A Seattle literary center honors UM's poet laureate
by Victoria Jenkins
For eighteen years Montana was home to poet Richard Hugo. During his tenure at UM, the Creative Writing Program attracted and fostered a well of talent, and Missoula acquired the somewhat unlikely distinction of being the Northwest Mecca for writers.
But Seattle claims the poet, too, as its own. Though Hugo grew up in the city's White Center neighborhood, it's his sense of place--the importance place holds for writers, not his geographic birthplace--that inspired the founders of a new literary center to give his name to their enterprise.
Hugo at home: his typewriter now resides at the Seattle literary center, a gift from his widow, Ripley.
The Richard Hugo House is the brainchild of poet Frances McCue, writer and philanthropist Linda Jaech and fiction writer Andrea Lewis, who conceived the idea of a resource facility where storytelling in all its forms would be valued, encouraged and given a physical home. Writing, they believe, is "...one of the fundamental tools of our society ...an important thread in the fabric of community." They envisioned a place outside the current publishing establishment where writers, readers and audiences of books, plays and films would find innovation, welcome and a sense of community.
Recipient of astonishingly sizable gifts, grants, volunteer hours and community support, the Richard Hugo House is a reality. It's a sprawling frame building, newly remodeled and painted a moody gray, located in a funky Capitol Hill neighborhood where cruisers from the East Precinct prowl the streets. Built in 1908 as a four-unit apartment house, the structure also has served as a funeral home and most recently as the venue of the avant-garde New City Theatre.
Since its doors opened in fall 1997, the Hugo House has furnished services and opportunities to a range of groups and individuals. The extant theater and a newly created cafe/cabaret have provided space for the Fringe Theater Festival, the Seattle Poetry Festival, readings, signings and workshops. The facility has integrated with the under-served indigenous community, initiating programs designed to encourage local children, seniors and non-native speakers, and with the university and arts communities, offering meeting spaces, a library, mentoring possibilities, internships and classes.
Though up and running, operating and evolving for more than a year, the Hugo House was dedicated officially only last October. At a three-day symposium titled "The Power of Place" writers and readers gathered to remember Richard Hugo. His poetry was read, films were screened, and food and drink shared. There were round tables, reminiscences and a bus tour to White Center. In tribute to a loved friend and teacher and a venerated poet, a large contingent of Montanans journeyed west to lend solidarity to Seattle's newest literary venture--among them William Kittredge, James and Lois Welch, Annick Smith, Sandra Alcosser, Paul Zarzyski and Hugo's widow, Ripley, who brought the poet's typewriter and baseball mitt as gifts to the house.
It's rare that a nonprofit arts center can become so emphatically established, but the response to this one indicates that Seattle was ready for the Richard Hugo House. Executive director McCue is hopeful that a continuing exchange of talent and ideas between Seattle and Missoula will cement two of the places that Richard Hugo called home.
Victoria Jenkins is a novelist and screenwriter and the mother of a UM alumnus ('97).