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Seattle Dispatch: The Richard Hugo House

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If you're at a writing conference at the Richard Hugo House, Seattle's literary hub, and a cheerful, chestnut-curled woman strides into the overfilled workshop room and announces, "We're going to O-Rama!" (meaning, "we're going to switch rooms!") you've probably found Alix Wilber.

And if you see an unsure volunteer shifting her weight at the front of the room, trying to muster the gravitas to introduce literary agent heavyweights such as Alan Rinzler, you've probably found me.

The day in question? A May day in Seattle, a conference called "Finding Your Readers in the 21st Century," a panel on finding a publishing venue. Outside the companionable gray house, a bright white day. Across the street frisbee players and young parents strolled in Cal Anderson Park. At lunch people with conference name tags still on wandered to Caffe Vita on nearby Pike, where the mullets and skinny jeans abound. And Alix, program administrator for the House, was somehow everywhere at once, powering ahead, holding together the ship.

Alix herself pointed out that for a small city, Seattle has a multi-faceted literary scene. There's the University of Washington's MFA program, which is one of the best in the nation. There's a spoken word scene. There's Summer Robinson's Pilot Books down on Broadway, a cozy little nook across from a tattoo parlor, a haven for poetry nerds full of independent titles that hosted a reading-a-day fest in March. And there's the Richard Hugo House at the center of it, with 55 participants in the conference but around 150 people in the house that weekend; Karen Maeda Allman at nearby Elliot Bay Books furnished the works of authors for purchase and the Cabaret was filled with representatives from independent presses such as Matthew Zapruder and Joshua Beckmen's Wave Books.

Pretty much everyone who works at the House is sassy and grounded and fun. There's Kate Lebo, who has the best bangs in Seattle, and her book about pie. There's Margot Case, who took time to chat with me one dreary rainy winter afternoon when I washed up in Seattle broke and jobless, and her book about bronc rider Bill Smith. Ryan Boudinot, this past year's fiction writer-in-residence, got me coffee from the kitchen before critiquing my manuscript and advising me to "keep my nose at the sentence level" -- sound advice for any would-be novelist feeling intimidated and stuck. (Lest this seem like too much of a sycophantic advertisement for the House, I will issue one complaint: the poetry writer-in-residence never got back to me, and my poetry surely still suffers.) There's Garth, the diplomatic front-desk hero -- few shoulders are entirely chipless at a writing conference, and Garth manages pushy personalities with admirable aplomb. And there's Alix, who doesn't mince words or run out of wise ones.

I suppose it's hard to find people who work in the arts and nonprofit worlds in small west coast cities who don't have a sense of humor. I am fond of circuitous life-story-lines and mentions of associated John Lennon lyrics, and Alix furnished me with both: four years in the peace corps in Morocco, stints at Amazon working as a literary fiction editor in the late 90s and at Microsoft writing about dogs for a game on CD-Rom (remember those games?). She planned on being a seal trainer as a young girl, but, she smiles drolly, "Life is what happens when you're making other plans."

When I moved to Seattle, my boyfriend at the time suggested I apply to teach a workshop at the Richard Hugo House. I'd come to Seattle with next to no knowledge of the arts scene here, and now that I'm leaving, the House looms large as a nexus of good people, good writing, good events -- from the panel on writing master's programs to the theater troupe who rented the Cabaret space to perform in (Jeppa Hall's Goat Girl and Queen Shmooquan vaudeville/psychedelia are not to be missed, people; and Jeppa was pregnant when I saw her. Did nothing to stop the over-the-topness.)

The workshop I taught in the spring at Hugo House focused on the border-challenging inclusiveness of contemporary creative nonfiction, and how hopeful that inclusiveness can be for writers new to the genre or to writing in general. I was new and unknown, and my students were few, but they were brave and talented, and over the three hours we spent together we got into The Zone. Prompts no longer needed, pens scratching beauty and endeavor and some moments of pure gold onto notebook pages, and when we disbanded, we'd gone on a journey together, as hokey as that might sound. And so have I gone on a journey with Seattle, with the Richard Hugo House and the people in it, one I didn't expect. As Alix put it the other day after the melee of conference had died down, "You never know where you're going til you get there."