Poets at Seattle’s Hugo House

Karen Finneyfrock at Hugo House

Local writers gathered together to share some of their new and works in progress at Hugo House Tuesday, Nov. 3.

The event was sponsored by Seattle Arts and Lectures, and the night’s participants all had one thing in common, they are also teachers through the program “Writers in the Schools.” The WITS program has been active in Seattle schools for the past 21 years. These local professional writers partner with groups of students for an entire year to work with them in a writing genre of their choice. The program’s goal is to “inspire young people to discover and develop their authentic writing and performance voices,” according to their mission statement.

This week’s event was part of a series called “Local Voices” that takes place a few times a year. Nine writers were featured and shared a variety of new works, including poems, essays and even chapters from novels in progress. The performance space itself has a special history and was created to be a central location for writing, reading, learning and sharing new works.

The house’s namesake is Richard Hugo, who is a local Seattle writer who “came from poverty and a broken family in White Center, but transcended his upbringing to become a nationally renowned poet,” according to the Hugo House.

While the house has an auditorium-style performance space, many events including this one are held in the main floor, where coffee shop style tables are clustered around a small stage and folding chairs expand the seating area.

Both the Hugo House and the WITS program have a big emphasis on the importance of writing. Executive Director of SAL Ruth Dickey explained:

“What I’ve found, over and over and over again, is that reading and thinking deeply about poems and stories and novels can help us expand the ways we make sense of the world. And the ability to give voice to our own experiences through writing is a tool that can transform each of us and open almost limitless doors throughout our lives.”

WITS will give this opportunity to over 6,000 students in 25 schools and Seattle Children’s Hospital this year alone. Through writing and learning to express themselves, Dickey said students “get the tools and support to tell their own stories while also providing meaningful employment to local professional writers, so they can go on telling theirs.”

Dickey has seen the transformational impact of writing  “with lots of different folks – young students, teens, adults, rape survivors, community leaders,” as well as “people who were homeless in Washington DC.” In her role at Seattle Arts and Lectures, she not only contributes to the WITS program, but through other programs that  “bring the best writers and thinkers to Seattle’s stages.” This includes the Literary Arts Series, Poetry Series, Women You Need to Know and SAL Presents. Since last year SAL has had a 61 percent increase in the number of people engaged, up to 17,662 in one year.

Karen Finneyfrock, a local author and a part of the WITS program has had similarly impactful experiences with writing. She has been teaching as part of WITS for the past nine years and worked with a range of ages from third grade up to ninth. Each age gets something different out of the experience. “For elementary school students, they already know how to express themselves so it’s a matter of teaching them how to make their writing more vibrant and giving them the tools to grow their writing.” For high school students, the opposite seems true. “It’s a very hard time where people feel so mixed up emotionally and are struggling to feel accepted. They need that outlet to express themselves, which can be very hard in a traditional classroom environment, its hard for them to be comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas.” Writing can give them that outlet.

Karen Finneyfrock at Hugo House
Karen Finneyfrock at Hugo House

Finneyfrock has written two  young adult novels: The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door and Starbird Murphy and the World Outside. While she uses a lot of her own experience in her novels, she also “wants to be writing about things that modern young people care about, and anxieties and situations that are constantly fresh and related to our current world.” WITS gives her the chance to interact and write with a variety of different young people, and to then turn that around and give back even better written works and writing experiences.

WITS not only provides a priceless opportunity for the students in the program, it also helps the writers. “While there are a lot of artists who sort of make it big and are very successful, there’s also a huge swath of very talented working artists who have a lot to offer and are having to work very hard to continue to be able to do their art, so it’s great to see opportunities like this.”

The practice of writing as a community and of having professional writing mentors not only provides participants “creative outlets, and develops their understanding of craft and mechanics, but it promotes habits of mind, skills and mentalities that apply to all aspects of life – self-confidence, tenacity and creative thinking,” according to WITS Program Director Alicia Craven. “By treating students’ stories with the import they deserve, and encouraging the supportive sharing of different points of view, the writing residencies will encourage students to view both themselves, and their classmates with increased empathy.”