Friday, October 10, 2014

A Journey to the Literary Outskirts: WordsWest

Poetry and Prose at C and P Coffee House This Wednesday
The organizers of WordsWest met this morning at C and P Coffee Company to plan for Wednesday night's reading with Rick Barot and Lena Khalaf Tuffaha --- we are thrilled to be hosting this reading and discussion group. We are also thrilled to have received this article from writer Lilly Wasserman about her experience at our inaugural event. It's nice being newsworthy.

A Journey to the Literary Outskirts: WordsWest

As a Wallingford resident with a penchant for domesticity and daylong naps, I rarely find myself too far from home. Venturing beyond a 3-mile radius of my apartment requires a strong cup of coffee and the promise of greatness. It wasn’t until last Wednesday that incentive to shed my bathrobe and hitch a ride cross-town, came in the form of a far-flung poetry reading. I wrangled some fellow lit-lovers and we flocked to C and P Coffee Company in West Seattle for the debut of WordsWest, a monthly literary series that features an impressive lineup of local and international talent. It was well worth the extra mileage. The small venue was filled nearly to capacity as we arrived, with a sizeable crowd mingling in the warmly lit foyer. The buzz of expectant chatter dwindled to a hush as Susan Rich, a local poet and co-curator of WordsWest took to the stage for an overview of the evening’s festivities.

The reading that followed was structurally unexpected. Rich introduced the program as a “living anthology”-- a dynamic interplay between two featured writers, poet and young adult author, Karen Finneyfrock and memoirist, Elissa Washuta. Instead of one following the other in a pattern typical of most readings, they went back and forth, returning to the podium multiple times to share excerpts and poems from their respective bodies of work. The way the readings were intertwined formed a call and response that bolstered the individual narratives without feeling fragmented or forced. The result was an intimate melding of strong female voices. One audience member was particularly impressed by the night’s progression, explaining that it created a casual atmosphere for work that was otherwise “poignant, personal, and exposing.” Karen Finneyfrock is a published poet and the author of two young adult novels, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door and Starbird Murphy and the World Outside. She graced us with a combination of poetry and fiction while her fellow presenter, Elissa Washuta, opted for personal narrative, reading exclusively from her recently released memoir, My Body is a Book of Rules.

Throughout the presentation, Finneyfrock and Washuta took turns populating the space with their stories. Collectively, they touched on themes of religion and history, womanhood and young love. I was particularly moved by Finneyfrock’s whimsical articulation of real and imagined settings. We travelled from a 1960’s rural commune to a summer camp art-barn on Whidbey Island. Finneyfrock also read a passage from her most recent novel, Starbird Murphy and the World Outside, capturing the woozy thrill of a first-kiss, and sending pinpricks of rapture through the caffeinated crowd. Washuta’s words contained a feminist bent. She spent her stage-time critically examining the gaps in her Catholic education. On behalf of biblical women, she reclaimed the twisted histories of patron saints and railed against the doctrine of sexual restraint spoon-fed by her childhood church. Like others in the audience, I was blown away by the wide range of written material and the unconventional way it was a pieced together. In reflecting on the presentation, Washuta herself said, “It truly felt not only flawless, but all its own, quite special, and necessary.”

WordsWest is the brainchild of three established writers: Katy Ellis, Susan Rich, and Harold Taw. All three are published authors with a desire to usher West Seattle into the downtown literary fold. Rich and Ellis met at a poetry reading at Elliot Bay Books this past July. After a ten-minute mind-meld during intermission they produced the idea for a new “writer-centric” series, one that supports its readers and the surrounding community in equal measure. As a fellow West Seattle writer and technology master, Taw was the perfect person to round out their curatorial trio. C and P Coffee Company, besides being a neighborhood mainstay, is by no means an accidental venue. Taw has been a loyal customer at C&P for many years. It is the conceptual breeding grounds for his first book and the place where he and Susan first met eight years ago. A self-proclaimed point of convergence for artists, musicians and performers alike, the café seemed a symbolic choice.

So why all the hype about WordsWest? Not only is this the first series of its kind based out of West Seattle but its emphasis on bridging cultural gaps through literary engagement is also highly unique. The project attempts to bring world-class writers to a relatively underserved faction of greater Seattle. The series’ primary goal, as Katy Ellis explains it, is to get “poetry, fiction and nonfiction into the hands, hearts and minds of the community.” To further satisfy this mission, WordsWest came up with the Favorite Poem Project. Each event includes a reading by a local business owner, offering a chance for them to engage with potential customers using poetry as a point of connection. This month’s guest presenter was Emma Epps from Pegasus Book Exchange; a family-owned bookstore located down the street from C and P Coffee Company. In addition to community outreach, WordsWest seeks to support its readers in financially tangible ways, offering tools for self-promotion and professional success. On top of a live presentation, audience members can look forward to on-site book sales and signings, as well as an archive of accompanying podcasts available through the WordsWest website: This provides presenters like Finneyfrock and Washuta the opportunity to reach more people with multiple platforms for public exposure.

The line up of events in the coming months is no less enticing. Next Wednesday brings Rick Barot, poetry editor for the New England Review and author of three books of poetry including The Darker Fall, Want, and Chord (still in the works for 2015). Accompanying him is Palestinian American writer Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, whose poem “Running Orders” went viral this year and received widespread attention for its highly personal glimpse of the conflict in Gaza. Later this fall on November 15th in time for the holidays Kate Lebo, poet and pie connoisseur shares the stage with food writer Molly Wizenburg. The pair is sure to offer some mouth-watering prose. Winter and spring promise an ever-changing roster of writers of all genres, including an appearance by Washington State Poet Laureate, Elizabeth Austen, Francis McCue, and Erica Bauermeister, among others. As I left the coffee house that night, favorite passages still sifting through my mind, I couldn’t help but feel exceptionally lucky. Being a fledgling writer, it helps to know that projects like WordsWest exist and can thrive with enough positive attention. Seattle writers would do well check out this new literary series that ultimately, supports us all.

Lilly Wasserman is a poet, writer, and freelance journalist. To find more of Lilly's work check out The Far Field sponsored by Humanities Washington. 

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