Literary Seattle, Bar Crawls, and Defining Independent Literature: An Interview With APRIL Festival Co-Founder Willie Fitzgerald

Ed Skoog reading in a parking garage.

I first heard of Seattle’s APRIL Festival — the name is an acronym for Authors, Publishers, and Readers of Independent Literature — via the coverage of ace The Stranger book critic Paul Constant. His account of last year’s lit crawl piqued my interest, and when he reported that the festival was returning this year, I figured it wouldn’t be a bad thing to learn more. And thus, this interview with co-founder Willie Fitzgerald, conducted via email.

How did the festival first come about? Was there a certain mood or experience that you were striving for when putting the 2012 lineup together?

The festival started as an offshoot of Pilot Books (not to be confused with the great poetry press of the same name), which was a small press-only bookstore in Seattle. In 2010, Pilot owner Summer Robinson held an almost unreasonable amount of readings at the shop over the month of March and called it Small Press Bookfest—I think there were something like 33 readings in 31 days. The following year, she tagged Tara Atkinson and myself to organize a different version of the festival. We called it Small Press Fest, or SPF, and we held a bunch of events over the course of March 2011. Almost immediately following SPF 2011, Pilot had to close and Summer wanted to take a well-deserved break from event organizing. That left Tara and myself. We wanted to bottle some of the energy that Pilot Books had and we had to change our name from SPF, so we came up with Authors, Publishers, Readers of Independent Literature (APRIL) and got to work. We’ve since added Kellen Braddock and Frances Dinger to the organizing team, and we’ve condensed our festival to six days at the end of March.

(Oh, and just as a point of clarification, March is National Small Press Month. We’re not just being cheeky by having “APRIL in March,” though that’s usually the first thing that people ask us).

In terms of energy, we wanted to create programming that would surprise people who’ve been to a lot of readings and attract people who’ve never been to a literary event. That’s why we borrowed the Lit Crawl idea from San Francisco, that’s why we had a competitive storytelling called “A Poet, a Playwright and a Drag Queen.” The Bad Blood reading series in Portland is a good example of the energy we’re going for—something totally unpretentious but still artistically serious; something that’s exciting and celebratory without being flip. The literary culture can be really introverted—the act of reading is inherently introverted—so we try and move it into the public sphere, maybe change the scenery a bit. Beer helps. It’s a running joke within APRIL that we get called “raucous” by a lot of different media outlets.

If you’ll allow me a digression, I think there’s this prevailing notion among a lot of people that all readings are boring; we think that’s bullshit. Summer told me something once, which I’ve now repeated ad nauseam, but I’ll bring it up here again because it’s so pertinent: nobody hears a bad song on the radio and says, ‘All music is terrible.’ But people will absolutely read (or hear someone read) a single bad poem and say ‘Oh, poetry is really boring.’ I think that applies to fiction as well, although poetry’s definitely got the tougher rap. Anyway, our festival tries to refute this tired notion that ‘literature’ is for a very specific, bookish group of people, and that it only occurs in certain designated spaces.

What have you learned from last year’s experience?

We learned a ton from last year. Mostly about the really boring, nitty-gritty stuff that doesn’t make for great interview fodder: organization, division of labor within the group, getting on top of our publicity efforts earlier. We also sort of confirmed our unspoken hypothesis from last year – writing is something that people will get really excited about, the same way they might get excited about music or visual art. People will absolutely leave a really good reading with that sort of giddy, babbling high you get sometimes after a great concert. We also learned that out of all artists, drag queens are probably the most difficult to schedule. God love ‘em, but they just never seem to check their email.

To what extent have you collaborated with other artistic communities — whether literary magazines or art galleries or musicians?

We always try and collaborate with different disciplines. That’s a big part of how we try to build our audience. Arts communities aren’t really so different. There’s a really good chance the person who loves Artist X’s lithographs will also like Poet Y’s new book. It’s really just a matter of providing a good introduction. This year, we’ve got a visual art show inspired by a book of poetry, we’ve got our multimedia storytelling competition (we’ve added a novelist to the roster), we’ve got live music, and we’re working with a few journals and a literary podcast. In really dry “arts org-speak,” it’s our mission to connect as many people as possible with the writing we love and support, and collaborating with lots of different people is the best way to build a new audience. On a personal level, we get to work with some of our favorite artists, spaces and galleries in the city, so it’s a win-win for us.

When setting up events, have you been reaching out more to writers or to publishers? (Or both?)

We actually reach out to writers a bit more, just because of how relatively small we are as an organization. It’s easier to get a single person to commit to an event than it is to get a whole press to commit to a themed event. That said, Octopus Books has been great to us, Black Ocean is coming out this year and we’re hoping to get a Wave Books event together for APRIL 2014. So I shouldn’t say it’s all writers or anything. It’s just a mixture of both, I guess.

How do you define “independent literature”? For you, does it relate more to the size of the publisher for a work, or to a specific aesthetic?

This question is a persistent one for us—we actually had a panel at last year’s festival called “What is Independent Literature?” We came up with a lot of good answers, but nothing really definitive, which should tell you something about how slippery of a topic it is. Personally, I think the term “independent literature” entails both the business end—writing created for/put out by authors and small presses that aren’t as influenced by a “market” as they are by the artistic value of the work itself—and something more vague and difficult to define. I guess that could be lumped into aesthetics, though that angle just gets too muddy. For instance, Mary Miller, who’s a pretty straightforward realist, falls under the “independent literature” umbrella for me, but so does Blake Butler and Ryan Call. Elizabeth Ellen and Rudolf Wurlitzer and Roxane Gay and Ed Skoog and Richard Chiem and Mary Ruefle and James Tate and Joseph McElroy all qualify, too, and the list just goes on and on. It just seems too difficult to corral them all under one particular aesthetic.

With regard to the festival, though, when we’re selecting presses and participants for the festival, we do look first at the size of the publisher (or the publisher they’re affiliated with, in the case of writers). It’s just the simplest way of categorizing things. It’s not a hard and fast system, and we take liberties here and there if we think it will benefit the festival. At the end of the day, we’re not trying to define “independent literature” so much as introduce writing that falls under that (often highly subjective) designation to people who may never have heard of it. Apologies if that sounds nebulous; we mostly just find small press stuff we really like and then pester that author/publisher until they participate. We’re very persistent.

What are your thoughts on the current state of literary Seattle?

I think we’ve got a lot of great things at our disposal here in Seattle. We’ve got some of the best bookstores in the country (Open Books and Elliott Bay, to name two), there are a lot of great reading series, and people will actually come out to events. There are some amazing authors who live here, not to mention the great presses we have here: Wave, Dark Coast Press, Copper Canyon just got a Seattle office, Alice Blue Books, the list goes on.

On the ground, so to speak, it seems like there are a lot more young poets in Seattle than young fiction writers. I’m not totally sure why this is. It does feel like that we’re in the midst of a bit of a surge in Seattle’s literary scene, and I think the community here is in a good place. I don’t think Seattle has the same national regard that, say, Portland has, at least as a small press/indie lit mecca. It probably kills Seattle people to hear that, but it’s the truth. We, personally, use that as motivation. As soon you become artistically satisfied, you’ve lost the battle, so I’ll say that there’s still a lot of room to grow here in Seattle. We hope we can be a big part of that growth.

Photo: Timothy Rysdyke

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