At the end of June, Hugo House announced that they had hired Rob Arnold to fill the events director position previously held by novelist Peter Mountford. The press release cited Arnold's impressive resumé — he "has held key positions at Ploughshares, Beacon Press, Fence Books, the National Poetry Series, PEN New England and, most recently, at the literary agency Aevitas Creative Management in Boston, Massachusetts" — and his education as a poetry undergrad at the University of Washington.
Over the phone, Arnold sounds elated about his new job — and, if anything, he seems even more excited about coming back to Seattle after many years on the east coast. Arnold recalls coming to the House back when it first started in the late 1990s. "I really gravitated toward [Hugo House's] sense of community," he explains.
"I've been aware of Hugo House for a long time," Arnold says, and as he's established a literary life on the east coast, "I've been watching the House from afar. Peter [Mountford,] especially, has really brought its event series into national prominence. When he announced that he was leaving, it seemed like a really good opportunity to come back."
Arnold has roots in Seattle, and returning to its peculiar Northwestern rhythms was easy and enjoyable for him. "I keep joking with my east coast friends when they ask me how Seattle is. I say 'it's relentlessly pleasant.'"
It helps that Arnold is intimately familiar with the Northwestern tradition of poetry. At UW, he explains, "my first very first workshop was with Rick Kenney." he says that experience "really opened my brain in the best possible way, and so I studied with him a lot. I was a Rick Kenney acolyte." He also learned from Linda Bierds and Robert McNamara.
I ask Arnold if he can think of any literary events he's attended that especially stood out as something he'd like to emulate at the Hugo House. "Any time Margaret Atwood is in a room, it's going to be remarkable," he says. "But I remember seeing Margaret Atwood at the Boston Book Festival interviewed by Kelly Link." Link at first seemed like she might feel "dwarfed" by Atwood's brilliance, Arnold says, but "Atwood was so incredible and so generous and just fiercely intelligent, and it was one of the most riveting experiences."
Arnold will be putting together the very first events in Hugo House's brand-new home. "Part of my role, of course, is to curate to the new space, but so much of what Hugo House has been doing already has been so vital and so compelling to the community that following the guidance of my predecessors is going to be something that I keep in mind a lot."
"We do have this amazing new theater space that's going to be really thrilling," Arnold says. "It will seat 150 and then they'll have expanded seating available for more."
But even Arnold doesn't know what the events slate will look like a year from now. "I'm still getting to know the space and I imagine that once I get to know all the different spaces we have to work with, I'll be booking different kinds of events to occupy different parts of the space in the building."
You can expect some popular House reading series to continue, including the themed Literary Series and the craft conversations. Arnold is excited about incorporating more genre authors into the series, including a craft talk from mystery author Elizabeth George. "I'm looking at erasing some of the boundaries that have existed a little bit too long between literary and genre. I think those boundaries are blending a little bit now, particularly in the post-Harry-Potter age when people feel less divided about genre."
What other sneak previews can Arnold provide? "Lauren Groff will be taking part in our fall series. That's super exciting for me. And the poet Natalie Diaz is going to be doing a really amazing event for us on the Edward Curtis legacy. That's going to be really interesting."
Hugo House, he says, is "a community center, and we're working with a lot of other literary organizations — hosting events for them, working with them in partnership — and so we're not just a resource for writers, but a resource for writing and literary arts in general in the city, like a portal to the larger literary world."
One of Arnold's central missions is to strengthen the House's "commitment to equity — racial equity, economic equity — and reaching audiences that sometimes the literary community can forget about." It's his job, maybe most importantly of all, to open the House to people who don't even know they're welcome there yet.