Chapter 16: An Interview with Peter Mountford
Read chapters 1-15 here.
This series of interviews with writer/curators aims to explore why and how to have a literary reading—a good literary reading—a good literary reading that gathers a welcome, diverse, excited, and inspired audience—a good literary reading that gathers a welcome, diverse, excited, and inspired audience while also creating a supportive environment for readers. (Please comment with stories, commentary, and advice about readings at which you’ve performed, attended, or hosted.)
Hugo House is a Seattle literary foundation. Peter Mountford and his team there put on a variety of events that push boundaries, create conversation, and get writers to create new, unique work for their performance. In our interview this week, it’s apparent that the worries and concerns of people hosting readings in small bars or cafes parallel those of hosts filling 200-people rooms.
Name: Peter Mountford
Location: Seattle, WA
Can you give me a run down of the reading you host?
PM: Almost all of the events take place at Hugo House, where we have two stages, one for an audience of up to about 100, and one for an audience up to about 250.
As the events curator at Hugo House, I organize our main two series, “Word Works” and the “Hugo Literary Series.” Word Works is craft talks by novelists, essayists, poets, and memoirists, which draw back the curtain on the process of writing. We just finished our second year of that series.
The Lit Series has been going for ten years, at least, and it’s our main series at Hugo House. The Lit Series features three writers and one musician all writing new work to a specific prompt. There are five events a year. This year the overarching theme is clichés. So each event is bound together by a cliché. The artists must deconstruct, work against, or follow the cliché in question.
So the writers create work on the spot, for the Lit Series?
PM: No, for the Lit Series, they are given the prompt now, and they have until the event to write the new work. So the people who are appearing in September have less time then those who are in May, but they have until they step out on stage to get the piece they want.
When Sheila Heti was here, she was editing minutes before she took the stage. That happens pretty often, actually. Her piece ended up in the New Yorker, actually.
How do you go about choosing/selecting readers for the Lit Series?
PM: You know, I love a strange mix. That often works well. I love to have a very political poet like, say, Maged Zaher, joined by Jenny Offill, and Laura Van Den Berg. The greater the contrast, the better.
Are you primarily in charge of deciding who performs, or is there any kind of voting process?
PM: I come up with names, and then run them by staff at Hugo House. We have an events committee. I also ask for suggestions very often. And if someone has a connection to an author, I’ll ask them to open the conversation with that author. It’s definitely a team process.
So I imagine, with the seating you have, the name recognition of many of your featured performers, and the presence of Huge House in the local it community there, you have big turnouts (in literary terms) for these events. How would you describe your audiences, typically, in terms of numbers, races, ages?
PM: You know, to my surprise the name recognition of our featured authors has surprisingly little to do with turnout. According to our surveys, at least. I was surprised by that. Word Works typically has about 100-150 people in the audience. The authors we have coming for that series this year include Maggie Nelson, Benjamin Percy, Kevin Young, and Daniel Handler. The Lit Series is more like 150-200 people. It’s a very fun event. People respond very differently to the prompts, which is always interesting. The demographics of the events are not unlike the demographics of our classes — we’re a writing center, serving writers in the area, so it’s slightly more women than men, and not as racially or ethnically diverse as we’d like. We do what we can to do outreach to different communities in the area, that’s a big part of our work now.
What does that include?
PM: We have guest curators doing different events. We had a big reading for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month this year, and an event for Pride Week called “All The Letters of The Rainbow.” We did a reading that was all Native Prose nonfiction writers. In part it’s a matter of having diversity on the stage, I think, but that’s not enough. I’ve certainly been to events where there’s a lot of diversity on stage, but the audience is mostly middle aged white people.
I’m hoping to partner with other organizations in town, as well.
Can you briefly walk me through how a lit series reading is structured? What can an audience expect to see?
PM: It usually starts with the musician playing a cold open, a song that they’ve written for the event. Then I get up and introduce the theme. Then we go to our first reader, who is usually a local Seattle writer. Then I introduce the second reader, who is generally not local, but is maybe a bit more “emerging.”
Roxane Gay was in this spot a couple years ago, but obviously things have changed for her, and she wouldn’t make sense there now. In the coming year, we have Heidi Julavits, Claire Vaye Watkins, Roger Reeves in this middle spot.
After that person reads, there’s another song, and then intermission. After intermission, another song, and then I introduce the last reader. These are also typically from out of town. This year, we had Meg Wolitzer, who wrote an amazing short story about these two girls left in a furniture store by their beleaguered parents. In the coming year we have Leslie Jamison, Dinaw Mengestu, and others. And that’s it. Each reader takes about 20 minutes on stage.
That sounds really exciting.
PM: It’s a blast. The variety is key. The more variety the better.
I talk mainly to people who do reading series in coffee shops, bars, living rooms, bookstores, for audiences of around 25-30. My main question to them (since it’s what I’m constantly dealing with as a host/organizer) is how do you, as a host, help people feel comfortable? Can you help them feel involved or connected? Or is it all up to the reader?
I think this question is actually very pertinent for you, because you’ve got such large crowds. Do you still feel pressure to make people feel at home?
PM: Yeah, it’s very important for me to be amusing and lighthearted when I’m introducing the night, and when I’m introducing the readers. Also, in Word Works, there’s a Q&A after the craft talk, and I do a lot of those, and the same thing applies. As a host I try to offer a fun or interesting quotation that relates to the theme, or I tell a very brief anecdote that makes me look a bit foolish. I think you have to get people to understand that just because there’s going to be a poetry reading, and some of the content might be harrowing, it does not mean that the audience has to be grimacing through it all. They’re there to be entertained, in a way, to have a complex and enriching experience.
I get very bored in readings very often. I have terrible ADD. I really want an event to be pleasing and fun.
I imagine The Hugo House team is very good at: Promotion. How do you promote, market, or get the word out? Do you feel that most of your audience is retained each event, or is it always new people? If so, how do you reach them?
PM: We have some things on our side, like a weekly email blast that goes out to about 10,000 people. I think it’s a matter of building a reputation, too, people know these events are fun. And we also have lots of people following us on social media. And we have media partners in the local NPR station KUOW, and the alt-weekly The Stranger. Also, our marketing person, Kristen Steenbeeke, does a lot of different forms of outreach.
A lot of the audience carries over, in part because we sell season tickets, but we’re definitely always looking to expand. For our craft talks, the thing is to pinpoint people who are struggling with that specific aspect of craft. So when we had David Shields talking about collage, we had to tell all of our writing students: if you are writing a memoir and are overwhelmed by the chronology, and want to break apart the story and tell it out of order, then come hear how it’s done from this guy, who is a pioneer of collage writing. Once we came out and said that to people the event sold out in a matter of days.
What’s the best/weirdest thing that’s happened at a Huge House reading?
There was the author who insisted on selling Racoon penis bones—that was before I had the job, fortunately. And there have been a few other antics like that. I suppose it’s obvious, but the best thing that ever happens is when we assign this writing prompt to a writer and they seem uncomfortable, really nervous, and I get very worried that they’re just going to blow it, but then they just get on stage and bring down the house. Sheila Heti looked pretty stricken before her reading, and I was half afraid she was going to jump out the window, but then she got on stage and just killed it. The story was so funny, and smart, and threaded with agony.
Peter Mountford’s debut novel A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism won the 2012 Washington State Book Award in fiction, and his second novel The Dismal Science was a New York Times editor’s choice. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Granta, Best New American Voices 2008, Boston Review, New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. He’s currently on faculty at Sierra Nevada College’s low-res MFA program, and is the events curator at Hugo House, Seattle’s writing center.