Tree Swenson is the Executive Director of Hugo House, a nonprofit writing center based in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. She was a cofounder and Executive Director of Copper Canyon Press for twenty years. She served as the Director of Programs for the Massachusetts Cultural Commission for ten years. She was the Executive Director of the Academy of American poets, in New York City, for ten years.
From what I’ve seen, you’ve been guiding Hugo House with a new type of energy over the past several years.
Hugo House is such an important community resource, and it’s fittingly named in honor of Richard Hugo, a Seattle writer who had a national impact. He’s the perfect namesake for a writers’ center. He was chosen as our namesake in part due to Hugo House’s devotion to the idea that great writing isn’t a matter of coming from a privileged background, and if anything, it’s probably more of an advantage to come from a disadvantaged background because you’re challenged to figure out societal problems. Hugo came from a hardscrabble family in White Center, and was raised by grandparents who were basically illiterate and mostly didn’t speak to him at home.
In what ways have you wanted to expand Hugo house’s offerings?
Hugo House has a real devotion to social justice, which is front and center. There are so many ways nonprofits work to change our city and help create a better society. One of the most effective ways is to write persuasively — to write something that evokes such empathy in a reader that they’re able to see social injustice in a totally different way. There are any number of classic books that have taken on injustice as a theme, such as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which shined a light on what social injustice in the South looked like. To do that, you have to be a really good writer. And that’s the hard part. Writing is a damned hard artistic pursuit — yet an essential skill. A nonprofit dedicated to the art of writing is every bit as critical as one that’s dedicated to feeding the hungry, providing shelter, or dealing with other urgent social issues.
Literacy is a problem in our culture, and writing well is several steps beyond literacy.
Yes. Basic literacy is learning to read — and as different from the literary as learning to walk is from the tango. Writing is work, it’s hard work — even if a good writer can make it look like effortless dancing. If we’re not tending the language, if we’re not learning to use it precisely, and if we’re not communicating in a way that cuts through the bullshit, we’re in trouble. This is another bit of Hugo’s advice about writing: “Get rid of your own bullshit.” Quit deceiving yourself. Look as clearly as you can and write with as much honesty as you can. You have to get the words right to get to the point.
There’s an essay on the craft of writing we use as an orientation piece for new staff members at Hugo House — an essay by George Saunders on writing. “Thank you, Esther Forbes” is in his book of essays, “The Braindead Megaphone,” and it shows the danger of using words deceptively.
You’ve touched on several fundamental points, concerning the craft of writing and how writing can change lives.
Ezra Pound said more writers fail from lack of character than from lack of talent. In the core of the Saunders essay I mentioned, he quotes a bureaucrat’s memo, which is so full of obfuscation that it’s utterly incomprehensible — and that leads to an unthinkable denial of humanity. After reading it, you find out the memo was written by a Nazi SS officer.
Did you come into Hugo House with the intention of revitalizing the organization?
I was asked by someone after I first arrived, about what my plans and intentions were. I told them I’d have to be crazy to come into this established organization with some intention. Especially in the world of nonprofits, where strong organizations are not one person’s vision. It’s about interacting with people already involved with the place, and reading the tea leaves to see if current programs and events are serving the greater nonprofit purpose. Here a wonky nonprofit fact: In the IRS nonprofit code, there are seven purposes for which you can be given nonprofit status. They list Charitable, Religious, Scientific, Educational, Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Animals, Promotion of Amateur Sports, Literary. That’s the seven. Literary is in there. You can find it in the code. So, early on, there was recognition that literary activity serves the greater public good. Writing is fundamental to the workings of democracy.
What’s your favorite part of running the Hugo House?
Working with people. We have a great staff, an extraordinary constellation of people who are devoted to writing and the arts — all very talented and creative. The goal is to work with people in a way that allows them to tap their maximum creativity. I’ve found out the best structure is from bottom up, and letting things develop organically. It’s about letting people have brilliant ideas and empowering them to act upon them. To develop a clear vision as a group, or an organization, is what we’re doing. There are a million things any nonprofit could be doing. If you boil down most nonprofit missions, their goal is “to make the world a better place.” But you have to figure out what your organization can do very specifically. It’s always harder to decide what you’re not going to do than what you are going to do. And what we are going to do is to work with writers to help them hone skills and present work that will move the world.
Is Seattle having an artistic renaissance?
I certainly think it is, or I wouldn’t have moved back here. Seattle is one of the most interesting cities in the U.S, artistically. All the arts are thriving here, including in the literary arts. Unlike my work in New York at the Academy of American Poets, at Hugo House, we work with fiction and nonfiction writers, in addition to poets. For a long time my own personal center was reading poetry, but I’ve always been an avid reader of fiction and nonfiction. I’ve been working with Ryan Boudinot on the City of Literature application. For me, it’s a no-brainer that Seattle is a city of literature. While people think of New York as the literary hub, due the major publishers being there, and the many aspiring writers who move there – to me there’s a more inventive literary energy spinning out of Seattle. Not just literary, but all the arts here are attached to progressive values, and Seattle is reinventing the way things are done in many different fields.
What do you envision in the coming years at Hugo House?
We have some major plans that are still under wraps. We created a plan that involved everyone on the staff, the board, and the community, which came out of seven months worth of conversations. Leading any organization is a rolling, constantly evolving planning process. Certainly, the classes we offer have been a critical part of what we do, because when you get people who are fairly new to writing, they come face to face with the difficulty of what they’re taking on. Richard Hugo said “Writing is hard, and writers need help.” This simple statement is a guiding light of Hugo House. A basic truth is that writing’s difficult. It’s a hard slog. It’s a discipline people have to be dedicated to. Having some company on that tough road is why Hugo House exists: we’re the writer’s greatest ally.