The Margin Shift collective began as a bunch of poet-friends who liked to get together on occasion and talk shop. Lots of people sit around in cafes and do the very same thing, but in this case the friends in question sport a long lists of literary accomplishments both in Seattle and in the national arena.
Here's the roll call: Stranger Genius Maged Zaher, author most recently of Thank You For the Window Office; Robert Mittenthal, author of Wax World; Jane Wong, PhD candidate in Literature at UW and author of several chapbooks; Gregory Laynor, also a PhD candidate in Literature—you may have seen him read his famous poem that is a list of Crayon colors?; David Wolach, author of Occulations; Laura Neuman, author of Stop The Ocean; and experimental poet Kreg Hasegawa.
About six months ago, these folks realized that they were all concerned about similar issues in Seattle's poetry scene. They spoke of the Seattle feeling like an isolating and isolated place. They also noticed that other cities known for literature have collectives that do a lot of work, but that Seattle didn't have such a collective. So a few days later, gathered around a table at Elliott Bay Café, the group decided that they'd try to solve some of those problems. To begin, they decided to meet on a regular basis in order to discuss what they've been reading, what work they've been doing, and who they'd like to see read in Seattle.
From these conversations emerged the Margin Shift reading series, which is now held monthly at the Hedreen Gallery, in available space among the art. The series has no specific agenda, but an awareness of different power issues and sensitivity to minority representation is part of the collective's DNA. In general, they seek to enliven Seattle's poetry scene with fresh voices from up and down the coast, and also to champion some local poets they feel don't get enough play.
So far, the poet's they've featured lean towards the academic, conceptual and slightly Canadian. Though these poets work more with avant-garde traditions than mainstream lyrical or narrative ones, they often avoid stuffiness and impenetrability. That is, in their poems you'll find beer and fried mushrooms just as soon as you'll find a cribbed quote from Kant.
The last reading, for example, featured Portland poet Alicia Cohen and B.C. poet Donato Mancini. Shortly before Cohen started off the night, someone in the audience mentioned—or sort of whispered—the name Jack Spicer. In response, Cohen proceeded to recite from memory one of Spicer's more experimental, long-ish, beautiful and jumpy poems. That's a hard thing to do—it'd be a little bit like trying to draw an explosion from memory.
The chance affinity between the art hanging on the walls of the Hedreen and the content of the poets' poems is part of what makes the series fun. This meat-y piece (above) by artist Sean McElroy was dangling behind audience members who were listening to Mancini's documentary-style mash-up poem about people in prison camps telling other people to hope for/obtain soup from the bottom of the pot, which is where the most nutritious food settles.
To keep things fresh, the collective rotates its curators. Right now Deborah Woodard does the picking, and this week she's selected Sam Lohmann and Jen Currin. Lohmann is the editor of a letterpress 'zine called Peaches and Bats, and he's also the author of Day Use Area and Unless as Stone Is. Currin has published four books, the most recent of which, The Inquisition Yours, won the Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry.
Sam Lohmann and Jen Currin read at Hedreen Gallery on Thursday, May 29 at 7 p.m. Photo by Rich Smith.