When I first moved to Seattle in 2003 I desperately wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I was reading lots of Bukowski then and assumed it largely involved drinking and fighting and suffering—and, of course, writing. (Cut me some slack—I was in my early 20s, the age every poet-boy falls for Buk.) Besides Jaime, my then-girlfriend/now wife, I knew one person in all of Seattle, and when I shared my literary dream with him, he suggested Hugo House.
“Tons of writers there,” he said.
Soon after, I stepped foot into this old, spooky house, and I found my people. There were smarty-pants poets and gonzo novelists and hip zinesters. The kitchen counter top was smattered with letters. The walls were lined with poetry broadsides. There was a baby coffin. Oh, and a bar! It would be years before Liz Lemon said, “I want to go to there,” but that’s exactly how I felt. I wanted to go to Hugo House as much as I could.
For nearly two years, I gave what little time I had to the House, volunteering as a grant writer and a writing mentor for a teen who wasn’t much younger than me. Eventually, I applied for and was offered a part-time position as registrar after telling several staff members I would volunteer until they hired me.
“You’re never going to get rid of me,” I said.
Eight years later, I can proudly say I have held nearly every position at the organization but executive director. I have answered the phones and worked the front desk. (This may come as a surprise to my lovely coworkers who tease me about my hatred of phone-talk.) I have washed and stocked the bathrooms. (I have a rep around the House as a bit of a germaphobe.) I started our first Facebook page. (Well, a college student-intern set it up, and then I went wild.) But the job I most wanted was program director, a position I’ve often described to people as “all the fun stuff,” and like I bided my time as a volunteer, I pledged to do the same as an employee.
During my tenure as program director, I have brought a particular flavor to the culture of programming at Hugo House, a taste born out of my disdain for boring readings, ones where you sit quietly and still for so long it feels as if your ass has drifted into rigamortis. From the Hugo Literary Series to book launch parties for Ryan Boudinot, Karen Finneyfrock, and many others, to my babies, Cheap Wine & Poetry and Cheap Beer & Prose, my approach to curation and event organizing has always been consistent with my position (and personality) as a whole—fun. All too often, I think, the literary community in Seattle and elsewhere takes itself far too seriously, and as someone who believes in broadening the reach of literature, I prefer high-fives over hoity-toity.
At readings and events I have organized, hooting, hollering, foot-stomping, and finger-snapping are commonplace. There has been breakdancing, spankings, Roshambeau with Asian Jesus, and birthday cake. There has been laughing, crying, laughing and then crying, and a whole lot of poetry-sighing and prose-groaning.
But these readings aren’t just hijinx. Writers, especially the locals, tend to bring it when they read at Hugo House, and audiences love them when they do. (Commence the hooting, people!)
There are far too many memories for me to recount them all, but some that come to mind over the last few years are: Watching Macklemore perform “Wing$” on our stage as a spoken word piece before it was an ear-thumping song on his hit album; Philip Lopate telling me, “Of all my students, the best writers weren’t the ones who made it. It was the ones who worked the hardest, the ones who were the most ambitious”; Ed Skoog kissing me on the lips after a great reading—and lots of whisky; Nicole Hardy provoking belly-aching laughter and then punching us in our guts with sadness when reading from her forthcoming memoir; Chris Abani blowing my fucking mind with his essay on creating and bearing witness; the chilling feeling of holding a M-1 carbine as part of Marya Sea Kaminski’s immersive rock musical about guns; Sam Lipsyte and Ryan Boudinot diagramming sentences of Sam’s latest, “The Fun Parts”; Katie Kate Sadie-Hawkinsing it up at the Lit Series; producing two ridiculously popular solo-plays from Matt Smith and David Schmader; nearly peeing myself during Suzie Morrison’s killer reading at Cheap Beer & Prose; writing a kick-ass story in a workshop with one of my favorite writers, Jess Walter; sharing pizza and discussing the many uses of “motherfucker” with Aimee Bender; executive director Tree Swenson’s (She hates it when I call her “my boss.”) streams of wisdom, which I call “Tree-isms,” my favorite of which is “The harder you work, the luckier you get”; receiving a last-minute notice from Cheryl Strayed that she was unable to present at the Lit Series due to a serious illness, and then scoring Sherman Alexie to replace her.
I could go on. And on. And on. (I suppose I sort of did….)
And then there are the relationships, the many writers I have had the pleasure of talking to, learning from, and drinking with, the conversations about process and art-making, which gave me a MFA when I didn’t get into a program, and knowing so many writers, so many friends, who’ve walked out of this old, spooky house and onto bigger and better things than when they first stepped in.
Which is exactly what I hope to do now and why I will be stepping down from my position as Program Director at Hugo House to devote serious time to completing a book-length memoir born out of my recently published personal essay on Salon.com, as well as spend more time with my son, who, despite my protestations to stay young, is not a baby anymore.
But, Seattle writing community, you haven’t entirely rid yourselves of me. I will still be involved in the programming at Hugo House, curating and emceeing many of the House’s events, including the Literary Series and “Cheap Wine & Poetry” and “Cheap Beer & Prose.” You’ll still see me sucking down a Rainier behind the soundboard and hear my squawky New York accent from the speakers. I just won’t be around as much, won’t be filling the halls of the House with my bellows, or clogging your inboxes with so many emails about teaching, reading, and getting involved.
Ten years after moving to Seattle, I have accomplished more than I ever imagined, and I am not done yet. The same is true for Hugo House. After sixteen years of existence, the organization is doing some of its best work, and I believe it will only get better.
And I know it will continue to be fun.
In closing, thank you, Seattle writing community, for the opportunity to serve you. Without you, without Hugo House, I would not be the writer, the father, the man I am today, and it has been so deeply rewarding to be part of creating a place where writers call home, where good writing is appreciated, and where we can be as smarty-pants, gonzo, or hip as we want to be. I hope I have inspired you as much as you have inspired me.