On December 12, 1996, at 7 p.m., the It's About Time Writers Reading Series convenes at The Seattle Public Library, University Branch, for its 89th reading. Esther Altshul Helfgott (b. 1941) founded the series in 1990 and has organized each event, including this one, handling the selection and scheduling of featured readers, publicity, and emcee duties. While in one sense there is nothing special about this particular session of a series that meets on the second Thursday of each month, in another sense there is something special about every gathering of It's About Time. Reading No. 89 features Kathleen Flenniken (b. 1960), who will go on to win the prestigious Prairie Schooner Book Award and to serve as the second Washington State Poet Laureate; Michael Hickey (b. 1956), a professor of creative writing who will be elected Seattle Poet Populist; Lina Schreier, a poet, fiction writer, and playwright; and Janice Robinette, a poet and journalist. Reading No. 89 also features an open mic from which anyone may read their work. It's About Time will go on to become Seattle's longest-running reading series that is open to all poets and writers in the community, with 326 readings over 26 years as of 2016, and still going strong.
The Poets and Their Poems
At the time of Reading No 89, It's About Time was publicized by a monthly newsletter that was typed, copied, and mailed by Helfgott, sometimes with some volunteer assistance. The newsletter printed short bios of the featured readers, a brief excerpt from their work, as well as other matters of interest to writers -- book reviews, short essays on craft, announcements of writing or social justice events, and memorials to deceased poets and writers. The newsletter for Reading No. 89, printed on bright pink paper, announced the reading as "Beginning & experienced writers read from their work," "wheel chair accessible / free," and the date, time, and location of the reading (Reading No. 89 Newsletter).
The newsletter reprinted a short poem by Kathleen Flenniken titled "How to Make a Box":
Find someone with
cuts to match your cuts,
lines to meet your lines.
Fold yourself to fit, as required.
Some parts of you may interlock.
Cut out a window and use a handle.
Carry your box or use for display.
You decide what to hold inside.
Stay together or fall apart.
(Reading No. 89 Newsletter).
This example of the subtle subversiveness of poetry might be considered archetypal of It's About Time, which from the first was imbued by its founder with a strong feminist sensibility.
Next on the program was Michael Hickey, whose excerpted work was a prose poem titled "In Defense of Eve." The appearance of a prose poem was an example of the tremendous diversity of form and expression welcomed at It's About Time. The piece opened with this line: "A man recently told me that the success of the trees in the Garden of Eden was due to the fact that Adam and Eve were astronauts and had attained curious knowledge in horticulture, agriculture, and jungle planning from other planets" (Reading No. 89 Newsletter). It's About Time often stretched the imagination of its listeners. The next line: "I found this information plausible in as much as I had no reason to doubt the man," introduced a sense of Dadaist absurdity into the narrative, thus connecting It's About Time with a surrealist strain in twentieth century world literature. After a few twists and turns, the piece closed, "I told this man, who claimed to be God, Eve should have trusted Adam but she was tired of the smell of paradise and who wouldn't talk to a talking snake?" (Reading #89 Newsletter). This piece was rich with slant humor and a glimpse of the deeper meaning lying beneath the calm surface of rationality.
Lina Schreier's contribution was a feminist poem titled "You man, you," about the pain of having a male partner who turns his affections toward a younger woman. "Why can't you be / like me, you man?" asks Schreier. "I love your wrinkled skin, / your seasoned ways. I bring you tea and pills / and push the bedpan under you …" (Reading No. 89 Newsletter).This piece resonated with the essay by poet Irene Drennan (1922-2009) on the back page, titled "In Praise of Older Poets." Mentioning, among others, Virginia Adair (1913-2004) who at age 83 published her first collection, Ants on the Melon (New York: Random House, 1996), and "elder statesmen" like Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006) and Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), Drennan extolled the virtues of the elder sensibility in completing the cycle of life, and told women poets over 65 that "[i]t is our time to shine" (Reading No. 89 Newsletter).
The last featured poet listed for Reading No. 89 was poet/journalist Janice Robinette. The excerpt from her poem "Shadow Play" revealed a keen sensibility to the loss of an old flame -- a literally "flaming, / redheaded ghost growing further and further away, / … You faded into the distance like the flickering / images of WWII soldiers on old newsreels …" (Reading No. 89 Newsletter).
Paul Gillie's Book Notes
In the newsletter Olympia poet Paul Gillie (1928-2001) wrote an essay, "Book Notes," highlighting four books. First, he mentioned Bread for this Hunger (Seattle: Crab Creek Review, 1996), an anthology of poems published by the review under the editorship of Linda Clifton. Next, he provided capsule reviews of Carolyn Maddox's Remembering Water (Seattle: Bellowing Ark Press, 1996), Knute Skinner's The Cold Irish Earth (Knockeven, Co. of Clare, Ireland: Salmon Publishing Ltd., 1996), and the legendary Jeanne Lohmann's (1923-2016) Granite Under Water (Santa Barbara: Fithian Press, 1996).
The little reviews were like poetry themselves. In telling us about Maddox, Gillie said, "she is a teacher -- not a pedagogue, but one who arouses curiosity, stimulates, educes" (Reading No. 89 Newsletter). Of the book he said, "The remembered water also includes rain, floods, mist, and always, the water without which there would be no living cottonwoods, trilliums, goldenrods, grebes, wild strawberries, feral cats, salamanders, buckbrush, sandpipers, marshgrass, jewelweed, whales, hyacinths, or any of the other life forms she sights and identifies in these rich and finely crafted poems" (Reading No. 89 Newsletter). Clearly, Gillie was a poet who enjoyed the mouth feel of each word, and his excitement is contagious. Of The Cold Irish Earth he says:
"Any blocked poet who says there's nothing to write about should read Knute Skinner, the Bellingham professor who learned to spell zucchini. In his most recent collection, Skinner finds material all around him -- even in the dandruff of his eyebrows -- as he goes about the busy-ness of living during about 30 years that were spent partly in County Clare, Ireland .... Skinner carries a universe of poetic insight wherever he goes, to Killaspuglonane or to Bellingham USA" (Reading No. 89 Newsletter).
One of Many
Number 89 was just one of (to date) 326 It's About Time readings. It was nothing special. All we have remaining of that evening is the trace -- the tip of the proverbial iceberg -- revealed by the newsletter. Who read at the open mic? What flights of fancy were actually attained, what raw emotions plumbed, what insights gained?
To know, you'd have to go.