W hen I invited the editor of a local literary magazine to join me for "A Night of Cheap Wine and Poetry," she actually declined! "I like poetry that holds its own on the page," she said. Ah, a stickler for the printed stuff.
But Brian McGuigan, founder of From the Ground Up—which organizes the semiregular Hugo House event—has a much looser approach to the form, one that includes cabaret-type acts and general semidrunken entertainment. He said I'd know him by the Yankees hat and New York accent, and that he'd be hanging out by the merch table in the back, and indeed that's where I found him. He said he started the "Night" after living here for a year and a half and finding the existing events "too cliquish or stale" for his tastes. He used the word "lively" several times within the span of our 10-minute conversation. After a reading by the featured poets, hand-selected by McGuigan, an open mike caps the night. McGuigan is a fan of "Spin the Bottle" at the Annex Theatre ("but that's 10 bucks") and the lineup at Seattle Arts & Lectures, but he maintains that "Cheap Wine and Poetry" is "Seattle's biggest, coolest, hippest reading series."
"Still think that," he said.
And what of people who prefer poetry that can hold its own on the page? He believes that a single poem can captivate both onstage and in person. From the Ground Up also publishes a free journal twice a year; it's always accepting submissions, and he doesn't have to go far for them.
"You gotta check this out—some art, some writing samples," said a scrawny man with a shaved head, handing him a glossy chapbook. On the cover, a coy-looking Anna Nicole Smith wore black lingerie.
"She's going to be the next Jayne Mansfield, dude, the next Jayne Mansfield," said the would-be poet. "And I'm going to submit some stuff real soon."
"Cool, man, I'll look for it."
Charla Grenz, co-founder of the series and affable host, presented random poetic tidbits between readers, such as a list of what was cool about the Middle Ages: "minstrels, magicians, jugglers, jesters...not to mention mummies." This comic relief was a welcome break from those whose readings seemed to go on forever. While local playwright Keri Healey's works were great, they read like short stories—long short stories. Stranger editor David Schmader sang a song from the point of view of a woman who's drunk and eight and a half months pregnant.
McGuigan's guests, readers, and speakers seemed more intent on entertaining, less on crafting. It was a mixed bag—hits and misses both—but an overall lively bag, indeed. Even the audience was loud and varied, I realized, sandwiched between a woman knitting furiously (there is such a thing) and a man who revealed to his friends, "My new thing is that I either want to be a hypnotist or a nutritionist. I want to help people."
"It's so great to see such a turnout for poetry," said Elizabeth Austen, who visits KUOW's The Beat every Monday to discuss local readings.
"It's the wine!" shouted someone. And if you include eclectic, vaudeville-like entertainment in your definition, there was also a bit of poetry.