Local Talent

A Fiendish Conversation with Hugo House's Tree Swenson

The executive director of the literary non-profit organization discusses the Carolyn Kizer tribute and up-and-coming local writers.

By Seth Sommerfeld January 15, 2015

Tree Swenson and background books.

The Hugo House has long been a hub for the Seattle literary community with readings, workshops, book launches, and much more from its Capitol Hill perch. Starting in early 2016, the non-profit will become a temporary transient about town as its home base gets torn down and replaced by a new, larger, multi-purpose structure. In the meantime, this weekend Hugo House hosts a celebration of recently deceased poet Carolyn Kizer on Sunday, January 18. The prose Kizer crafted is woven into the fabric of literary feminism in the Pacific Northwest. The Spokane native and UW grad won a Pulitzer Prize for 1985’s Yin and helped nurture other female voices in the region. Overseeing the event is Hugo House executive director Tree Sweson, who worked as Kizer's editor during her stint as Copper Canyon Press's publisher.

For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Swenson about Kizer's legacy, Hugo House's upcoming transition to a new building, and local writers to watch.

Why was it important to host an event honoring Carolyn Kizer?

When Carolyn Kizer died, we felt like she's a major literary figure who was too important to Seattle not to honor in some way. She was a student of (Theodore) Roethke and even though she was not in Seattle for a great long while, she was an instrumental figure. She co-founded Poetry Northwest, which is a great literary journal that is still going. It's kind of a tribute to her vision. She was also a great feminist advocate at a time when it was not all that common.

So what will the Kizer event entail?

There will be readings of her work, poems by her, and talking about her work. It's impossible to talk about the work of Carolyn without also talking about the person of Carolyn Kizer, because she was much larger than life. Impossibly glamorous. When she walked the room, the conversation would change. People would stare at her. She just had a grand appearance. She was quite tall 5'10", I think, and she just had a sense of command. But that was coupled with a great generosity, she really nurtured younger writers. She was the first literary director for the National Endowment of the Arts. That a woman was picked for that position in 1965, that was significant

There are a number of people who knew Carolyn Kizer who are flying in. It's really a great list of readers. Poet Willis Barnstone is a great translator. Kevin Craft, the current editor of Poetry Northwest, will be participating. Carol Muske-Dukes who is from the L.A. area. She has been teaching at USC for many years and is a distinguished poet. Tess Gallager who was also one of Roethke's students. Garrett Hongo from the University of Oregon. Local poets include Brian Olson, Carolyne Wright, and Kizer’s son-in-law David Rigsbee, who actually met her when he was a student.

What was it like working as Kizer’s editor?

When I was at Copper Canyon Press I did a lot of different things, but Carolyn absolutely insisted that she wanted to work with me and my partner at the time. We worked very closely on four of her books: two books of poetry, a book of translations, and a book of prose. So we spent an enormous amount of time talking through her work and looking at manuscript. She was great to work with as a poet. She had very strong opinions, but she also was not at all hesitant to change her mind. It was a real deep engagement with work and her dedication to try and make sure that the work was as polished as it could possibly be.

What’s the current status of the plans for a new Hugo House building and moving around town in the interim?

We are poised to—if the schedule holds—find temporary operating spaces a year from now: January of 2016. And actually, just this week, we are launching a couple of the first offsite classes that we've offered. We have, I think, seven or eight of them: we're in Ballard, Wallingford, Kirkland. So when we are not in this space, we'll be looking for a lot of other venues where we'll be able to hold classes and events. We probably won't be offering quite as many classes or events as we currently do.

What are some of your favorite events scheduled on Hugo House's horizon?

We have a series called Writers Under the Influence. It's an event in which we have three or so writers talking about the work of a writer who has profoundly influenced them. I just think is such an important part of the writers' work, because no one writes without being an avid reader. We did one on Kafka last year that was just extraordinary. We're doing one on Rilke on February 12.

After we planned the Carolyn Kizer event, the poet Galway Kinnell died. So many important poets died in 2014, that we decided to do an another event. There were a number of people in the area who were really influenced by Galway Kinnell, and while he didn't have the same kind of tie to Seattle that Carolyn Kizer does, we thought “This is hard, when a poet who has been an important part of someone's life, writer's lives, dies.” It’s hard to just see that end without someway marking the passing. So on March 20, we’re doing an event called Lament for the Makers in which we will have many writers from the area reading the work of a poet who died in 2014 and just paying tribute. That's really the great thing about literary traditions, that it braids the work over time.

And there any upcoming Hugo House classes that you're particularly excited about?

Our writer-in-residence right now, Joan Leegant, is teaching an advanced fiction workshop. She is just an amazing writer and a very fine teacher. She is very thoughtful and really just hones in on working in a remarkable way. And our former writer-in-residence, Peter Mountford, is teaching a class with the title "Rule #1: Never be Boring (There Are No Other Rules)." He's working on compelling openings and that should be a pretty great class. We have Jess Walter coming over to do a master class; it's a one-day session, but he's an extraordinary writer. We also have David Gates, a writer from Montana, who’s teaching a master class in how to create a scene in fiction.

I think we have a 77-percent increase in the number of classes that we've been offering over the past two years. The number of people enrolled is also grown from a little over 1,100 in 2012 to 2,068 in 2014. So, I think both the quality of the classes, and certainly the number of people interested, has really been growing.

Who are some of the up-and-coming local writers that Seattleites should check out? 

Suzanne Morrison is a really interesting writer, memoirist. I think she’ll definitely be someone to watch. Zubair Ahmed has one book of poems out from McSweeney's (City of Rivers) and is now working on a big prose project. EJ Koh is another poet with one very impressive book out. Bill Carty is the strongest poet I know who hasn't yet published a book. Michelle Peñaloza is another young poet who deserves recognition but doesn't have a book out yet. Eric McMillan is an extraordinary fiction writer, who writes powerfully out of his former military service. Megan Kruse will be publishing a novel in March (Call Me Home) and that is one to watch for.

He's hardly a beginning poet, but Ed Skoog is just an amazing voice. He only has a couple of books out, but I would say he is really a world-class poet. Anyone who hasn't checked out the work of Domingo Martinez certainly should. We are really fortunate to have a National Book Award finalist (The Boy King of Texas) living here in Seattle. When you have someone of that stature living in Seattle you really want to be paying attention.

Carolyn Kizer Celebration
Jan 18 at 4, Hugo House, Free

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