“In terms of readings in Seattle, strangely there isn’t really a queer series.” The darling Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore has invited me to her apartment to discuss the launch of her fall reading series at Hugo House, Contagious Exchanges, and I’m instantly enamored with her lush arrangement of houseplants and the wall of books facing them from behind tasteful glass doors. The whole place, like Mattilda, is smart and lively.
“Tara Hardy is doing some amazing curation at Gay City,” she continues, “but in the institutions that are considered ‘literary Seattle,’ for better or worse, there isn’t a queer series. There are a lot of queer writers at Hugo House, and people involved in running Hugo House, but there isn’t a series that says, Hello! This is a queer series!”
That’s about to change. Contagious Exchanges starts catching on October 5, with artist and co-founder of the Seattle People of Color Salon C. Davida Ingram and the prolific Rebecca Brown (The Gifts of the Body), who will both read before joining Mattilda in an onstage conversation about, well, whatever happens to come up!
“The way I’m curating it is that I want people to play off one another in a surprising way.” She recalls the Challenging Pride event from June of this year, a preview of sorts for the series. “So, it was Anastacia Tolbert and Tara Hardy in conversation, and I really thought it was amazing because they’re always amazing readers, but I felt like it was for each of them one of their more vulnerable readings. I thought it had a real dynamism. At one point, Tara asked Anastacia how spirituality infused all of her work, which I had no idea about!”
Surprise, an unexpected way of considering art and literature or life or queerness or anything in a different way—even just for a second—is what Mattilda aims for with these events, which include the pairings of Vivek Shraya with Chase Joynt (Nov. 2), Randa Jarrar with Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (Dec. 7), Sarah Galvin with David Schmader (Jan. 4), and Jennifer Natalya Fink with Wendy C. Ortiz (April 5).
Some of these artists and writers I’m familiar with; several are brand new to me. Much of my experience with Mattilda’s work has been an exciting and provocative crash-course on queerness, none of which has been a disappointment in the slightest. And so I’m thrilled as I begin to recognize that this series is in many ways a live-action iteration of work she’s been doing for years, with anthologies like Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots (AK Press) and Nobody Passes (Seal Press).
She describes her curation ideals as “cross-pollination—of writers and artists across genre and across all the markers of identity in queer lives—race, class, gender, sexuality, style of writing, lineage, background. I feel like a lot of literary worlds get stuck on one particular thing—whatever it is! It doesn’t mean there isn’t a wide variety of people present, but for example, you can go to a spoken word series and that crowd may never intersect with a Seattle Arts & Lectures crowd, who may never intersect with a Hugo House crowd, who many never intersect with a Gay City crowd. Here are four institutions or types of readings that are happening in Seattle—some interweave more than others—but I do want that cross-pollination.”
When I ask how curating Contagious Exchanges compares to editing an anthology, she considers the notion for a moment before answering. “Editorial work is much more hands on. Here I’m choosing the writers but I’m not directing their work. In the conversation, I’m open to whatever the readers want to do with it. With an anthology, I have a vision and people surprise me and change that vision by what they submit to the books, but the work itself is involved in a different way. With a literary series, there’s more spontaneity. My goals, though, are similar for both: bringing challenging work together and creating some sort of exchange that furthers a global and political and intimate conversation. Potentially! Anything can happen.”
I love that spirit, saving room to be surprised. Already the concept for this series has me thinking about the tension of wholesale representation that literary spaces can place on “the queer one” in reading lineups or on panels—and then there’s the converse notion of queer artists being told to sanitize their work for the mainstream. Both circumstances pit identity against art, but Mattilda sees another way. With Contagious Exchanges, she’s obliterating that tension by creating a space for both artists and their art to appear simultaneously.
“I want to queer Hugo House, and in a certain sense to try to queer literary Seattle—whatever that means!—both in terms of disrupting the bland formalism or conformity or homogeneity in a lot of literary venues, and in terms of bringing queer work into a space that certainly has queer people doing writing there but isn’t necessarily a queer space.”
As I gather my notes to leave, I’m as enamored by the verb queer as I have been these vivacious houseplants this whole time. Of course, neither are new to me—decorative greenery and queer as more than an adjective—but at the moment I’m seeing them in a different light, one filled with possibilities. Mattilda and I kiss goodbye, and I note the event dates in my calendar, delighted in knowing that at each of them anything could happen.
Dave Wheeler is the author of Contingency Plans: Poems (TS Poetry Press). He has written for Catapult, The Stranger, The Morning News, Glitterwolf, The James Franco Review, and others. He earned his BA in Creative Writing from Western Washington University and is now associate editor for Shelf Awareness in Seattle.