Although it's been up and running for more than a year, the Richard Hugo House, a literary center remodeled from Capitol Hill's old New City Theater, held its formal opening last weekend with a three-day festival dedicated to the late West Seattle poet. Poets, novelists, and Hugo's friends and colleagues flew in from Montana, Michigan, Maryland, and as far away as France to remember Hugo and the establishment of a place he would have loved.
The house itself seems to acknowledge Hugo's themes of displacement, dispossession, and hunger for a home. Its doors open onto the Broadway Reservoir, where a transient population rolls sleeping bags around its small resources every morning and where the entryway of a nearby church shelters street kids on rainy nights. Earlier this year Hugo House executive director Frances McCue invited a man who had been living on the building's loading dock to help move furniture in. He became a paid staff member, found an apartment of his own in the city, and brought his father to last weekend's celebration to show him his name on the employee roster framed on the lobby wall.
Occasionally during the weekend McCue could be heard calling from the porch to teenage passersby, "Hey guys, c'mon in, we're talking about this great writer Hugo!" Kids wandered in to hang out with Ivan Doig, James Welch, Stanley Plumly, David Wagoner, Colleen McElroy, Madeline DeFrees, Timothy Egan, Matthew Stadler, Mark Millett, Donna Gerstenberger, Nick Licata, Bill Kittredge, Tom Byers, David Mahler, Ripley Hugo, and others. They talked about Hugo's powerful personal presence and his influence on the creative lives of a generation of writers. Former students, such as writers Lee Bassett and Sandra Alcosser, recalled Hugo's lectures, the generous support he gave scores of aspiring poets, and some of his famously withering criticisms, such as, "This poem is almost interesting, but isn't."
While the readings and panel discussions took place on Capitol Hill, the weekend was highlighted by a literary tour of Hugo's old stomping grounds: Duwamish Head, Delridge Way, Pigeon Hill, and White Center. Writers and commentators climbed onto a bus with folks like Brion, my seatmate, a Seattle resident who could tell his own stories about Hugo's neighborhood. "Years ago White Center (we called it Rat City) used to be a hard-drinking place," he told me on the ride out. "After working graveyard I could find bars full of people at 6, 7, 8am there." Had he only been born sooner, Brion might have met Hugo at one of the local taverns—the Epicure, the Locker Room, the Triangle—that became versions of home during his drinking years.
Our bus trundled past Hugo's former haunts: fields where he played baseball, the creek where he fished, fertile acres paved over for a shopping center after Hugo's friend the Japanese farmer-owner was imprisoned in a camp during World War II, and the illegal distillery memorialized in the poem "Back of Gino's Place," where steelworkers got bootleg from the mill manager. Passengers disembarked to hear Hugo's work read into a mike hooked up to a boom box. At West Marginal Way and 16th SW, poet Bobby Anderson read "Between the Bridges" into the roar of airplanes and West Seattle Bridge traffic overhead. Then we shivered onto the Duwamish Public Access dock at Terminal 105 Viewpoint. The steel mill rumbled and the scrap yard clattered while photographer Ford Gilbraith and community activist Vivian McLean gave us "Duwamish" and passages from Hugo's autobiography The Real West Marginal Way, stopping to hold the mike between their legs when they needed both hands to turn wind-whipped pages. The house Hugo lived in is gone—replaced by a vacant gravel lot—but we gathered on the empty site anyway to hear Seattle Post-Intelligencer arts critic Regina Hackett read a muffled, scratchy "The House on 15th SW." Finally, to commemorate the famously miserable picnic Hugo had with his grandparents—who were clueless about how to have fun with a child—we all ate our sandwiches while standing around beside the cyclone fence of a vacant schoolyard.
Throughout the celebration, speakers and members of the audience reminiscenced about Hugo, sometimes in sentimental ways that expressed more about our own needs than about the poet and his ways. We were writing Hugo for ourselves, in the way that (Hugo claimed) writers must risk sentimentality to know their own inner lives. But emotional or not, as Hugo quipped, "Twenty-five years of memory kink a lot of cable."
There were kinks, too, in discussions of the poet's "sense of place—a phrase appearing so often in contemporary talk about writing that it has become a cliché, whose meaning is vague to most of its users, especially in relation to writing. Hugo's poems were indeed rooted in particular places, and we may see Seattle's more desolate, depressed scenes in some of his imagery. But Hugo is no "local color" poet, even if we mean the color gray. He used geographical places to trigger the place in himself that wanted to start a poem.
Writing meant inventing an imagined place from a fraction of the details that presented themselves, details that were transformed in the process—as Hugo advised his students, "When in doubt, throw in the crocodile." However, he added in The Triggering Town, you have to know where you are, because "if you ain't no place, you can't go nowhere." Certainly not to the real West Marginal Way—to the place inside yourself that wants to make a poem, to the place made of crocodiles and words.