-1990s an acknowledged musical identity, these critics claimed there was really was no there there, no culture or writing. At best these articles claimed there was a collection of nascent scenes and a perpetual striving or as Christopher Frizzle put it, an agitation to make something out nothing. Yet, isn’t writing itself an agitation to make something out of nothing? Even a cursory investigation uncovers a cycle where a couple of anthologies come out there is a moment of self-reflection and definition, and then everything goes dormant again. This happens over and over again, decade after decade. The latest attempt at regional self-awareness in Seattle was squashed before it could even get out of the gate.
So I said nothing.
Rebecca Brown pressed me, and when pressed, I said there is a regional accent that will soon be gone. I think regional manners, and accents are the roots of regional culture. Seattle had a regional accent. But its contours didn’t take shape until after World War II, and it will not persist after Amazon. We talked about how people say things.
How essential can culture be if it is as transitory, ephemeral as a collection of human cells, as buildings in a city, as mud puddles on a gravel road?
All accents will be forgotten. Gertrude Stein sounds so odd in her single recording. She sounds like someone trained in elocution: stuffy and Victorian and yet even those words stuffy and Victorian are refactored, lenses of the present attempting to peer backward at a culture that is lost. All writers will be forgotten. I wonder how many people have read Richard Hugo’s poetry? His name is probably more like the name of a high school now. More people have a relationship to the phrase “McKinley High” than they do President McKinley, which is partly of what makes Ohio’s freak out over Denali amusing.
I mentioned to Koon Woon that I felt that a slice of the literary culture that I admired in Seattle seemed associated with Nelson Bentley, a poet who taught at the UW and to me a kind of positive image to the negative of David Wagoner. Koon was a student of Bentley. My first creative writing teacher, Arlene Naganawa, had been a student of Bentley’s, and the presence of Bellowing Arc magazine and Fine Madness were also manifestations of his influence and presence. I never met Bentley. He passed away in the late 80s. Clearly what I said must have resonated with Koon because he sent me a poem he’d written in memoriam of Nelson Bentley called “NB as Gungfu Master.”
adapted from the Chinese by
NB* as Gungfu Master
When I first arrived at the workshed as an itinerant boxer I told
NB I wanted to learn Gungfu. He said fine if you can parry my
punch and he threw a roundhouse punch to my ear. But he was so
slow and obvious that I was able to utter onomatopoeia before
he could land the blow. I said NB teach me the real stuff. I
will he said if you can stop a kick to the shin and watch out
for metaphors at the same time. I realized then that Gungfu is
deadly stuff especially when he recited RMi
lhouseN as America’s
anti-self as he kicked. I said ok NB what do I have to do? NB
said I will teach you if you carry my calf everyday as you do
your chores, carry it everywhere you go. I saw that it was a
small calf and myself being a robust man I said ok that’s easy.
And so I carried the calf in my arms everyday from the workshed
to the river to the fields, learning gradually the nifty shortcuts
in my daily rounds. At the end of each year I ask NB if I am
ready to learn Gungfu now. He always says wait until the calf
is a little bit bigger. After 10 years I thought I am wasting my
time scooping up calf dung for the past 10 years and so I said
to NB, who was now venerable and who carries a batch of pencil
stubs and a bundle of small notebooks which grew in size as my
calf did. Are you ready to teach me Gungfu? He said how much
did the calf weigh when you first came to the workshed? I said about
100 catties. He said you carried it? I said yes. And he said
for the last 10 years you have been carrying the calf everyday
as you jumped over fences and ditches have you not? I said yes.
How much does the calf weigh now? About 1,000 catties, I answered.
When you first came you could carry 100 catties but now you can
Carry 1,000 catties and jump over ditches and streams can you
not? I said yes. How high and how far can you jump if you weren’t
carrying the cow? I began to see his point. I bowed. NB then said
I have never taught Gungfu. I have taught something else.
I bowed again and he took back his cow.
*NB = Nelson Bentley, English Professor at the UW Seattle
(Published circa 1990 by the Bellowing Ark Press in Nelson Bentley Memoriam)
And so this poem points to me to the immediate utility of writing. You can carry enormous cows. And that was the bittersweet ending of Dark Reflections. Arnold Hawley was more alive then he would be if he were not a poet. Maybe writing is just that, a kind of performance enhancement practice for the living and that is all really it is. It is neither more than, or less than life. For some reason it seems in America we must apologize for out existence, as if existence itself is an entitlement, and the question being who told you could exist? Writing just reveals the trivial for what it really is — the humming birds in the rose bush out of my window and the blue grey glow of the sky before nine months of drizzle are humming birds in the rose bush and nine months of drizzle.