Every time I've been called to judge a literary competition of any sort -- a contest, say, or a grant — I am immediately paralyzed. Judging reminds me that everything is relative, that quality is in the eye of the beholder, and that I am wholly unqualified to choose one person's work over another. The responsibility of it all is too much: maybe this acceptance letter will change a writer's life for good, maybe this rejection will convince this writer to give up forever, maybe the person I'm choosing is actually bad at writing and will embarrass the city and it will ultimately be all my fault.
Every year, the Jack Straw Cultural Center chooses one writer to select a dozen Seattle writers to take part in the Jack Straw Writers Program. This is a big deal for the chosen writers: Jack Straw helps them learn how to better read their work aloud, both in live and recorded contexts. It gives them a platform to read their work in showcases around the city and the state. They collaborate with groups like Folklife and Bushwick Book Club to present new work in exciting ways. Their work will be collected into anthologies produced just for the program. And it introduces them to a peer group of writers — many of whom will become close friends and collaborators.
Being in Jack Straw has changed the lives of dozens of writers: given them confidence, helped them make connections, and taught them how to present their work to new audiences.
Poet Kathleen Flenniken is Jack Straw's 2019 Writer Program Curator. When I ask her on the phone how she dealt with the stress of selecting her 12 writers, she laughs knowingly. Flenniken has been on the board at Jack Straw for a dozen or so years, and she had always known that one day she would be called to curate the Jack Straw Writers Program.
Flenniken says former Jack Straw curators "Karen Finneyfrock and Daemond Arrindell had told me how hard it was to get to 12. And I've done some other judging, so I know how hard it is." She laughs again, "and it was every bit as hard as I feared it would be."
When she first got all the applications for the programs the difficulty of the task really sunk in for Flenniken. "I could very, very happily have chosen twice as many writers," she says. "There weren't a huge number of applications, but the quality of the applications were so high. It's both encouraging and sort of horrible at the same time."
When she's staring down the applications, she says, "I'm questioning my own motives." It's not a blind selection process, and in many ways knowing some of the applicants made it even harder for her. "You're encouraged to choose whoever you want in your cohort," Flenniken says, "and I knew I wanted to have a mix of writers that I knew and writers I didn't know. It was just sort of finding the right balance."
There was also personal drama to take into account, and sometimes the selection process was like planning the seating arrangements at a wedding: "Maybe I knew too much about a certain person's relationship to another person. I can go down this rabbit hole very easily where I'm worrying about relationships among writers, and of course I want my group to all get along."
Flenniken also had to go outside her comfort zone as a reader and writer of poetry. "Jack Straw is open to writers of all genres. Probably because I am a poet, I received majority poetry applications, but I wanted to make sure to include prose writers. I tried to create 'company' for every writer, which is a little like matchmaking — I’m not sure if it will work, but I hope it will."
Eventually, Flenniken laughs, Jack Straw staff "asked me to please just lay that aside and just choose the writers that I think would work together as a group and who would benefit most from the program."
Flenniken was a Jack Straw Writer more than fifteen years ago, and she applied multiple times before she was selected. That helped her remember that she wasn't rejecting applicants forever, that next year a different curator was going to select writers with a completely different set of criteria in mind. And Flenniken supplied personal notes with some of the rejections, asking people to "please apply next year," or "please apply for the Artist Support Program because there are two parallel programs and sometimes people apply to the wrong program and they just need to be pointed in the right direction."
After she finally nailed down the final dozen, she says, "it was still really difficult. It was traumatizing for a few days after."
The 2019 Jack Straw Writers that Flenniken settled on are Samar Abulhassan, Dianne Aprile, Josh Axelrad, Christianne Balk, Gabrielle Bates, Leanne Dunic, Shankar Narayan, Sylvia Byrne Pollack, Rena Priest, Putsata Reang, Michael Schmeltzer, and Suzanne Warren.
Flenniken is proud of all of the writers, and she can gush at length about all of them. In the deliberation process, she's become an expert in what makes them interesting and noteworthy as artists. She was surprised by Josh Axelrad, who previously published a non-fiction book but submitted a short story for the program. "I had a sort of emotional reaction to it and I felt personally implicated in the story — even kind of mad at the story — and then there's a twist at the end. I read it and put it aside," she says. "But then I kept thinking about it and then I went back and I reread the story and I had a different take on it the second time. It was just really well done. So he was a discovery for me."
Flenniken was also surprised by the "wonderful dark sense of humor" in Suzanne Warren's story submission, and by Rena Priest, "whose poems are so incredibly musical and really interesting — sort of mythological."
For the next year, Flenniken will mentor these writers, offer support for them, and cheer them on as they take their writing to exciting new places. While she has plenty of experience teaching elementary school students through Writers in the Schools, Flenniken says "I don't usually have that role with adult writers. So this does feel like a pat on the back or a mark of trust, to be put in this role."
The hardest part — the selection process — is over. Now it's time for Flenniken and her Jack Straw Writers to learn and grow and build a community — and most of all, to write.