Mixing Books and Booze

In Seattle, poetry is the new rock 'n' roll.

At Synchronicity, a recent confab of independent presses at the Crocodile Cafe, the smallish performance space smelled of stale beer, cigarette smoke, and sweat, presumably from a show the night before. Haiku compilations dominated one table; Ukulele Occasional, a Seattle-based journal dedicated to Tiny Tim's instrument of choice, shared another with the local music magazine ROCKRGRL. Irked by someone's Pall Mall, a woman asked one of the organizers: "Are people allowed to smoke in here?" The firm reply: "Yes, they are, actually. It's the Crocodile."

Clearly, this wasn't just another mild-mannered Seattle literary event.

The real news is that lately, Synchronicity is more the rule than the exception. At Queen Anne's Mirabeau Room, a bar that frequently hosts DJs, performance poet Karen Finneyfrock emcees the Seattle Poetry Slam every Tuesday night. A recent edition featured Christa Bell, one of this year's candidates for Seattle's Poet Populist. Bell performed a number of sensual, musical works, including a "sound poem," a spellbinding composite of rhythmic muttering and singing. Her poetry is as theatrical as it is literary, and sometimes it's both sexually graphic and loud. Clearly, this kind of work would seem out of place in a bookstore.

Perhaps in recognition of this, Elliott Bay Book Company co-sponsored an April appearance by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything Is Illuminated) at Chop Suey, a popular rock venue. The reading was also a dance party where, according to one attendee, the band "Awesome" spoofed the usual questions asked of authors ("Where does your inspiration come from?") by weaving them into a song. Take that, stuffy ol' bookstore readings!

Still, it's hard not to wonder: As the book scene lightens up, does it risk turning lite? Or, do outreach events like these really get people reading?

A.J. Rathbun, co-editor of the local journal LitRag, thinks books-and-booze events do hook readers. Recently, LitRag held a release party at Forgotten Works Gallery that included beer and wine, a rock band, a DJ, and visual art. "While it might seem like this could distract from the 'literary' aspect of the mag[azine], it actually tends to bring more people to the mag than would a more normal venue," Rathbun said. "I think if you make your event entertaining, people are going to trust that they'll like the contents of the magazine you're promoting, and will actually read it." Synchronicity, the brainchild of six local journal editors, similarly aimed to unite bookworms and other arts enthusiasts.

Certainly, literary organizers have every reason to seek a crossover audience. In a healthy arts scene, each medium has the potential—perhaps even the responsibility—to fuel others. Moreover, choosing unconventional settings for literary happenings makes the written word a lot more visible. "Unlike shows and openings, buying or reading a magazine is not something you are going to do on a Friday night because that's what your friends are doing," Rivet editor Leah Baltus, also one of Synchronicity's organizers, told me. "It's not exactly a social experience."

During Synchronicity, poet Tyler Gaston read a piece about butterflies as two 6-year-old girls wearing wings did somersaults on blue gym mats. Entertaining? Of course. Frivolous? Perhaps. Yet when the smoke cleared—literally— Synchronicity emerged as a fun, accessible occasion for poking around the literary scene. Beckman's poem ended on a hopeful note—"And God was high/Higher than the clouds/And that's not all/Later there'll be more"—that seemed to hold hope for local writers, readers, and publishers as well.


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