Theft and art and chandeliers at Hugo House's Literary Series

On Friday night at Fred Wildlife Refuge, Hugo House events coordinator Peter Mountford thanked a big crowd of people for joining the House in what he called Hugotory — the purgatory period between Hugo House’s demolition and reconstruction, when the nonprofit writing center is hosting events in many different venues around town. Fred Wildlife is a terrific venue for the House’s Literary Series: the room feels at once large and intimate, and there’s something about a chandelier to make a reading feel extra-classy.

The last few Literary Series I’ve attended have been slightly unbalanced, in that the headline reader — the big-name writer, usually shipped in from another part of the country — has been less interesting than the local writers at the front of the show. That lack of evenness hasn’t been a deal-breaker; at every Hugo Literary Series event, at least two of the readers are guaranteed to give the kind of performance you’ll remember for a long time.

Friday had three memorable performances. Local singer ings performed soft-spoken, songs that kept with the evening’s theme of “theft” —one song’s lyrics was made up of book titles, another’s chord progression was lifted from a Fleet Foxes song. It would have been easy for ings to just perform a few covers and call it a thematic success, but she built new works from other ideas. As Mountford announced at the beginning of the night, all writers steal — the difference between plagiarism and art is that the writer does something new with it.

Poet Quenton Baker, fresh off his $15,000 award from Artist Trust, performed a suite of poems from his still-in-progress second book of poems, about the largest successful slave uprising in the United States. Before each poem, Baker named the poet he “jacked” a line or two from. The poems were about the violence committed to black bodies, and the theft on which this country was built, and Baker’s past as a rapper — which he admitted to, very bashfully, from the stage — showed through in his performance, which was relaxed and confident. His first collection will be published in the middle of next month, and it will likely establish him as a staple of the Seattle literary scene.

Headliner Téa Obreht’s short story was concerned primarily with the theft of language. Obreht said that as a Serbian refugee, she found it was fairly easy to adopt an American accent, which made her experience completely different than other refugees. Her story was about an academic encountering a young street hustler, and though nine times out of ten I’d advise writers to avoid dialogue-heavy pieces when reading, the way Obreht delivered the lines — accented, translated, always trying to find common ground and continually failing — was masterful. It’s a story that wouldn’t work as well in print, at least not without serious reworking.

The next Hugo House Literary Series event happens just before the election, on Friday, November 4th, with authors Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Kirstin Valdez Quade, musical group The Royal Oui, and Alexander Chee. It’s worth the visit to Hugotory.