Started from the bottom now we're here

If you began your Lit Crawl last night at the reading sponsored by Seattle-based literary magazine The James Franco Review, the first thing you heard was a poem by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha that includes this line: “Here, our senses are overwhelmed.” That’s about the most appropriate invocation the evening could’ve asked for.

Lit Crawl is an event that is by definition overwhelming. You’re given way too many options to choose from— almost a hundred readers, spread all over Capitol and First Hill — and audiences spend the night chasing readings around town. You couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful night, either; the air was crisp and relatively warm and the smell of dry leaves was everywhere. Your senses couldn’t help but be overwhelmed, and alive, and engaged.

The James Franco reading was end-to-end entertaining. Founding editor Corinne Manning introduced one reader as “the nephew of a serial killer.” Aaron Counts introduced Seattle’s first Youth Poet Laureate Leija Farr by saying the young poets of Seattle are so talented that "it just makes you want to retire.” Farr read a poem titled “The Walking Dead” — “You looked at me and swore up and down you were alive,” she read — and another poem about a woman who names her lovers’ skin. Her work was mature, meaningful, confident. Counts was slightly wrong; Farr was so good that she didn’t make you want to stop writing; she inspired you to start writing.

Poet EJ Koh was the highlight not just of the James Franco reading but of the whole night. She explained that in Korea, authors introduce their readings with a plea to the audience that can be translated to something along the lines of: “even though I shame myself, please be kind to me.” On the contrary. When Koh read, it was the audience that wasn’t worthy.

Koh read a fierce poem titled "Doom" about not getting what you need from a relationship on a sexual level. And then she read a poem responding to a New York Times story about South Korean women and plastic surgery. They were both angry, those two poems, but they were crystalline in their voice and perspective and place in the universe. It’s hard to describe exactly what Koh brought to the poems except to say that when she read, every word felt important and every word led directly to the next word, and when the poem ended there was a split-second where every throat in the room gasped for oxygen.

Up at Ada’s Technical Books on 15th Ave, four cartoonists presented new work. Short Run cofounder Eroyn Franklin read a piece about Bikram yoga that began as a story of self-empowerment but which then turned into a meditation on the sexual assault charges that have been levied against Bikram yoga founder Bikram Choudhury. Franklin’s moral inquiries led to some fascinating places: if a bad man creates something that helps the world, isn’t it still possible that his creation is tainted in some way by his corruption?

Over the course of the reading —the tense travel comics of Natalie Dupille; Mita Mahato’s beautiful cut paper comics, and her portraits of the “monsters” who plague her dreams (including the man in the bear suit in the photo above); and Gina Siciliano’s heavily researched comics about art history and feminism — the scope of local readers at this Lit Crawl became apparent. Over the course of the night, I heard poems about Afghanistan, Korea, Mexico, and Nicaragua, as well as comics partially written in Nepali. Seattle’s literary scene is opening up to the world. If there was such a thing as a Lit Crawl Seattle in the year 2000, the readers would have seemed embarrassingly provincial when compared to the authors who read last night; our writers are interested in being in the world, and hearing other voices, and figuring out our place in the world. It’s perhaps one of the best indications that our literary scene is growing up, and expanding, and growing comfortable in its own skin; our poets and cartoonists and novelists are bringing the world to Seattle, and they’re introducing Seattle to the world.

My final reading of Lit Crawl, the Poetry Northwest celebration at Sole Repair, delivered two wonderful performances. Clare Johnson read a few lovely, hesitant poems from her upcoming collection, Will I Live Here When I Grow Up?, and then she read two looser poems, one praising Quentin Tarantino for “having the guts to kill off history,” and a melancholy poem about motherhood and mortality that begins with the brilliant line “I wish I hadn't wasted Jane Austen on the spring.”

The final reader of the night, Emily Bedard, praised the audience for surviving another Lit Crawl, joking that the stress of the evening was starting to show on the crowd, “with your body knuckles and your torn pants.” She dazzled the room with a suite of poems about stuntmen and mustaches and the Gravitron ride at state fairs. Since the night began with an ode to sensory overload, it’s appropriate and good that Bedard’s ode to erections — making tents in bedding, lifting the roofs off of rooms, popping out of pants like geese — concluded the night. It was positively orgiastic.

Finally, at the afterparty at Fred Wildlife Refuge, the staff of Lit Crawl Seattle was getting drunk. Someone was doing a shot off someone else’s breasts. There was a lot of screaming: “Six months! We worked on this for six months! We did it!” That sort of thing.

This enthusiasm was totally warranted. As people compared notes, it became obvious that this Lit Crawl was hands-down the best Lit Crawl ever. The readings were diverse and lively. Everything started and ended on time. The venues were excellent hosts. Everyone was gushing about their favorite events of the night: the Instant Future reading won a lot of new fans for the e-publishing imprint, the VIDA reading impressed the 150 people who crammed in to listen, and a few tipsy attendees gushed over the Seattle Public Library’s pairings of books with cider flights at Capitol Cider House.

Previous Seattle Lit Crawls were fun-but-amateurish affairs. This one felt tightly coordinated and rigorously planned. Details were thought out. Every reading reportedly felt full, whereas in the past a few superstar readings drew the majority of people while other readings were sparsely attended. These things don’t just happen on their own; a lion’s share of the credit has to go to Brian McGuigan, who took over Lit Crawl operations this year. He and his staff transformed a fun annual event into a carefully orchestrated and deeply considered celebration of what makes Seattle great. Who can blame McGuigan and his staff for getting a little drunk and giving a funny, sloppy, love-filled speech at the afterparty? Who would possibly deny them their swagger? They ended the speech with a shout of “LIT CRAWL SEATTLE 2015, BITCHES!” and they vacated the stage to the beginning of a Drake song that felt highly appropriate:

Started from the bottom now we're here/Started from the bottom now my whole team fucking here

The party was just getting started. Poet Robert Lashley was up on the balcony looking over the room. Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore and Corinne Manning were getting the dance party started. Steve Barker was celebrating the signing of his very first book deal. People promoted their brand-new literary magazines. Someone was talking excitedly about the Seward Park Third Place Books opening up next year — finally, a big bookstore for the south end of town!

It was one of those moments that felt good and pure and sturdy, a well-earned celebration of something that we all built together, a moment to stop complaining and quit worrying and just appreciate what we have. And based on my view from that sweaty dance floor, where people were double-fisting cans of beer and talking about all the awesome readings they attended, I can assure you that what we have is pretty fucking great.