Book Review

'Seattle City of Literature' Introduces a City to Itself

The new anthology is a comprehensive snapshot of Seattle's community of writers, past and present.

By Darren Davis September 23, 2015

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For many, it is not so easy to conjure up images of the Northwest pre-Nirvana and Twin Peaks—the early '90s confluence from which Seattle's national identity was born, arguably an identity that lingered until Macklemore, Amazon, and Russell Wilson hit peak attention relatively all-at-once. 

These sort of statements get born-and-raised locals up in arms, because of course there was a Seattle before Nevermind. Of course the city was not born from the primordial soup of Kyle Chandler's cup of coffee. But where is the anecdotal evidence we can use to help form a local identity uninformed by how the rest of the country views us? Unless you go digging for it, stories about everyday Seattle circa, say, 1978 are just harder to come by than a memoir about the Grunge Days.

Ryan Boudinot's new anthology Seattle City of Literature features essays and vignettes from 35 local writers; love notes to the coffee shops/offices, book stores/monasteries, favorite readings, professors, peers, and of course the weather. In compiling these little patches the anthology does a great job of sewing together a banner under which the lit community can gather to help grow Seattle's identity as a city of literature now. But it is most engaging when hitting on the small stories about what it was like to live and work and write back then.

Take the contribution from Tom Robbins, author of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Still Life with Woodpecker, and the most recognizable name in the table of contents. His rumination on the literary scene in the '60s and '70s, headlined by poets Theodore Roethke and David Wagoner, is spellbinding not just in his invocation of those sacred names, but in the flat everyday-ness in which he describes raucous readings at the Blue Moon Tavern, where a poet once stripped naked and walked through a plate-glass window. These sort of tales help place Seattle within an American narrative hogged by Greenwich Village, Haight Ashbury, East L.A., and the like.

That's not to say the contributions of contemporary Seattle writers talking about contemporary Seattle are forgettable. I can't think of a more comprehensive single source for voices that make up the local literature community than this new anthology: Ed Skoog on how Open Books "is like a hardware store run by engineers," Elissa Washuta on Vi Hilbert and oral tradition, Peter Mountford on being broken and remade by David Shields, Stacey Levine on the importance of writing in public, Rebecca Brown on her teaching trajectory and Hugo House, Shawn Wong on writing workshops for veterans, and Karen Finneyfrock on poets tearing up the Kit Kat Club, to name only a few. These passages make up the majority of the anthology—broken up by Q&As with other important figures in the lit scene. They read from informative to poetic and are each illuminating in their own way if you want to dig in to working writers, not literary rock stars (with the exception of Robbins), talking about writing.

While it's worth noting that the anthology's editor, Ryan Boudinot, was involved in a controversy earlier this year stemming from his Stranger op-ed on MFA programs, resulting in a reshuffling of leadership behind Seattle City of Literature—the nonprofit organization Boudinot founded to campaign for Seattle as an official UNESCO City of Literature—it is clear Boudinot loves Seattle and its writers, and that controversy has zero bearing on the excellent roster of talent he assembled for this book.

Updated September 24, 2015: The article incorrectly stated that the Seattle City of Literature anthology was not affiliated with the UNESCO City of Literature campaign, when in fact the anthology was submitted as part of the official UNESCO bid.

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