The cozy, home-like environment of Richard Hugo House’s original and current space makes it a pretty fitting last stop for APRIL Festival’s annual grassroots romp around Capitol Hill and First Hill. Add the sorta-twisted fact that the 1904 building that houses the internationally acclaimed center for writers was once a mortuary and the space might seem an even more ideal fit as a venue for the week-long literature festival known for its freewheeling spirit and often unorthodox approaches to presenting works.
However, next year APRIL will have to find another site for its capstone small press Book Expo, and other events it has traditionally held at Hugo House. The writing center’s current building will be torn down in 2016 to make way for the construction of a six-story mixed-use structure. Thankfully, the new building does promise to provide a continued home for Hugo House on the east side of Cal Anderson Park, but it will of course take some time to build. And the new space will of course be a change; a welcome change in many respects, Hugo House’s executive director Tree Swenson says, but aspects of the ambiance will certainly shift.
It remains to be seen how APRIL will adapt in 2016 and if it will return to Hugo House once the new incarnation is completed. And while thanks to generous support Capitol Hill gets to hold on to Hugo House, some fear that trends the Hugo House property revamp reflects — including the continuously rising property values and rents helping spur the rolling redevelopment of the neighborhood — may threaten to push most less-commercial artists and arts out of the neighborhood once and for all. Meanwhile, the city’s designation of Capitol Hill as Seattle’s first official Arts District represents one effort meant to help prevent that from happening.
All that said, though at its inception four years ago it may have entered a Capitol Hill already past its prime as a readily accessible place for the arts to thrive without intervention or initiatives, APRIL has nonetheless seen impressive growth since its humble beginnings. Whats more, APRIL continues to find some ways to grow in 2015, as it now looks to adapt to new challenges in the near future.
“It’s definitely getting bigger and bigger than we ever could have imagined when we started it,” said Tara Atkinson, who founded APRIL along with Willie Fitzgerald back in 2012, when the two found themselves unemployed roommates in a Capitol Hill apartment that also served as APRIL’s headquarters. The acronym they chose as the name for the festival that comes every March, and which has morphed in to an organization that also offers some smaller literary events throughout the year, is descriptive — ‘Authors, Publishers and Readers of Independent Literature.’
This year’s festival runs one day shorter than 2014’s, kicking off Tuesday, March 24, with a party at Barboza, and wrapping up Sunday, March 29, with the Book Expo at Hugo House. However, while the number of days and events is indeed slightly lower, some other numbers are up.
This year’s Book Expo will be APRIL’s largest ever. The nearly 60 small press publishers set to be in attendance selling books directly to readers will push the capacity of Hugo House’s current space to the limit. Last year’s expo featured 39 small presses, and the year before, about half that number.
Meanwhile, the Festival’s popular event that pits a “A Poet, a Playwright, a Novelist and a Drag Queen” against each other in a storytelling competition has moved from a 60-person capacity space in the Sorrento Hotel to a 188-seat space at the Northwest Film Forum. This year’s competitors are best-selling Bellingham poet Robert Lashley, Seattle playwright and author of Bo-Nita Elizabeth Heffron, “second-wave queer” drag queen Princess Charming and 2014 LAMDA Literary Award-winner Mattilda Bernstein-Sycamore, who the CHS Crow interviewed last October.
“I have no idea who’s going to win this year,” Atkinson said about the storytelling competition. “I [usually] maybe have a favorite horse in the game, and this year I have no idea. They’re all really really performative readers. They’re all like weirdos in a good way.” (While most APRIL events are free, it will cost you a few dollars to get in to the competition, which has sold out in advance in past years. You can grab tickets here.)
Making the most of an about $6,000 budget, the festival has also managed to increase the number of visiting writers from two to three over last year, bringing Mary Miller, Wendy Xu and this year’s APRIL Writer-in-Residence Shya Scanlon to town. As CHS reported in coverage of last year’s festival, APRIL started their writer-in-residence program in 2014, putting Jac Jemc up in Seattle for a week of creativity.
Visual interpretations of poet Xu’s book You Are Not Dead will be featured as APRIL once again collaborates with art gallery Vignettes. The event is taking place in a bigger space this year than in years past, potentially allowing for local artists including Ripple Fang, Francesca Lohmann and Aidan Fitzgerald, to bring in larger-scale pieces as they respond to Xu’s celebrated verse.
The Vignette’s collaboration exemplifies a multitextual and less-traditional approach to literary presentation that helps differentiate APRIL from other festivals and from most of the readings that fill the calendar in Seattle year round.
“We really put everything in to all of the events that we put on during the week and try and make them all as great as they can be and as engaging and approachable, so it’s not just watching someone stand in front of the podium reading a piece of paper,” APRIL staffer Frances Chiem said. “That definitely has its place, but it’s not a very welcoming image for people who don’t see themselves as part of the literati.”
APRIL’s Happy Hour readings series has been scaled back to two evenings and one venue this year. Both Happy Hour readings take place at Vermillion starting a 5:30 PM, and are curated by two publications APRIL is partnering with for the first time — Northwest Poetry magazine and “minimalist prose” magazine Spartan.
Seattle author Rebecca Brown, whose best-known novel The Gifts of the Body won a LAMDA Literary Award, will hold a seance for Alice B. Toklas at the Sorrento Hotel. The event will also feature authors Joshua Beckman and Jan Wallace and “a chihuahua in poodle drag.” Toklas stayed in the Sorrento around the turn of the last century while a music student at UW, and a local legend says her ghost haunts the landmark
A Twin Peaks-themed party will go down Saturday at Hugo House to celebrate the launch of writer-in-residence Scanlon’s new book The Guild of St. Cooper — “a revisionist history of Seattle” in which a cult forms around special agent Dale Cooper from the TV show Twin Peaks, Chiem said. The event will feature readings by Mary Miller and Matthew Simmons, and electronica mavens Your Young Body will play music from … Twin Peaks.
Bringing in an additional visiting author does mean APRIL’s staff continue to be volunteers this year.
“It kind of shows a decision how we’re all kind of gluttons for punishment a little bit,” Chiem said. “When we were looking at our budget for this year it was either we could have, APRIL staff, four of us, we could either all have small stipends, or we could use that money to bring out a third author. So we chose to continue to make this a labor of love.”
For her part, Atkinson says she embraces her role at the helm of APRIL as the organization continues to grow.
“I think the first year we had the festival, we had the opening party and we didn’t know what was going to happen and I turned to Willy and was like, ‘There’s people here that we don’t know!’ Like you kind of just expect your friends to show up,” Atkinson said. “It just feels that way more and more every year. And I guess also the longer it goes on, the more serious of a commitment it feels like.”
“There’s a community. There’s people who write to us from our newsletter who I also don’t know,” Atkinson said. “And they want to talk about books. Or they just thank us for putting on the events. So I can see a community forming, that I’m in charge of feeding, … It’s good,”
“That’s the direction we want to keep going — more people loving books, meeting authors that they dig.”