Around Town

The Things They Made (at Hugo House)

Richard Hugo House’s “Made at Hugo House” program—though its appellation may be slightly evocative of the Cosa Nostra—is a yearly fellowship program that provides “space and resources to four to six emerging writers in King County.” Last Monday night, this year’s six fellows (a group composed, in part, of wayward preachers, Peace Corps Volunteers and Midwesterners) gave a brisk range of readings that showed both where they’ve been and what they’ve made of their adopted home.

Throughout the reading, there was a motif of made actions and deliberate gestures. Michelle Peñaloza read poems from her series “Landscape/Heartbreak,” in which she meets volunteers at the Hugo House and joins them on a walk through the city, the personal and familiar streets becoming thus overlaid with trauma, both romantic and otherwise, gleaned from the stories she is told. One poem, “Pentimento,” referring to the ghostly images still apparent in an altered painting, could be a metaphor for her project en masse:

…Dozens of couples fuck their farewells, perfunctory
and mild, along the skyline. Inside the Sorrento Hotel,
a woman hides from her lover inside a closet. She drinks
the rain from their coats. She prays in whispers to the ghost
of Alice B. Toklas. Across the city, several sets of friends
have agreed to stop speaking, without having said a word…

The reading’s first two fiction writers, Raymond Fleischmann and Ross McMeekin, each read scenes from novels-in-progress, one simmering with unspoken threat, the other pouring forth in an ecstatic rush. First was Fleischmann, who methodically and movingly described a conversation between a couple, two German-Americans frustrated with the building hostility they faced in their small Alaskan town. It’s the early stages of World War II, and in between lines of dialogue, the husband split wood, each pause and recalibration of the axe giving way to a violent burst.

The tension in this scene ceded the stage to Ross McMeekin’s description of a school sermon brought to literal climax. Focused on a protagonist, Ezra, who during a guest preacher’s sermon, becomes enthralled with the spirited gyrations of a teacher—even, as she loses control, catching a glimpse of her bare knees. When the scene, and Ezra, reach culmination, the preacher speaks to Ezra, and Ezra alone: “I know what the desires promise. But I also know they don’t deliver!”

Paulette Perhach too made a deliberate gesture, one that brought her to Paraguay as a member of the Peace Corps, an experience she described in her excerpt of a longer memoir. By her own admission, Perhach undertook the project in part to risk “death or discomfort,” and finding way more of the latter, much of it self-imposed. She told a humorous tale of her cultural foibles suffered on her path towards becoming, as she says with gentle self-mocking, “a lifetime-certified good person.”

The two writers at the evenings more lyrical end, both of whose work skirted direct narrative, were Jessica Mooney and Matthew Schnirman. Schnirman’s poems, described briefly, are fairly straightforward: a series of poems, “American Shot,” so-named for an erotic reading of the cinematic technique that films actors, mostly in Westerns, from a low angle so as to catch their face, body, and (phallic) weapon in one frame. The poems, addressed to their “anti-muse,” Zac Efron, manage to go far beyond cultural winks, mock-worship, or cheap bathos:

Then there’s this: I’ve met a good-looking man in a band from Orlando who shoots up at barbecues, and I’ve watched Alpharetta daddies work the sidewalk sales down in Midtown, Atlanta. O, Interchangeability!—I desire this, I desire that—that which empties the mouth of all its (be)longings and waits, as if a backpack with nothing in it, for the next breath’s swept words. Tst tst!

There is little that doesn’t spill out of the few poems Schnirman read, as Efron, or “Efron,” is courted and abused, venerated and discarded. In short, he is treated as all our shining celebrities:

…Anger can empty our swimming pools.
Competition is hard and wears on the mind:
…diving boards, chlorine, all kinds of trophies.
Zac says, I lost my temper, with a drawl,
…and that was the end of his story. So
dreamy, to be in love with a man who
…gives everything up for no reason…

One of Mooney’s short fiction pieces recounted a brief relationship between a narrator—weary from implied travels, almost inchoate himself to the reader—and a war photographer, Ama, who counts the names of her siblings teachers as a way to remind herself to wait after an explosion to enter a demolished building. Its conclusion, an evocative reimagining of the Cherokee cardinal directions, was moving and perfect. Her other piece was a survey of the imagined tattoos of notable dictators.

Gaddafi had a tramp stamp. A monarch butterfly hovering mid-flight between two generous muffin tops. Gossip running among the stalls of Tripoli street vendors claims he once fell in love with the daughter of a local tailor who made his shirts. After his body was mutilated and dragged through the streets, rebels discovered 3,000 perfectly folded, never worn cotton tunics in various rooms of his residence, closets and armoirs bursting at the seams. The name of the tailor’s daughter was named Farasha, which in Arabic means butterfly.

This short excerpt gives the sense of the sweet spot that the whole reading was able to find among the humorous, the bewildering, and the unsettling.

Pictured above: Top, Michella Penaloza; Center: Ross McMeekin