Seattle (City of No Lit Crit)

If you are involved at all in the Seattle writing community, you have no doubt heard by now about the op-ed former Hugo House Writer-in-Residence and novelist Ryan Boudinot wrote for the local alt-news weekly, The Stranger. (A warning posted from one link before the Stranger link kicks in is that some readers have judged the story “offensive” which is totally appropriate given the thesis I am about to reiterate here.) To give you some sense of the slant he took to beat up on MFA Creative writing programs, here are the sub-headings:

  • Writers are born with talent.
  • If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it. (Which leaves me out.)
  • If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.
  • If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.
  • No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer.
  • It’s not important that people think you’re smart.
  • It’s important to woodshed.

To give you some sense of the tone of Boudinot’s piece, here’s an excerpt:

My experience tells me this: Students who ask a lot of questions about time management, blow deadlines, and whine about how complicated their lives are should just give up and do something else. Their complaints are an insult to the writers who managed to produce great work under far more difficult conditions than the 21st-century MFA student. On a related note: Students who ask if they’re “real writers,” simply by asking that question, prove that they are not.

The fact that there are currently 223 comments on the Stranger’s blog and several published responses to the piece gives you a sense of some of the impact it has had. And though I have not been in a MFA Creative Writing program, there were moments that he seemed to be right-on in the piece, such as when he said:

For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults.

This is SO Seattle. It’s people who identify with their suffering so much, it is taken as a personal attack if you criticize the work. Were Boudinot a better politician, he’d have given us a Clintonian “I feel your pain.”

But that is only part of the story. Boudinot was the pubic face of the effort to secure for Seattle the U.N. designation of official City of Literature. This is something granted by UNESCO, which is the cultural/scientific arm of the world body and a great deal of momentum had been created by the effort to get Seattle to be so named. Alas, the snarky tone of the piece, its reach and Boudinot’s ego, have killed that effort for now, as of March 17:

Seattle City of Literature

The local affairs website Seattle-ish wrote last week that Boudinot killed the effort and and the Stranger “helped bury the body.” Am reminded of the line that a friend will help you move but a good friend will help you move a body.

The criteria for the U.N. City of Literature designation are:

  • Quality, quantity and diversity of publishing in the city
  • Quality and quantity of educational programmes focusing on domestic or foreign literature at primary, secondary and tertiary levels
  • Literature, drama and/or poetry playing an important role in the city
  • Hosting literary events and festivals which promote domestic and foreign literature;
  • Existence of libraries, bookstores and public or private cultural centres which preserve, promote and disseminate domestic and foreign literature
  • Involvement by the publishing sector in translating literary works from diverse national languages and foreign literature
  • Active involvement of traditional and new media in promoting literature and strengthening the market for literary products.

Reading that last one, you wonder if being the home of Amazon.com is something that is IN Seattle’s favor or not. The search Amazon Kills Publishing today gets 798,000 Google hits, including pieces like this in The Atlantic and this in Mashable.

And current cities so named (with the years that happened) are:

  • Edinburgh, Scotland (2004)
  • Melbourne, Victoria, Australia (2008)
  • Iowa City, Iowa, United States (2008)
  • Dublin, Ireland (2010)
  • Reykjavík, Iceland (2011)
  • Norwich, England (2012)
  • Kraków, Poland (2013)
  • Heidelberg, Germany (2014)
  • Dunedin, New Zealand (2014)
  • Granada, Spain (2014)
  • Prague, Czech Republic (2014)

You see any Euro-centric bias there? HA! But all this reminds me of interviewing poet Eileen Myles and hearing her bash writer’s bios that are all about prizes they won, or came in second, or third, and the judges who bestowed those awards, or close calls. It says nothing about the work itself, but is all about the sizzle. A positioner’s paradise! This is what the literary community is addled by, in part, the casino-capitalist conditioning that something is good if it makes money, garners the author fame, or other such nonsense. This is true everywhere, not just in Seattle, but we seem to be more tainted by this priority here. We may be avid readers in Seattle, but are we reading critically?

A Facebook thread I started about Boudinot’s piece in which I tried to point out, perhaps in a ham-handed manner, that Seattle is no place for criticism of any kind generated some passionate responses. Many pointed out that Boudinot’s tone was unnecessarily mean. Others told me privately that they have had dealings with him and steered clear of him for similar reasons. Another commenter said he expected the Boudinot piece to be worse than it turned out to be, as he had not read it before the City of Lit controversy. I think I best articulated my feelings about the whole matter with:

Ryan Boudinot bit the hand that fed him. The Stranger, which a friend once likened to “a cult,” stirred up some shit and got some web hits and the City of Literature designation is dead for now, or at least stunned. But what does that matter? Would the U.N. designation mean that writing from Seattle would get better? Would there be more support for literary non-profits here. (Running one myself, I know how difficult it is to raise funds for poetry.) I doubt it. It reminds me of poet positioners who lust after contests, awards, readings and being named Poet Laureate of anything, even the town of Chimacum as Sam Hamill likes to joke. Do these titles mean anything? Probably not. Mostly this is a distraction from going as deeply into one’s own consciousness to create literature that D.H. Lawrence would say, “changes the blood” as he said of Whitman. Boudinot might be so ostracized by the community for his ill-advised moves that he might go more deeply down his own throat to find the essence and, if he is lucky, might be able to capture that. Who knows? But all this lusting after titles seems like a sideshow to me unless someone can convince me otherwise.

There can be no vibrancy in the literature community without criticism. That which stings is often the most effective criticism. I can point to moments in my own writing life that would illustrate how true that is and occasions when the critic meant well and other times when they were just being mean, yet the point was recognized and my work changed for the better as a result. I’ll tell you if you’re interested. But with the death of newspaper reviews, and the dearth of ANY kind of reviews, as in the case of ZERO real reviews of Sam Hamill’s latest book, essentially his collected poems Habitation, and you have a sort of stasis in the lit community. SPLAB tried to change this years ago with our Living Room critique circle. We did about 150 iterations of this weekly event and some of the projects that were inspired by it, or created by people who met at SPLAB include: The Breadline, The Columbia City Writing Circle, The Five Alarms Greenwood Lit Crawl and the recent Rainier Valley Lit Crawl.

Is Seattle “narrow” as Kenneth Rexroth put it so many years ago in his “autobiographical novel?” Is it a feminine Scorpio city, according to astrologers, making it sensitive to the meanness Boudinot displayed? Does all the water here make folks overly emotional? Surely there is something to all this, but how do we fix it? How do we create something like Vancouver, BC, did in the early 60s literature, the TISH group and movement, which has had a huge impact on Canadian lit and will be seen as the most important literary movement in the Cascadia bioregion, I predict.

SPLAB is a resource that goes as well as its board and key volunteers can guide it and has discussed a resumption of the writer’s critique circle (which did accept prose writers) and also a discussion of creating a weekly open mic night in the spirit of the now ten years gone (& much missed) Red Sky Poetry Theater. Make a note in the comments if you have energy for this and, as always, comments are welcome.

About Splabman

SPLAB and Cascadia Poetry Festival founder Paul E Nelson wrote American Sentences (Apprentice House, 2015), Organic Poetry (VDM Verlag, Germany, 2008), a serial poem re-enacting the history of Auburn, Washington, A Time Before Slaughter (Apprentice House, 2010) and Organic in Cascadia: A Sequence of Energies (Lumme, Brazil, 2013). Founder of the Cascadia Poetry Festival, in 26 years of radio he interviewed Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Anne Waldman, Sam Hamill, Robin Blaser, Nate Mackey, Eileen Myles, Wanda Coleman, Brenda Hillman, George Bowering, Joanne Kyger, Jerome Rothenberg & others, including many Cascadia poets. He lives in Seattle and writes at least one American Sentence every day. https://www.paulenelson.com. Co-Editor of Make It True: Poetry From Cascadia, he is in year five of a twenty year Cascadia Bioregional Cultural Investigation. www.CascadiaPoetryFestival.org (Oct 12-15, 2017, Tacoma, WA)
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17 Responses to Seattle (City of No Lit Crit)

  1. Bruce Greeley says:

    I don’t have any particular involvement in the issues but I thought the article was pretty astute in many ways and a lot less mean than a million other articles in the stranger over the years…..!

  2. Splabman says:

    Yet if there were not a core arrogance to Boudinot and all he’s involved with, he would have stepped down from the organization which had no faith with him as the public face of the org. That’s telling don’t you think?

  3. Thanks Paul. I don’t follow the local controversies very much, so it’s interesting to get a look into this business. I don’t much mind Boudinot’s criticism as it’s really nothing new. Every so often someone goes off on the ‘gentility’ of the local poetry scene, decrying the ‘spoiled’ writing babies and slackers. It seems to me it’s a response to the uncritical tolerance of so many poetry scenes. So many poets would rather smile and nod than take a position. But these things can be said straight up without being mean or ruining the hopes of a group of people Boudinot’s been working with. I have no idea about the value of the City of Literature project, but it does sound like he’s ambushed his committee, which seems like a shame because a lot of people had been working on it. There’s a difference between being critical and venting. It seems like Boudinot is doing more of the latter than the former.

  4. Roy R Seitz says:

    One thing for sure, this guy decided to take being an asshole seriously, at an early age

  5. Matt Briggs says:

    Hi Paul, thanks for your call to arms in terms of reviews and or vehicles such as Red Sky to provide a space for local lit. I have energy for this, but have found my own limits in terms of the amount of energy. I think thought around what it would really take to make something that could survive the waning and waxing energy of people like us and something that would somehow peel away from the egos of the people involved in making it. Red Sky for the most part managed to find its own momentum. I would say SubText too had a life that wasn’t purely about the principle actors. The first iteration of Hugo House, too; however Hugo House could be a cautionary tale of how overhead and success can be just as dangerous as outright failure. I’ve talked to a few other writers who have wanted to create a Seattle Review of Books or something like this. I think there is a real need for an insightful, generous, and cantankerous place for talk about books. It would need to be embraced by writers from the south end as well as the north end. It would need to understand that Ann Rule is as valuable as Gary Snyder that small press poetry and the circle of writers around Clarion West are all part of what makes PNW writing great. It would I hope build some of the fallen connections between Seattle and Vancouver (which you seem to be doing with your poetry project), Seattle and Portland, and Seattle and Spokane. And Eugene. It would need to engage in the local but not be hermetic or purely local. I like how the local is a weird problem in a global culture, yet the topic seems to be approached from an either/or mindset. What has happened over and over in Seattle is that something like Wordscape, Pilot Books, the NW Literary Center, Bumbershoot’s lit fair, and so on is created by one person or a core of people with their own vision. These things have all been vital in their day, but they have not managed to survive. It appears to me The Stranger is in the process of jumping the shark, but it is clear that The Stranger too will have had its day. Even now much of the key material from The Stranger in the 1990s has never been posted on their web site. The trick is to create a persistent, organized collection of points of view that manages to sustain itself. It must be something that can accommodate not just two different thoughts but a thousand conflicting thoughts. I think the web is a natural medium for this. But I have no idea how to define the energy that would make it happen and keep it going.

    • Greg Bem says:

      “But I have no idea how to define the energy that would make it happen and keep it going.”

      Let’s drop acid and talk about defining energy. Send me an email.

  6. Carol Blackbird Edson says:

    Hi Paul,
    Thank you for opening lots of lines of questioning about the recent Boudinot controversy and Seattle as a literary and publishing world. Many stories about the life of the arts in Seattle are full of frustration because of the difficulty of maintaining enthusiasm for arts venues and small publications in what is nearly always a labor of love. The burnouts and of course lack of support from our national culture all contribute to this situation. Writing development is a crucial area much misunderstood in our ‘money is success’ oriented culture. I look with envy at the Canadian Governments encouragement of their aspiring artists and writers. I talked with publisher Stephen Roxburgh at a workshop in New Jersey a while back about the tradition of publishers developing their writers slowly over time in house. He said that is almost entirely gone, if you don’t have a blockbuster immediately or have a known name and audience, you never get in the door. So how do we balance diamond in the rough writing with a healthy dose of craft development?
    More interesting questions!
    Blackbird

    • Greg Bem says:

      “lack of support from our national culture” . . . you do realize you’re living in the United States, which is just as much about selfishness today as it was when we were just a few colonies? Artists especially shouldn’t expect to get no support and thus shouldn’t get burnt out from getting no support. Look at all Paul Nelson does and what little he receives from all our oppressive institutions. Sure, you can be bitter about it, but don’t put 110% into trying to change the institutions or you’ll get real sad real quick that none of that 110% was spent on creating the art inspiring you in the first place.

  7. Greg Bem says:

    Some people forgot about their spines. Ryan is not saying anything new by saying what he’s saying, and even if it’s dramatic, it’s not grounded in fiction. A respected teacher, he probably saw enough students to make the judgments he made. People need to get over their insecurities and look at what Ryan said as inspiring. This is what an industry of pill medication and therapy will do to a culture. Now, if you’ve finished wiping your tears, go find out if you were born with talent or not.

    • Splabman says:

      You’re a pill Greg Bem. Thanks for checking in.

      • Greg Bem says:

        I have high standards. I also don’t prejudge people and assume if they were “born” with talent or not. But if the person is going to sit around whining instead of going out and striving to pursue their ambitions, then they will be judged by me. I will always, always keep an open mind when it comes to someone who wants to try and succeed in their art, however. I have a feeling Ryan is similar in that respect. He is elevating people by telling them to give a shit.

  8. Splabman says:

    Nothing you’ve said is untrue, Greg Bem, you are quite open and you care and want others to care. The SPLAB Board will need to re-boot the discussion of re-starting Living Room and perhaps starting that open mic series on Sunday nights we’ve discussed, but I suspect it’ll have to wait until after the Cascadia Poetry Festival.

  9. Matt Briggs says:

    I am not sure of the SPLAB/The Living Room or even an open mic is what is needed. While these things are fine in and of themselves, we are dealing with a civic imagination that has Alzheimers. How many times do you have to remind writers in this town that John Okada existed? How many times do you have to remind them about Murray Morgan and so on.

    • Splabman says:

      “How many times do you have to remind writers in this town that John Okada existed? How many times do you have to remind them about Murray Morgan and so on…” Apparently, more. But Living Room was a short presentation 15-20, with discussion and then critique of work brought in by participants. It filled a need for critical discussion. It’s not happening now and rarely happens outside of bars where writers bump into each other, or at similar occasions at poetry festivals. Had you gone to an edition of Living Room Matt, you might feel differently.

  10. More More More! More writing. More reading. More learning. Boudinot’s right. His detractor’s are right. Everyone’s right it’s amazing!

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