WordStock – Portland Lit vs Seattle Lit

I’m reading tomorrow morning at Wordstock at 11 a.m. Jim Bertolino is reading at 10 a.m. Charlie D’Ambrosio’s new book The Fish Museum has been published, and he’s reading (on Sunday). Hathwthorne Publishing will have a reading. Gina Oschner is reading multiple times. Spork will release the print edition of their magazine. There are more things going on in three days then occur in Seattle in an entire season. Now, there are too many things going on Seattle, which is good, I think, to have too many things because then everyone can do something. But in Portland there is an orgy of literary activity that does not end. Mid-week before Wordstock, the mayor declared Portland, Poetland for a day.

Case in point, in Portland you can eat dinner with Gore Vidal and Matthew Stadler. In Seattle tomorrow, you can go to The Elliott Bay Book Company, order a brownie and coffee, and listen to Portlander, Ellen Urbani Hiltebrand read from When I Was Elena: A Memoir (Permanent), her account of going to Guatemala for the Peace Corps in the early 1990s.

I’m not sure what happened, but somewhere along the line Portland managed to develop a thriving, essentially indigenous lit culture that is completely lacking in Seattle.

They have a great bookstore (Powells), a slew of great small presses (Clear Cut Press, Hawthorne Publishing, Verse Chorus Verse Press, Evil Twin, Future Tense Publishing) as well as a good magazine (Tin House). Portland even has a good lit blogger, The Moorish Girl, the only “lit blogger,” I belive to have actually published a book. And their annual bookfair, Wordstock, in its second year while it has echoes of the girth and weird connection to the so called book industry also contains large swaths of this indigenous lit culture.

Seattle, oddly, lacks all of these things, or if we do have them, they are kind of faded in comparison. The Elliott Bay Book Company, one of the great independent bookstores that came out of the 1970s, has never really made the jump to the Internet Age. The search function on the website is not even a good implementation of a standard Booksense search. I have my problems with Booksense anyway since in trying to create a sense of collective action, the collective identity of “independent bookstores” becomes a mass of bland, common dominator consensus. How else could The Historian become “The Independent Book of the Year? Elliott Bay has become a bit ratty and just doesn’t feel that connected to the larger city of Seattle. Elliott Bay, like Powells, is generous enough to foster connections with local writers — but unlike Powells it lacks long standing staff who are obsessive about the writing produced by its city. Powells on the hand with curated shelfs and a great online presence, and to enter the physical structure of Powells feel as if you’ve entered the well-used brain of the city. Elliott Bay on the other hand feels like finding your uncle’s college books in the shed.

There isn’t a single small press of note in Seattle aside from the sporadic (and I’ll be biased) excellent Black Heron Press. The UW Press is good, but it is an academic press. Our literary magazines are almost as bad. The Golden Handcuff Review and Cranky are good, but they seem very specific to the tiny population of writers who are a community oriented. The Seattle Review is an academic journal and while these serve their function, academic journals, because they are staffed by students who rotate in and out, they never feel really connected to any kind of long standing discourse. I guess they do if they have a single, strong editor. I guess I’d say journals like the Chariton Review, and The Northwest Review of Poetry when it was edited by David Wagoner would fit this bill.

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