Richard Hugo is not the sexiest or most intuitive of literary center mascots. First of all, there’s the name. I can’t tell you how many out-of-towners have asked me why we have a place named after the Les Miserables guy.
In fact, before he had his name on Seattle’s writing hub or served as head of the creative writing department over at the University of Montana, Richard Hugo was just this kid from White Center, a neighborhood that many bios primly describe as “gritty.” After a stint in WWII dropping bombs over the European countryside, Hugo came home and worked for Boeing. And not as an executive or anything—first doing manual labor and then coming indoors for technical writing. Typing out “insert sprocket A into chain 3” all day is not the most intuitive of creative warm-up exercises.
Then there’s the fact that Hugo didn’t always cast women in the most flattering or the most person-dimensional light in his poems. (Take a mild example, for instance from his famous “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg.” The closing woman might as well be a lamp he takes a shine to.)
There’s also the matter of his method. The matter of the madness of the method to his… we’ll get into the “Triggering Town” technique he coined later, but here’s a short version:
romp into unfamiliar town;
describe said town - don’t worry too much about accuracy;
let own feelings bubble up as real focus of poem;
publish feelings with town name still in title and poem.
It doesn’t win you a whole lot of favor with the locals when you say things like “the principal supporting business is rage” (again, Philipsburg).
Maybe the most unlikely aspect of Hugo’s role as literary patron of 1634 11th Ave is that the building we know as Richard Hugo House was never his residence. We have no evidence that the man ever set foot in the place. While Hugo was alive, it was probably still a mortuary. So why name the center after him? Why take our film title from one of his poems?
I think ultimately the whole lit center—and this documentary most of all—might be about payback, in the sense of gratitude as much as revenge. Hugo wandered the Pacific Northwest painting it with his (or his speakers', at least) loneliness and isolation. Now writers from all over the region come together and build the usually-solitary activity of writing into a social space. The one-time Boeing grunt is lending his name to an organization where longshoremen and runaway punks and attorneys and even Amazon employees get to flex their creative muscles.
And now we’re coming together as Team Demo Hugo. Some of us have taken a class on the Triggering Town, read his work, and tried our own hand at the technique. Some of us thought nothing more than “that guy who lets writers stay with him, right?” Most of us are women (who’s the manic pixie dream lamp now, bro?). But all of us are taking the opportunity to use his name and the building it’s painted on as a new space for playing out feelings. Our city is changing, Capitol Hill especially. And that’s an isolating feeling. That’s something that, more than ever, makes you want to suffuse a space with feelings. With memory. The collective history we’re making here will hopefully be more accurate and fair than some of the anti-travel brochures Hugo made in his angst. But what’s most real of all in his poetry and, hopefully in this film we’re making, is the emotional truth that develops in the process.
P.S. Okay, so a big part of the name Richard Hugo House comes from the three women who decided to found the lit center back in 1990s. But we’ll go more into that soon.