By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
The three West Seattle writers who co-curate WordsWest Literary Series say it’s the kind of series “we would like to be invited to.”
WordsWest opens its fourth season this Wednesday night at C & P Coffee Company (WSB sponsor) and co-curators Harold Taw, Katy Ellis, and Susan Rich say it’s become everything they hoped it would be, and more.
While we regularly feature WordsWest in the WSB calendar and previews, we thought the start of the season would be a good time to check in with the co-founders, to re-introduce (or, if you’re new here, introduce) them and what it is they do each month. So we sat down with Susan, Katy, and Harold for that check-in over lunch at Easy Street Records one recent midday.
First – we should mention that WordsWest events usually feature two writers, in an innovative format, plus a community member reading a “favorite poem,” and a chance for interactivity with the dozens of attendees. More on the 7 pm Wednesday season-opener lineup a bit later – but first, the start of their story:
Susan – who had just come back from the Poets on the Coast retreat she runs in LaConner – explained that she and Katy met at the city’s best-known bookstore, Elliott Bay Books, introduced by a mutual friend. Talking, they agreed, “wouldn’t it be nice to go to a reading without having to cross the bridge?”
An early topic of discussion: “What would we call it?” And during that discussion, Susan suggested her friend Harold “would be a really great partner.” So they brainstormed “but we didn’t know if people would come,” Susan noted – “and they’ve come.”
That’s not a surprise, given the writers they’ve booked for WordsWest. Even in the first year, Harold recalled, “we had three people who were nominated for the Washington State Book Award” – featured at WordsWest before those nominations. “We’re doing pretty well in terms of people wanting to be readers” for the series. Past readers also have included Washington State Poet Laureates.
Some audiences, Susan adds, have been standing-room-only – for example, when they featured National Book Award-winner Terrance Hayes last April. (That was the result of a partnership with Highline College, where Susan teaches; every April, they’ll have a nationally known poet.)
Another vivid memory from WordsWest Season 3 – the third annual Kids’ Night, when they featured the very popular Sundee T. Frazier and Kazu Kibuishi. “That was a little crazy,” Harold smiled, adding that “when I told my son that (Kibuishi) was coming, he went screaming around the house.”
You don’t have to be related to one of the co-curators to be a WordsWest fan. “We have a very loyal following,” Katy notes. The venue – the cozy Craftsman-home living room at C & P Coffee – is a draw as well as the writers. The three are grateful to C & P co-proprietors Cameron Moores and Pete Moores for donating the space, recalling that “they always imagined they would have this kind of community gathering.”
Susan points out that Katy mentioned in another interview that it’s important for people to get together in person, face to face, more than ever these days. Harold says writers’ work can open the door for conversation about “what’s happening now … the questions that people are presenting in their art are not what they seem on the surface.” One example: Between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Inauguration Day, last January’s WordsWest featured Anastacia Renée Tolbert and Claudia Rowe with the theme “Dreams Deferred”:
Community participation is a WordsWest hallmark as well. Katy explains “the ‘West Seattle’s Favorite Poem’ project. The original idea was, how can we get the community involved?” so they talked to local businesses to invite reps to come read their favorite poem aloud during the program. “The only ulterior motive is that (readers) will bring friends to hear you read your favorite poem. … (And) it is a way for people to get their businesses out there.” Susan notes that the Hedgebrook women’s writing retreat on Whidbey Island usually sponsors one WordsWest event a year, so on that night, a Hedgebrook alum usually reads her favorite poem.
Then there’s the annual West Seattle Food Bank benefit, just before Thanksgiving.
The series itself benefits the writing community, not just by providing a showcase. The writers are paid, Susan points out, and get to sell their books without WordsWest taking a cut. The night is recorded on audio, so the writers get that and can share it on their own websites. (More than 20 of the WordsWest events are archived on video, too.)
For the co-curators, it’s “like literary nourishment,” Harold says. “We (get to) hear diverse voices, the kind of voices we don’t always read – it’s like a book club, being exposed to new writers and folks we haven’t heard before – such a neat experience – these days, where do you get that from?”
As for the attendees – Harold goes back to last year’s Kids’ Night, when the readers included Dana Simpson of “Phoebe and Her Unicorn”:
“The kids were so enthralled, they were all drawing their own comics,” Harold enthuses. “It was so cool … (seeing and hearing authors) demystifies the idea of being a writer – (the kids) see themselves as writers,” and that extended to Kazu Kibuishi this past June, “giving kids lessons afterward, showing the kids how to do 3D drawings …”
Grownups might find a unique opportunity at WordsWest, too. “Sometimes we have writing exercises,” Harold said. “You realize you’re part of this writing community – not just ‘audience and authors’.”
The format also is unique, Katy explains, not one writer doing their reading followed by the next. They trade off, in a “braided” fashion, with “echoes of themes bouncing off each other.” Then a break, then the favorite poem, then the writing workshop or Q&A, something interactive, as happened during the appearance of radio journalist Ruby de Luna and playwright Stephanie Timm:
If you don’t want to participate, don’t worry, you won’t be forced to – participants volunteer, Susan says. “We feel like it’s really different than what happens at other readings – the idea is that we want it to be alive.”
The “welcoming environment” at C & P helps in a big way, Harold notes. And along with bringing in a sizable audience each month, WordsWest has enhanced C & P by starting a reading library with the featured writers’ books. Not only did Pete and Cameron embrace the idea, Susan says, “they painted the shelf a beautiful bronze color.”
So if you go to C & P for the WordsWest season opener on Wednesday night, what will you see/hear?
Katy answers: Daemond Arrindell brings “poetry, spoken word,” and more. He’s known as “kind of a motivational speaker for young people,” through Writers in School work.” Much of his focus is on social justice.
Jeanine Walker is a poet and musician, who “has another life as the host of a variety show in Columbia City, ‘Mixed Bag’ – standup comedy, skits, videos with her husband, and a new CD she’ll be selling.”
She and Daemond have known each other a long time, which should enhance the “braided” nature of the reading.
The favorite poem will be read by Maketa Born, who also will be playing the hand drum and welcoming the crowd.
The whole year is set up already, by the way, the co-curators tell us – except for Kids’ Night in June. Harold laughs, “We have nine months to figure it out.” (And if you’re a published author in West Seattle and haven’t already been part of WordsWest, they’d love to hear from you!) And figure it out, they will … “We’re talent scouts,” Katy explains. “It’s so great that we have three co-curators – we have support – if one of us is totally swamped, the others can help pull it together.”
“I think we work pretty well together,” Susan agrees.
“We hardly ever poke each other’s eyes out,” Katy jokes.
“Very rarely,” Harold adds.
It’s not just a matter of booking writers, of course, to make a literary series happen. Since admission is free, getting money to pay the writers who appear has meant pursuing grants and sponsors, and cobbling together other funding, partnering with independent bookstores on occasion, too. They also have some help from interns for the second year – “two absurdly talented interns,” says Harold, “both published poets.”
Speaking of published … we haven’t said anything about the co-curators’ impressive resumés. We ask what’s new with them, and everyone points to Katy, whose next book “Night Watch” will be out October 8th. She’s already won the Floating Bridge Press 2017 Chapbook Award, we’re told – which, Susan notes, is a big deal.
Susan is working on her fifth book.
And while writing is an art that usually means much time spent alone with your words and thoughts – Wednesday you will find all three of these writers, plus their featured readers, anything but alone, at C & P (5612 California SW) for the season-opener of WordsWest Literary Series. You’re invited to join them.