Sunday snow in Seattle

I’ll refrain from allowing the snow in Seattle to conscript this week’s writing, much as I’m tempted to wax poetic on the lovely ways that our fragile (and serially surprised) little burg shuts down when faced with freezing precipitation.

Been there, done that―which is not at all the theme this year. If the first few weeks of January are any indication of what’s ahead, it’s less about reflecting on the past and more about building the present atop it.

For one, it’s no small occurrence that the grant project I’ve been working on for three years with my CityLab7 peeps, a pop-up installation called [storefront] Mushroom Farm, is leaping from our heads and laptops into reality.

In partnership with my employer, Olson Kundig Architects, and Schuchart/Dow construction, we’re designing and fabricating an urban mushroom farm inside a Pioneer Square storefront space.

As February turns into March, we’ll host a series of events that culminate in a harvest dinner headlined by our partner, MacArthur Genius Gary Nabhan. All of this will take place in the historic Washington Shoe Building amidst living walls of mushrooms growing on reclaimed coffee grounds from nearby cafes Zeitgeist, Caffe Umbria and Starbucks.

As if the realization of this project isn’t enough, this week was also the kick-off of my participation in the 2012 Jack Straw Writers Program, which brings together twelve Northwest writers to create original works that incorporate audio recording.

For me, Jack Straw is new territory on many levels, including voice training and learning how to create podcasts of my work. I’ve never had a strong opinion about the quality of my voice until I lost it temporarily in December. Like breathing or walking, one’s ability to speak is taken granted until it disappears.

Now scratchy and hoarse at times as my voice recovers, I’ve been thinking about its timbre and cadence. It’s definitely different than it was before, but it’s unclear whether it will remain that way. How will my words sound on the radio or on podcasts? Will it be a voice that people want to hear?

I’m not nervous so much as contemplating the translation of my words from the page and the screen to the ear and –hopefully– the heart. One reason that I pursued the Jack Straw fellowship was to find a way to connect more deeply with readers over the course of “Hidden City Diaries,” which will take a year to write. By transmitting stories through the filter of my voice, I want to offer a more intimate connection to those near and far — and to those whom I haven’t and may never meet in person.

What I didn’t expect was to be so touched by the other writers who have been chosen for this program–or to find an engendered pocket of community at Jack Straw. Whereas my NIAUSI fellowship was about retreat and reflection, my Jack Straw experience will be characterized by gathering and broadcasting.

Over the course of 2012, the twelve of us will convene in the studio for training and recordings, and at Seattle Public Library, Seattle Art Museum, and Elliott Bay Books for readings. This year’s curator, University of Washington professor Shawn Wong, will record interview podcasts with each of us, and some of our work will be included in KUOW’s “Sound Focus” program.

At Friday’s convening, we were encouraged to consult Shawn for mentorship as we work on our projects and to hold informal gatherings throughout the year so that we can bond as a group. Naturally, I couldn’t help from offering our future [storefront] Mushroom Farm as a possible potluck venue.

Listening to their stories ―the lawyer who was raised as a drug mule and later ran drugs herself before she was convicted, the Highline Community College teacher who was born in a Japanese internment camp and is writing in a voice inspired by her father, the journalist who became obsessed with writing about a multiple murderer such that her boyfriend left her and she moved to Seattle to begin a new life― it dawned on me that I’ve entered a new arena. I’m beginning to see my writing as more of a balance between art and science ― the rational and the poetic, to borrow a phrase.

While I wrote my creative brief and planned out my project’s schedule, budget and approach during the past month, “Hidden City Diaries,” has gelled into a story that is much less about fanciful escape and much more about reality and engagement, a logical next step. This weekend, I began to wonder if my “new” voice, still developing in many ways, isn’t related to this change―the by-product of a fusion between poetry and rigor.

Knowing that the twelve of us are there to push each other as much as for support, our meeting confirmed that the game is on: with help from Jack Straw, our writing will be shared with a broad audience who will indeed be listening. We’re not in competition necessarily, but we’ll have spectators who observe, compare, and respond to what we create.

It feels like our projects matter more now; we’re no longer writing ―or speaking― for our own amusement and self-exploration, but for the entertainment and consumption of others. Looking around our circle, each of us has taken that distinction seriously.

One of the last people in the room on Friday night, I walked out with a UW student who saw her participation in Jack Straw as a learning experience rather than the culmination of a work-in-progress like that of several others. As we discussed our first readings, she complimented the snippet I shared from Venice Revisited.

As much as it felt great to hear her say, “I liked your piece; you brought me right along with you,” my first thought ―in response to myself, as much as to her― was: Just wait ‘til you see what I do next.