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The Subtext Collective Grows Up, Moves Out

June 12th, 2007 · 43 Comments

After a seven year stretch at the Richard Hugo House, the Seattle experimental poetry collective Subtext moved on up to the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford last week, where they celebrated the twelfth (or thirteenth) anniversary of their reading series.

A truncated oral history appeared in last week’s Stranger, but, really, it wasn’t enough. So here’s more from a few of the many poets and writers who have helped make the ongoing experiment in aleatory listening such a remarkable success.


Bryant Mason: I first got involved with the people who later formed the Subtext Collective in 1991 when I started attending a reading group organized by Robert Mittenthal and Herb Levy. Herb had overhead me at a party quoting the British poet Basil Bunting (“carry a corkscrew and the wine will provide itself”) and it just so happened that the reading group had just recently discussed Bunting’s “Briggflatts.” The first session I remember resulted in a rather spirited debate over competing interpretations of Gertrude Stein’s “Lifting Belly.” At that point, I knew I’d found some kindred spirits who shared my interest in the fine, but often overlooked, tradition of American experimental poetry.

Matthew Stadler: Subtext was a huge resource for me, as it was for many writers in Seattle in the 90s. They were focused and reliable. Hooking up a visiting writer with someone in town for an evening event was a really simple way to start to build networks of conversation and of reading among writers who had much to learn from each other but might not otherwise have come in contact.

If I recall correctly, Subtext had me read with Jeff Derksen, whose work I had really enjoyed before, but whom I had never met nor gotten to exchange work and reading suggestions with. Now, about ten years later, Jeff is still someone I’m in touch with and whose work I follow with great interest. He was (and now, again, is) in Vancouver BC, and this was the other special thing about Subtext. It was the primary channel connecting a hugely interesting writing scene/history in Vancouver B.C. with its brethren writers in Seattle. That link had always been neglected by the other literary institutions in town (which, then, were principally the UW and no-budget projects like Red and Black). I was working with the Rendezvous series then, and we shared their interest in Vancouver writers, but they’re the group that really stuck with it and kept on, as evidenced by this 13th anniversary. They were also intellectually serious without being dull or boring. That is rare.

Peter Gizzi and Elizabeth Willis: I remember it was a great scene and the reading was well attended and folks were really into it too. We met John Olson and Nico, Ezra, Robert, and Jeanne; Laynie Brown and Joe Donahue were both there then from back East, and we really enjoyed ourselves. The next day we headed north to Vancouver to read at KSW. There were sun delays on the highway! That was a term new to us.

I remember thinking the space between the buildings in Seattle was a kind of gentle oblivion in its feeling of frontier, at once homey and alien. Also the fabulous Matthew Stadler gave us the most generous and fun write up in The Stranger we had ever had–it was on our fridge for years in Santa Cruz.

C.E. Putnam: When I moved back to Seattle in 1999, I was lucky to get involved with Subtext right away. I had been living in Washington, D.C. and was a part of the avant-scene there, curating the In Your Ear reading series.

As the curation responsibilities rotate among the members, I was lucky to have a chance to bring /host/introduce a number of amazing writers.

Each Subtext event is something to savor and the regular dedicated audience knows it. The flavor is sweet/sour/bitter/salty wing-wam of the unexpected and unexplored in experimental writing that can bewilder, delight, challenge, & enlighten. The readers who I have brought out here have been surprised by the size and attention of the audience compared to the poetry scenesters in other cites who attend readings more to be “seen” than to “be” at the event.

Anselm Berrigan: If I remember right, Chris Putnam invited me and Karen Weiser to read in Seattle, and it was kind of an open-ended thing, meaning he let us know he was interested and we were able to write him sometime down the road from the initial message to say that we were taking a trip to Seattle to visit some old friends. He made the reading happen very easily – and I was struck by his graciousness since I think we showed up just a couple days before he was to move to Thailand.

Our experience was grand, and I don’t say that just to butter it up on the anniversary – at this point I might have a sense of what a very good out-of-town reading experience might be: ideally you give the reading in a space where everyone can listen, you get to have some contact with the audience and writers in the area (figuring there’s a natural overlap, at least within poetry circles), and you get some sense of how the work came across. Fair to say that all of those things happened, and I managed to stay in some contact with a few folks I met – in fact, Doug Nufer was one person I met that night and we were just recently able to set up a reading on the fly for him and Harry Mathews in New York at the Poetry Project.

I had the impression after the reading that the audience listened very closely, and that came less from immediate verbal responses and more from a sense that our work was sinking in, for better or for worse, on a palpable level. That is an odd thing to try and describe, but there are times I read somewhere and the fact that a reading is taking place almost supercedes the actuality of the work that is being brought across—the reading itself is a novelty, say, and the work is a bonus (or a terror!). At the subtext reading the fact of the reading seemed both important and perfectly natural. So then the crowd could take the work on its merits, and make up its minds with a fair degree of organic development. For me, that’s a good, even ideal, situation.

Maged Zaher: My first Subtext experience was life-changing. Okay, poetry-life-changing, but still life-changing. Before I attended my first Subtext reading I wrote exclusively prose poems. I had been writing poetry in English (my second language) for only a year, and I was fascinated by Rene Char, Henry Michaux, Max Jacob, etc. I thought that for the rest of my life I would write only prose poems. But the first reading I attended was Mickey O’Connor and Meredith Quartermain at the Hugo House in 2001. Mickey’s reading was beyond wonderful, I knew I was in the presence of a remarkable poet, and I remember being very inspired by it that I went home and tried to write my first lined poem.

Marjorie Perloff: In 2003, when I was going to be lecturing at the U of Washington, Jeanne Heuving was kind enough to invite me to discuss the state of poetry on a program with my great and good friend Charles Altieri for Subtext. What a great day! The poets who belong to Subtext are lively, imaginative, very talented and savvy and I think it’s a great group. Charlie and I were, as usual, totally at odds: he philosophical, me more pragmatic, but the “conversation” was intense and the questions from the floor excellent.

Jen Hofer: The Richard Hugo House is beautiful and it was a delight to reconnect through Subtext with beloved friends like my 3:15 Experiment co-conspirators Laynie Browne and Danika Dinsmore, and with procedural boy wonder Doug Nufer.

Unrelated to the fact that Doug writes about circuses, while in Seattle I found an incredible pair of white patent leather clown-style shoes with blocky wooden heels and shiny square eyelets at a tiny hole-in-the-wall vintage shop; years later, I still wear them when I want to feel simultaneously goofy and schoolmarmish.

Sarah Mangold: Subtext is essential. It’s the ONLY series in Seattle dedicated to bringing in experimental/language/innovative/what ever you want to call it poets. It is known throughout the country–wherever I am other poets say “oh, Seattle, they have that reading series…Subtext.” Before we moved up here from San Francisco people were already telling me to check out Subtext. It’s my hub for meeting new writers and reconnecting with old friends new to town or passing through. Seattle would be a sad poetry city without it.

Chris Mann
: Without it it would have been more difficult.

Tags: Anselm Berrigan · Bryant Mason · C.E. Putnam · Chris Mann · Conversation · Elizabeth Willis · Jen Hofer · Maged Zaher · Marjorie Perloff · Matthew Stadler · Peter Gizzi · Sarah Mangold · Seattle · Subtext

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