Ah, the cliché—both repellent and unavoidable, the bane of intellectuals and writers, whose tongue-in-cheek adage “clichés should be avoided like the plague” really does say it all. So what happens when you put writers and clichés together in a room with no rules?
Hugo House’s 2015-16 Literary Series is doing just that with five events, each themed with a specific cliché. The featured writers for each night must create new and original work (or harness some old works) to match the chosen saying, whether to “deconstruct, work against, or follow” them. With stellar line-ups featuring local and national novelists, essayists and poets, these clichés are woven into stories and imagery that is anything but banal.
On November 20, featured writers Alexis M. Smith, Roger Reeves and Leslie Jamison tackled “Beggars can’t be choosers,” whose seemingly straightforward message contains a host of darker questions. Hugo House’s Executive Director Tree Swenson dove headfirst into these in her introduction to the evening–are beggars truly not worthy to be choosers? Who deems them as such? Is it an acceptance of their lack of agency and the beggars’ humble place in the world?
The featured writers approached the phrase from varying angles and mediums. Portland-based novelist Alexis M. Smith (Glaciers) began the evening with a new short story written specifically for this event, “Himalayan Blackberries.” The fictional account of two out-of-luck sisters coping with the death of their aunt-turned-surrogate mother unfolded with dark humor amidst its heavy tone, and the familial nature of the piece spoke to one of the few things that we simply cannot choose: our parents, our family, their effect on us. Beggars can’t be choosers, especially when the thing they lack is their real mother, and the uncomfortably hilarious description of an ad hoc burial (pointedly something that no one would ever choose to do) put the final nail in the coffin, as it were.
On “Beggars can’t be choosers,” poet Roger Reeves cut right to the quick: “Isn’t that just being African-American?” His selected poems (some new, some from his 2013 collection King Me) ran through Ferguson and Katrina, harnessing nature-based imagery amidst themes of religion and the oppressed. His poetic voice walks the fine steady bridge between academia and biblical tone with hard-hitting metaphors; his bright but soft-spoken personality added a sense of subdued gravity to his work when read aloud.
The final reader of the night, Leslie Jamison (The Gin Closet), took the small stage with a big story laden with the weight that readers have come to expect from her work since the publication of The Empathy Exams, her breakout collection of essays from 2014. (Full disclosure: I adore Jamison’s work and have a well-loved copy of The Empathy Exams featured prominently on my bookshelf.) Now a columnist for the New York Times Book Review and completing her doctoral dissertation on addiction narratives, Jamison spoke by way of introduction on how this project, writing on this particular cliché, had unlocked a writing roadblock that she had been struggling against for some time. The resulting narrative emerged: a look into the darkest and deepest point of alcoholism and the struggle to heal. Jamison’s partial stream of consciousness style burst off the page from the very beginning and through the piece, posing question after question after question without any answers, holding a devastating first-person narrative of destruction and desperation.
Though the featured writers of the evening latched onto the darker corners of the assigned cliché, the mood was lightened intermittently by the lovely music of Susie Philipsen, singer and songwriter of Seattle-based band YVES. Armed with just her voice and a table full of switches, samples and loop pedals, Philipsen built layer after layer into full-blown a cappella tracks, innocently catchy and poignant. Though her style defies genre (sort of an atmospheric electronic folk-jazz), seeing Philipsen work live is absolutely captivating, and her smoky voice and simple romantic lyrics allowed the audience to breathe a bit between readings. You can hear some of her tracks, as YVES, online at their website, but I urge you to check out her upcoming live shows if you need a little more happiness in your life.
Hugo House, the “place for writers” directly across from Cal Anderson Park, will be coming up against some major changes in the upcoming year, as their historic building–like many of the old structures in Capitol Hill–comes down to make way for a new mixed-use property. Fortunately, Hugo House has been offered space in the new building once construction is complete. The classes, workshops and events scheduled at Hugo House throughout the year will be moved to various locations around town (TBD) in late spring during demolition and construction ensues. Hugo House’s website has a page dedicated to updates and releases on “The New Hugo House.” Check it out and bookmark the page if you’re a frequenter of their events.
See Hugo House’s Events page for details on their upcoming Literary Series shows, all confronting clichés head-on; the next one is on February 12, with the theme “What goes around comes around,” featuring poet D.A. Powell, author Heidi Julavits and poet Sierra Nelson.
And that’s the way the cookie crumbles.