It's About Time Writers Reading Series (Seattle)

  • By Michael Schein
  • Posted 12/21/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20257

Seattle’s longest-running prose and poetry reading series open to anyone in the community, "It's About Time," was founded in January 1990 by Esther Altshul Helfgott (b. 1941). Named after a defunct feminist bookstore located on University Way NE, the monthly series "is dedicated to an end of racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, homelessness & war" (It's About Time website). It's About Time began at the Ravenna-Bryant Senior Center, moved to several intermediate venues, and in late 2007 ended at The Seattle Public Library, Ballard Branch. Through readings, newsletters, and "The Writers' Craft" lectures, the series has provided inspiration, community, and a place to present work to a generation of Seattle and Washington state poets and writers. Some of the earliest readers still attend and participate; new voices have emerged; and some have died and had their lives and work honored by those who continue. It's About Time has reflected on and reflected the many changes in Seattle and the world from the late twentieth to early twenty-first century, while keeping true to its fundamental mission of social justice and inclusion.

Origins 

Esther Altshul Helfgott got a Ph.D. in history from the University of Washington (UW) in 1994. While she was working on her Ph.D., she began to take poetry classes from Nelson Bentley (1918-1990), "just for fun" (Schein-Helfgott interview). Bentley, a student of W. H. Auden (1907-1973) and a colleague of Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) taught poetry for 37 years at UW, and was known for his "Bentleyisms," dispensing advice to young writers, such as to "avoid self-pity like the plague," to write funny poems regularly though "critics have a terrible fear of laughing," followed by his observation that "it's not easy to fit a giraffe into a villanelle" (It's About Time Newsletter No. 97). Bentley founded a weekly reading series for his students called the Castalia reading series (later also known as "Poetry 90"), which ran from 1970 to 1990, through more than 1,800 readings, and which continued after Bentley's death. The Castalia series served members of the University of Washington community. Helfgott attended these readings from 1984 to 1990, and, like many others, found inspiration there.  

In the mid-1970s, while working on her doctorate, Helfgott served as a Teaching Assistant in History at the University of Washington, and taught Women’s History for UW’s Women’s Studies program. In the late-1970s, Helfgott taught women’s history and journal writing at Seattle Central Community College and, through the 1980s, poetry and "Write Your Life Story" classes for North Seattle Community College’s Senior Adult Education Program, S.P.I.C.E (Seattle Program in Service for the Elderly), Council House, and Ravenna-Bryant Senior Center where It’s About Time was developed. In 1989, she wanted her students from four different venues to have a chance to hear one another's work, so she asked Bentley whether her students could read at the Castalia series. Bentley declined on the ground that Castalia was reserved for UW students, but he encouraged Helfgott to start her own reading series. 

The first It's About Time reading was held in late 1989, at Ravenna-Bryant Senior Center. It was not advertised to the public, but was instead open to Helfgott's students from her four teaching venues. Shirley Guterson and Genevieve Beach (1913-2012) were among the very first in a group of about a dozen readers that evening. At first all readers read at an open mic (anyone could read their work for a short time). There were no featured readers and there was no Writer's Craft talk. The readings were held twice monthly for the first year. At the end of 1990 Helfgott decided to make it a monthly event, open to the general public. 

The reading series moved around Seattle from the Ravenna-Bryant Senior Center, to the North Seattle Community College's Rose Room, to the Globe Bookstore on "the Ave" -- University Way NE -- to Diane Nordfors' Other Voices Bookstore on NE 65th Street, where Helfgott taught occasional writing classes sponsored by It's About Time. From there the series moved to The Seattle Public Library, University District Branch; to Ravenna Third Place Books; to The Seattle Public Library, Northeast Branch; and finally to The Seattle Public Library, Ballard Branch.

It's About Time Through the 1990s 

Soon a regular group coalesced, mostly of Helfgott's students joined by poets associated with Other Voices Bookstore (1992-1995) and later with Open Books, an all-poetry bookstore in Seattle founded by poets Christine Deavel (b. 1958) and John W. Marshall (b. 1952). Helfgott remembers that, "in the early years, Sheila Bender, Priscilla Long [b. 1943], and people associated with John and Christine's bookstore were often in the front row" (Schein-Helfgott Interview). Other regular attendees through the 1990s included Pesha Joyce Gertler (1933-2015), a beloved North Seattle Community College creative-writing professor who later became the first Seattle Poet Populist; Kathleen Flenniken (b. 1960), who went on to become Washington State Poet Laureate; David D. Horowitz (b. 1955), publisher of Rose Alley Press; Irene Drennan (1922-2008), a beat poet transplanted to the Pacific Northwest from New York who read with the group The Seattle Five Plus One; Michael Hickey (b. 1956), professor of creative writing at South Seattle Community College who later was also elected Seattle Poet Populist; Bethany Reid (b. 1956), a Seattle Review editor and Everett Community College professor of creative writing; and Joan Swift, winner of the Washington State Governor’s Award (now called the Washington State Book Award).

Too many more poets and writers to begin to name sifted in and out of the It's About Time readings in the 1990s, including some well-known (for poets!) names -- such as Bart Baxter, Madeline DeFrees (1919-2015) and Judith Skillman (b. 1954) -- and many "unknown" writers. All were welcomed, embraced, and deeply heard. 

Beginning in April 1996, after the Poetry Exchange newsletter folded -- it had advertised readings in Washington including It's About Time’s readings -- Helfgott began mailing a monthly newsletter to interested Seattle-area writers, bearing the banner: "iT'S aBOUT tIME wRITERS' rEADING sERIES." This newsletter listed the featured readers with a brief bio, and usually an excerpt from their poetry or other writing. In addition, the newsletter contained notices about writing and social justice events, book releases, short articles about the writer's craft, and memorials to poets -- usually local -- who had recently died. 

Helfgott's political activist mother, a leader in Seattle's Grey Panthers since its founding in 1976, died on January 21, 1996. Beginning with the August 14, 1997, newsletter, each successive newsletter and the later website carried this dedication: "The It's About Time writers' reading series exists for all those who want to write; it is dedicated to the memories of Anna Helfgott (1899-1996) & Nelson Bentley (1918-1990)" (Reading No. 96 Newsletter). 

By the end of the 1990s the cost of copying and mailing the newsletter was becoming a burden. On May 7, 1998, an "Extravaganza & Fundraiser" was held at Open Books to support the newsletter. Sixty poets and writers each read for one minute. The fundraiser was a success, and spawned the second extravaganza, scheduled to be held at Open Books on May 27, 1999. Nonetheless, after May 13, 1999, Helfgott discontinued the printed newsletter in favor of newspaper notices and, in a nod to changing times, Internet postings. 

On the back page of this final newsletter was a schedule for the ensuing year, showing that It's About Time was strong as ever. Four featured readers were scheduled each month, extending through June 8, 2000. 

Crysta Casey, Poet

One of the regular readers and volunteers who supported It's About Time in the 1990s and early 2000s was Crysta Casey (1952-2008), an ex-Marine who had battled homelessness, schizophrenia, and cancer. Casey was a graduate of SUNY Stony Brook and one of the founders of the Women Writer's Workshop at Stony Brook. She acted as a volunteer assistant to Helfgott, helping her write and distribute the It's About Time newsletter and notices. 

Harassed by male officers in the Marines who could not understand her, Casey wrote this in her poem, "A Curse (for Captain Bowman)": 

I said, 'I want to write poetry.
I'd rather pick up
cigarette butts than let you
use my mind.'

(Green Cammie, 4).

According to Casey's account of herself in the April 11, 1996, newsletter: 

"I have told stories since childhood, wrote my first story in Fourth grade about the Space Needle running away from home. When she returned, she was appreciated. I ran away at the age of sixteen, worked many different jobs. I went crazy. When I was able to accept myself as a poet, I found a way to communicate with other people and found my 'home' in society" (No. 82 Newsletter). 

That home was made possible in part by the community of It's About Time. 

Author of The Heart Clinic (Bellowing Ark Press 1993) and Green Cammie (Floating Bridge Press 2010), Casey received the Hugo Award from the Seattle writer's center, Richard Hugo House in 2004. At reading No. 227, on June 12, 2008, Casey was one of the four featured readers. She died on June 24. Reading No. 228, held on July 10, featured a memorial dedicated to remembering the life and work of Crysta Casey. 

Readings in the Twenty-first Century 

With the termination of the newsletter and onset of a new millennium, information about It's About Time was posted first on a netserve (no longer accessible), then on a blog, http://itsaboutimewriters.blogspot.com, then on a website, http://itsaboutimewriters.homestead.com, and then on Facebook, where the active site (as of this writing) is a public-group page located at https://www.facebook.com/groups/42115871335/. According to the website, "Beginning & experienced writers & poets read from their work every second Thursday, 6:00-7:45 p.m., Ballard Branch Seattle Public Library" (Website accessed December 9, 2016). 

Aside from the shift to online communication, probably the most significant change in It's About Time was the addition in 2001 of "The Writer's Craft" talk. Of the change, Helfgott said, "I was bored. Not that the poets were boring. But I wanted to learn more. I wanted a teaching aspect as part of it" (Schein-Helfgott Interview).

As the name implies, each month an experienced writer is selected to offer a 20-minute talk on some aspect of the craft of writing. There are no other limitations, and the talks span poetry, fiction, nonfiction, a wide range of genres, types of formal poetry, prose poems, politics, writerly discipline, sources of inspiration and prompts, techniques for revision, aspects of publication, and many more topics. An incomplete list of most of those who have given a "Writer's Craft" talk from 2001 to the beginning of 2010 can be found on the website, and others can be extracted from the Facebook page. It is an impressive list, spanning the length and breadth of the vibrant Puget Sound literary community. According to Peggy Sturdivant (b. 1960), who would later curate the series: 

"I think the Writer's Craft is very important because so many in the audience are writers. It provides a continuing education/inspiration recharge to the writers in the audience. It can also be very helpful to friends who have come to hear their writer; they get a better sense of the craft that goes into different works, such as Flash Fiction or plot. It seems to me that IAT is an outlier in this, a hybrid of reading and craft. Other than at conferences I don't think there's usually a mix. I always learn something!" (Sturvidant email to Schein).

Beginning in about 2003, Helfgott's long-time husband, pathologist Abe Schweid (1928-2010), was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Even as the disease worsened and the demands on Helfgott's time and emotional energy increased, she continued to organize the It's About Time readings.

This was made more difficult by the fact that the University Branch of the Seattle Public Library would not assure a space on a regular basis, and she had to sign up with all other users three months in advance for each session. She moved the reading to Ravenna Third Place Books, and when that facility proved inadequate, to  The Seattle Public Library, Northeast Branch. Around the time of her husband's death in 2010, Helfgott received some help from poet Denise Calvetti Michaels, who hosted a few times. Though Helfgott needed more help, she was buoyed each time the event came together. "I love the readers, every single one of them," says Helfgott. "Anyone who will get up and read from their soul" (Schein-Helfgott Interview). 

Passing the Torch  

In 2007, Chris Higashi and Lynn Miller of The Seattle Public Library gave It's About Time use of The Seattle Public Library, Ballard Branch auditorium on the second Thursday of each month, in perpetuity. This eased the burden of scheduling, and placed the reading in a vibrant Seattle neighborhood with a new library facility. 

In the late 1990s Helfgott had taught writing classes at Richard Hugo House and then at Cancer Lifeline where she met Peggy Sturdivant, who coordinated readings at Cancer Lifeline. Sturdivant, also a long-term student of Pesha Gertler who had read at It's About Time a number of times, was writing a freelance column called "At Large in Ballard" for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and was forming a writer's group called Ballard Writers Collective. In the late summer or early fall of 2011, Helfgott handed over primary coordinating responsibilities for It's About Time to Sturdivant and Katie Tynan, who soon stepped away, leaving Sturdivant in charge. 

Sturdivant has kept to the basic format of opening with the Writer's Craft, followed by three featured readers at 15 minutes each, with some open mic readers sprinkled in between. Since moving to Ballard, It's About Time attendance has been between 25 and 50 on any given night. While the event has had a strong social justice and equity component from the first, Sturdivant has proactively built a relationship between It's About Time and the African American Writers Alliance. It's About Time also provides readers and listeners an opportunity to process the many changes in society as they arise. According to Sturdivant: 

"Since the show always goes on (except if library is closed for weather emergency) the outside world can often shape a reading. There may have been a terrorist attack, a shooting, or in the case of just last month readers and an audience in collective shock at the election results. IAT doesn't ever try to ignore these events" (Sturdivant email to Schein). 

Sturdivant described her duties as "scheduling all the readers, sending information to Seattle Public Library for their website, sending information in advance to Seattle Times, creating a Facebook event and coordinating with the readers about sharing" (Sturvidant email to Schein). On the night of each event she emceed, took photographs, and did a follow-up posting on Facebook. As an example, here is the follow-up posting for reading #326, December 8, 2016: 

"From Convergence Zones to Sasquatch Snot ... you can count on It's About Time no matter the forecast, no matter how dark the times. Thank Jay Craig for sharing your resume +, to Karen Anderson for helping us hear the trains (and then making us laugh), to Jennifer D. Munro who let us workshop … her personal essay Grooves. Suzanne Warren put our imaginations to work, using our brick faces in her Writer's Craft talk on Writing Magic Realism…. 'We are in our own magic realism moment.' Suzanne Warren" (It's About Time Facebook page).

Reading No. 322, on August 11, 2016, featured a very special memorial to Pesha Gertler, Helfgott's colleague and a great supporter of It's About Time down through the years. In her poem "The Poets Hierarchy," which she dedicated to the Poet Populist movement, Gertler noted a hierarchy even among poets: the favored few fatted on "parties and applause and booksignings": 

And then there are the rest of us
also in love with the word, the mystery:
we dance, unnoticed, in the alleys of the world
we dance, barefoot, on the pavement, in mud
we are the peasants, the gypsies, the beggars
dancing outside the Poet's Heaven,
dancing, nonetheless, under stars.

(Gertler, p. 22).

It's About Time created the community in which "the rest of us" -- the unknown writer, the not-so-famous poet -- could find a welcoming home. In newsletter No. 88, November 14, 1996, Casey discussed finding the Diary of Anais Nin in a book bin, and reading this: "We talked about madness. I said, 'No one becomes mad except from loneliness. While there is someone near you who sees what you see, hears what you hear, you do not go mad'" (No. 88 Newsletter).

It's About Time sees what the poet sees, hears what the poet hears, and has provided essential community to sustain a generation of Puget Sound writers.


Sources:

HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Anna Helfgott (1899-1996)" (by Marge Leuders), http://www.historylink.org (accessed December 9, 2016); It's About Time Facebook public group page accessed December 9, 2016 (https://www.facebook.com/groups/42115871335/); It's About Time writers blog accessed December 9, 2016 (http://itsaboutimewriters.blogspot.com), It's About Time Writers Reading Series website accessed December 9, 2016 (http://itsaboutimewriters.homestead.com); It's About Time Writer's Reading Series newsletters, No. 82 to 118, April 11, 1996 t-May 13, 1999, Box 1, Acc. No. 2675-007, Esther Helfgott Papers, University of Washington Libraries Special Collections, Seattle; Peggy Sturdivant, email to Michael Schein, November 29, 2016, in possession of Michael Schein, Carnation, Washington; Michael Schein interview with Esther Helfgott, October 17, 2016, Seattle, notes in possession of Michael Schein, Carnation; Esther Altshul Helfgott, Dear Alzheimer's: A Caregiver's Diary & Poems (Yakima: Cave Moon Press, 2013), 215-17; "Esther's Writing Works," Esther Helfgott website accessed December 10, 2016 (http://www.estherhelfgott.com ); Crysta Casey, Green Cammie (Seattle: Floating Bridge Press, 2010); Pesha Joyce Gertler, The Healing Time: Finally On My Way to Yes (Columbus, Ohio: Pudding House Press, 2008); Sally Macdonald, "Nelson Bentley, 72, Poet Laureate of Northwest and UW Professor," The Seattle Times, December 29, 1990 (http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com); Cecelia Goodnow, "Poet Populist Mike Hickey is on a Mission," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 21, 2009 (http://www.seattlepi.com); "About," Kathleen Flenniken website accessed December 12, 2016 (http://kathleenflenniken.com/biopage/).
Note: On February 2, 2017, this feature was corrected to note that It's About Time's move to The Seattle Public Library, Ballard Branch occurred in late 2007.


Related Topics:   Writers & Poets

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