Lit Crawl proves that Seattle's literary community shows up big in hard times

There's always so much to cover at Lit Crawl. Like last year, we split up. Paul Constant, Martin McClellan, and Dawn McCarra Bass all attended different readings in so we could cover as much as possible. Even with that, we had to make hard choices, and missed things we wish we hadn't. It's not so much about picking your favorite thing as picking the one you'd regret missing the most. But that's just Lit Crawl, isn't it? We wouldn't have it any other way.

Phase 1: 6:00pm

Northwest Literary Survival Kit at Barca

Starting the night with Seattle Public Library's finest felt right — like launching a journey into barely charted lands (okay, from one side of Capitol Hill to the other) with a trusted guide to get you through the first leg.

Northwest Literary Survival Kit, hosted by Andrea Gough and David Wright, promised an orientation to Northwest culture and reading. Note: their real life job is to orient people to books, and Gough serves on the selection committee for Seattle Reads. So, yes, it was a blast.

In a sort of literary fast-pitch. Wright and Gough took turns offering titles from a range of Seattleish themes: local fiction (from No No Boy to Bernadette), Northwest classics ("if you see someone with a Still Life tattoo, you know that what they lack in judgment, they make up in heart"), a hat tip to YA and kidlit (Karen Finneyfrock's Starbird Murphy and the World Outside, among others). Earthquakes, serial killers, What makes it fun is hearing the two walk through almost thirty titles with footnotes on regional and literary history for each, as only librarians can.

Would we change anything? With all the great readings going on last night, it was a surprise to see only few of the Litcrawl writers' names on the list. But maybe that's trying to improve on perfection — the event is fabulous as is.

The full list should be on the Seattle Public Library site soon, so make sure to check it out. And while you're there, put a few of the last Booktoberfest events on your calendar.

It's Not Right, But It's Okay at Capitol Cider

The best Lit Crawl events tend to have strong themes to tie together disparate authors. And this event had one of the best themes we've seen at a Lit Crawl: Whitney Houston. Poets Elaina Ellis, Amber Flame, and Robert Lashley took turns reading work inspired by or informed by the singer.

Flame said she was enthusiastic to write pieces about Houston last month, but "the world just started fucking burning, right?" In a country that's being ripped apart at its seams, she had a hard time focusing. Ultimately, her work focused on Houston's ability to perform in the face of great adversity. Flame has a magnetic stage presence, allowing her to pull laughs from the darkest comedy. That charisma gave extra emotional power to her tribute to Houston's perseverance.

Lashley's work was full of mourning. He sang praise music like he was holding down the pulpit at a funeral. But he wasn't just saying goodbye to Houston — Lashley was mourning people in his life, and the spirit of cities. His line about "a gentrified funeral march" could just as easily have been about the crowds on the streets of Capitol Hill outside the reading.

Ellis read a very funny piece about mishearing the Houston lyric "I wanna feel the heat with somebody" as "I wanna fall in a heap with somebody." By the end of the night, sitting in a rapt room full of people softly singing the lyrics to "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" through cracking voices, the eulogy widened and grew larger and swallowed everything. The best themes are so specific that they become universal.

Rebecca Brown, Richard Chiem, and JM Miller at Hugo House

The new Hugo House feels ripe with promise. It's like the new pair of sneakers you haven't stepped in mud with, yet. Obviously safer and saner than the last building (the sign on the elevators seen on the opening night “do not use or you will be stuck" is now removed), its theater in the back is a box, and you sit on wheeled chairs on the cement floor. The readers are on a stage with subtly gorgeous lighting splashing faded jewel tones behind them. It's fresh, and different, so confusing, but also quite lovely and an airy, clear place to hear some words

Richard Chiem was first on stage. He read from his upcoming book The King of Joy, of which we're contractually obligated to mention how amazing the cover is [Ed: That's a joke. We are required to disclose there is no contract, but we can also confirm that pretty much everybody here thinks it's quite stunning]. He read in a soft, even voice, the story of his character Corvus. You'll hear much more about her, we suspect, when the novel comes out next year.

JM Miller, next at the podium, acknowledged how difficult the year has been, for the political reality impacting us, and also for them personally. They looked through their last two books and “control f'd how many times I used the word love." Those pieces were then brought together in what they called a “braid of poems" which they read tonight. It was a box of mirrors, fragments and reflections, little turns and larger metaphors. Sometimes hopeful, sometimes calm, sometimes rimmed with rage. “A mountain over you taunts you with horizon," they said at one point, and that line sure stuck.

Last up was the indescribable Rebecca Brown. She mentioned that Richard's work was from a title containing “joy", that JM read about “love", and that her own reading, from her new book Not Heaven, Somewhere Else, contained the word “heaven". Joy, love, and heaven. “Something to move towards besides agony and terror."

The pieces she read from the book — the one that stopped the clocks in the room was “The Girl Who Cried Wolf" — were about agony and terror. Brown has a way of taking a familiar thing and holding it as such an angle that you are convinced you've never seen it before, until she reminds you of all of your associations with it and you are confused as to why you've never seen it like she has before. It's quite a trick. Bless her.

Bless all three of these readers. What a way to start the night.

Phase 2: 7:00pm
Welcome to the Writers' Life at Roy Street Coffee and Tea

To craft her book Welcome to the Writer's Life, Paulette Perhach interviewed dozens of Seattle writers. In our pre-Crawl conversation with Perhach, she called herself "giddy" after every interview. For Lit Crawl, she brought a few of those writers together: Anca Szilágyi, (author of the fantastic Daughters of the Air, SRoB contributor, and the evening's emcee), Laura Da' (Tributaries, and a new book coming soon), Ross McMeekin (editor of Spartan, author of The Hummingbirds), Geraldine DeRuiter (Everywhereist, All Over the Place), and Perhach herself.

Because this small group meets regularly, the reading felt like an open conversation — like being brought into a group of close friends who're happy to make your acquaintance, which the coffeeshop setting supported. Da' reads almost casually, which lets the natural rhythm of the verse come through, and calmly, which highlights the careful balance between bright and dark that's a trademark of her work ("in the morning, he pronounced the moon both broken and his"). McMeekin read with eyes glued firmly to the page — but it worked, for his essay on the joys of sameness in the writer's daily life.

DeRuiter read a just-finished piece about her accidental Twitter war with her fifth-favorite celebrity crush, Lin Manuel Miranda, who she described as "what you'd get if Kermit the frog wished to be human: giant eyes, beloved by everyone, likely to burst into song." Shame may indeed be "nature's subtle way of letting you know that in a preindustrial society, you'd have been eaten by wolves"; on DeRuiter it's also very, very funny. And Perlach, fittingly, closed the night with the opening from her book: a wonderful bit on grief and fear and making the choice to write, regardless of whether it flies.

This is a great city for writers looking for community — maybe one of the best. If Perlach's book expands that community to a new set of writers, we are all for it.

(By the way, Perhach's essay "A Story of a Fuck Off Fund" is just as smart and biting as ever.)

Women writers on physical and metaphysical, with Sally Heges-Blanquez, Holly Deveboise, Frances Chiem, and Jessica Mooney, at Cafe Solstice

One part of Lit Crawl that you can't get away from: at least one reading in a loud bar that needs a mic. This event found two poets, Sally Heges-Blanquez and Holly Deveboise, and two prose writers working with non-fiction, Frances Chiem and Jessica Mooney.

Sadly, the poets were hard to hear from our vantage point — Heges-Blanquez read short pieces and haikus, and Deveboise, a Made at Hugo House fellow, started by saying “I'm still undecided on what I'm going to read", but that was not a signal she was lost as much as a signal that she knew she'd gain her footing right off. She did, even landing a few good “did she just say what I think she said!?' moments.

“Since I was a teen I've kept a journal of things I would do differently than my mother and father," said Chiem, in a piece that explored intergenerational differences, and what wanting children would even mean to her now. It was a funny and sweet exploration, poking at comfort and discomfort, ease and disease.

Mooney read her piece “Hello, Goodbye", previously published in CityArts Magazine. There are many good lines, and you should take a look, but the one that really picked at the brain was this image:

Fifty years ago, a teenager in China fell for a much older widow. Elders in the village had the same verdict for anyone who fell in love with a cougar: certain death by wrestling an actual cougar. Instead, the couple decided to run away and live in a cave. To help his wife navigate the terrain, the man spent decades hand-carving 6,000 steps into the side of the mountain. But what if she received the effort as a burden, an act of generosity she could never reciprocate? What if all she needed was a zipline?

Jack Straw Poetry Reading at Spin Cycle

Jalayna Carter and Natasha Kochicheril Moni have very different reading styles, but the graduates of the most recent class of Jack Straw's most recent Writers Program shared a special quiet dignity. The Jack Straw program helps writers learn to launch their work from the page into the world of audio, and it was clear that their centered performances came from a place of strength.

"I'm still trying not to get caught in your teeth," Carter read to gasps in the room. Her pronouncement that "you make a mountain out of my heart" caused knees to buckle.

Spin Cycle sells records and CDs, and so Moni's opening statement — "Tonight, I'm going to read you a mixtape" — was deeply venue-appropriate. Her set encompassed road trips and love affairs and unjust police stops and a line from an old poem about the way that poets used to send submissions to magazines in the mail, like love letters. That analog energy, in a room lined with beautiful record sleeves, provided a pleasing comfort.

We've read plenty of poems by Seattle Review of Books contributor Dujie Tahat before, but until last night we hadn't seen him read his work aloud. Wow! Tahat's readings are theatrical, with long, confident pauses and some slippery tongue-twisty gymnastics. On the page, his poems are powerful — he writes about faith and memory and divorce and scripture — but when he reads his work aloud, Tahat controls the heartbeats of everyone in the room. From his visceral older poems to his newer, more playful sestinas, Tahat demonstrated a command of the performing arts that should soon make him one of the hottest tickets in town.

(If you're interested in learning what Jack Straw can do for you, you can apply for this year's Jack Straw Writer's program on their website.)

Phase 3: 8:00pm

Pie and Whiskey at Capitol Cider

How did pie and whiskey shift from a snack to a book to a movement? Wait — how was the magical combination not a movement from the get-go? Well, anyway. Since 2012, Kate Lebo and Sam Ligon have been stuffing the masses with sugar and booze in service of great readings by great writers. This was a smaller gig than their usual, which boasts upward of 12 readers, 300 listeners, and countless pies and fifths of bourbon. But it was still as close to rock and roll as Lit Crawl gets.

All three readers slammed through their pages, and suddenly you wonder if this is how a reading should always be: fast, loud, funny, the words cascading by so quick you can barely take them in. We heard "vagina," (Lebo's new chapbook Seven Prayers to Cathy McMorris Rodgers) and "massacre" (Ligon's serial novel Miller Kane) fly by in a heartbeat and were swept away with Stacey Levine's rapid-fire short story "Bill Miller." We caught our feet just in time for a low, slow, singsong performance by blues poet Gary Copeland Lilley, which almost silenced the noisy room (almost: this was Pie and Whiskey, after all).

All three of these readers are worth checking out. But note that Lebo is giving her chapbook away free to anyone from the 5th congressional district, so your purchases subsidizes that small act of rebellion.

Then, of course, pie. Capitol Cider surprised Lebo with a gluten-free policy, so she soldiered the crisp, buttery goodness to the patio outside and served up slices to anyone who cared to join her. We did.

Hauntings and Hometowns: A Seattle7 Reading at Corvus & Co.

Frequent Seattle Review of Books contributor Donna Miscolta always creates a strong sense of place in her writing, but the piece she read at Lit Crawl last night was perhaps her strongest geographical work yet. Miscolta's understanding of how people shape place, and vice versa, resulted in a kind of generous, Steinbeckian portrait of a life as viewed through a wise, wide angle. Miscolta shared the stage with Kathleen Alcala, and Alcala's piece about growing up in San Bernadino felt of a pair with Miscolta's fine work. The two read about race and the weight of generations, and how crimes of the past continue to punish innocents in the future.

Jamie Ford's piece bore no similarity that we could discern with Alcala's and Miscolta's pieces, but it was in its own way a show-stopper. Ford shared a story from an upcoming collection about a young girl who develops an imaginary friend, who then tells the girl that she has to kill the president of the United States in order to avert a global catastrophe. It's a killer concept, and while some of the finer points still need some detail work, Ford is clearly enjoying the material, and his lively reading style makes the story all the more enjoyable.

Karen Finneyfrock, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, Kamari Bright, and Christine Texeira at Barca

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Kamari Bright reads during #litfixseattle

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Then we were at Barça, upstairs where it's tight and stuffy. As hostess Karen Finneyfrock pointed out, that's where readings feel most real.

Christine Texeira started with a ghost story, about a ghost and a ghost's ghostly neighbor, and inhabiting a haunted body.

Lena Khalaf Tuffaha read a number of pieces, one an assemblage of thoughts from poets responding to the anniversary of the Nakba, and a newer piece which is in the upcoming Crab Creek Review. Her work has a clear, firm vision, and lovely articulation of cultural placement in society, and geographic cultural uncertainty (that comes through in the piece of hers we published a few years ago, “As in").

Karen Finneyfrock read two poems — she mentioned that she had been writing angry feminist poetry for years, but she's been writing even more lately — that opened with the following lines: "I never had powerful hands", and the second: "I never mistook my grandmother for a wolf." She ended with the essay Strawberry Fields Forever that looks at the intergenerational movement of her maternal line. She looked at how her life differs from that of her great-grandmother, who passed along a piece of wisdom from her long days of migrant labor picking strawberries: "When you are bent over, she said, with your face to the earth, never look up to the end of the row"

Kamari Bright finished the series by standing powerfully in the middle of the room, where the other readers stood in an area demarcated as the stage. She read from a series of works exploring religion and patriarchy. One, titled "The Garden" (published here during her residency in July) flips the origin story of Eden on its head, and imagines Adam as jealous of the snake and apple, his woman stolen by temptation. Kamari is an ambitious multi-disciplinary artist, it is quite easy to imagine the large stages she will someday frequent.

Finneyfrock then sent us on our way, exclaiming that something rare and unprecedented had happened — all poets finished before their allotted time, so we had a bit of extra time to get to our last reading of the night.

Phase 4: 9:00pm

Transformation at Pine Box

Katie Ellison shared a couple pieces from an upcoming memoir about discovering her own Jewishness, and her travels to the Ukraine to learn more about herself. The reading was a perfect capstone to our Lit Crawl experience. Ellison talked about the camaraderie she shared with a stranger sitting next to her on her travels, and recognized the way that even a language barrier couldn't dampen his enthusiasm.

We felt that way on the streets, as we watched people heading to and from readings. We saw plenty of people we recognized, and we noticed some familiar faces have gotten a little older since the first Lit Crawl. Those faces, those other people, are what make a community.

Even if we don't know their names, those people we see populating all the same readings we attend — those are our people. We share a connection with them. Lit Crawl is an opportunity to celebrate that connection, to recognize that though reading and writing are solitary pursuits, those pursuits would be empty without all those other people — not just our contemporaries, but those who came before and those who'll come after. Today, we return to our solitary pursuits. But we're better for knowing that even in our solitude, we are never alone.

An Evening with John Mullen, Elizabeth Austen, Jennie Shortridge at Spin Cycle Records

The ever-delightful Mia Lipman Irwin, host of Lit Fix Seattle, and board member of the Orcas Island Lit Fest, made the intros here, for the last reading of the night.

John Mullen was up first, reading a piece from his memoir, about a boozy, weedy night driving out to find the Suscon Screamer, a ghostly bride still in her wedding whites who haunted the bridge where her brand-new husband had died in a car crash, many years previous. The story was layered, about using anger as a way to get close to people we love (and want to love), and how belief carries you on. Like when his friend tells them to lift their feet off the floorboards going over the bridge, or the bride will make you crash so you can join her in the afterlife. His work is evocative and deftly crafted — his language immediate and skilled, but evoking images he wisely avoids pressing on too hard. He lets the implication float in front of his words like a haunting.

Elizabeth Austen brings the kind of ease and poise to a reading only a Poet Laureate could — that is, someone comfortable standing in front of the room with only a poem or two for protection. By appearance, she teaches a lesson in how to read, how to own your words.

Her works, starting with one titled “How to Vote Like a Girl", were political and pointed, and very much of the moment. She worked on reimagining myths, including (like Kamari Bright, in the previous hour) the story of Adam told anew from a more trustworthy perspective than the man's. After two poems, that imagined a religious vision 15 years apart in their telling (investigating her own personal myths), she read a visceral, immediate, and brutal first-person poem of a rape that was lyrical, beautiful, and heart-rending. It took us all by surprise, and by the throat. Never before has a record store full of people been so silent.

Last up, for the lineup and also for this year's Lit Crawl, was Jennie Shortridge. The founding member of Seattle7Writers read from a piece in progress — something she said she hasn't quite found the form of yet. “It's suicide", she claimed, to read such a thing. (It wasn't).

It began subtly, building on the story of a woman, old and infirm, in body and mind, and her adult daughters holding keepsakes from her life. In a deft weaving, Shortridge builds, step by step, a compelling, difficult story of this mother's rape as a teenager, and its implications that waterfall through her life. One of the keepsakes her daughters hold, as she's dying of emphysema — a hammer — lent Shortridge this perfect closing line to her reading: “What good is a hammer when you're a nail?"

The naked, raw, and impactful truth-telling that Austen and Shortridge brought to their readings underlined that although authors have always dealt with what's current in the world, now there is a willingness to pull absolutely no punches. It wasn't just the words, it was the standing tall and not flinching, not backing down from topics immediate and necessary. The anger, frustration, and dissatisfaction with the current political and cultural landscape means stepping up and speaking a kind of vulnerable, direct truth. There can be no more hiding, and writers like them are on the front of a wave of so many women who are doing the same, or ready to. It's a form of resistance, a potent way to bear witness in the face of those who would sow chaos.

It sounds funny to say, but it is one of the most inspiring and hopeful things witnessed all night. The power from women rising up with real (and honest, if fictional) stories is a catalyst for change. Every time the world changes it's because of stories. By standing up and speaking the message is clear: let us change it again.