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The Financial Lives of Poetry Readings 

Get Lit! made Spokane a “literary capital.” Next year, the festival runs into its biggest funding challenge.

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No one’s saying Get Lit’s going to die. But, after next year, nobody seems to know how, exactly, it can continue.

In 2008, National Book Foundation executive director Harold Augenbraum called New York one of two literary capitals in America. The other? Spokane, Washington.
You have Get Lit to thank for that. The 12-year-old literature bonanza has become practically a religious celebration for literary community, and a massive publicity win for Eastern Washington University.

For that, each year, thank Danielle Ringwald. Her job title — Get Lit Program Coordinator — sounds like a simple thing. Maybe make a few phone calls; drive a few writers to the airport.

It’s not. For Ringwald, coordinating the single annual week of Get Lit takes a full year — more than a year, actually. It’s a perpetual sprint — setting up educational programs and corralling interns and wooing donors and marketing and grant-writing and scheduling and author-searching and travel-booking.

At least, for this year and next year. After that, funding for her position — about $50,000, including benefits — is marked for elimination. And that stamps a giant question mark across Get Lit’s future.

“Without the position, the program disappears,” predicts Jack Lucas, president of West Coast Entertainment, a community partner with Get Lit for its entire existence. “There has to be a point person to put it together. There’s a lot of moving parts to this thing.”

Rising Action, Falling Action

Get Lit was born, in 1998, out of the Eastern Washington University Press. With the Press brimming with connections to great regional writers, founder Chris Howell says, inviting them for a “party” was a natural evolution.

It was a humble event at first: Regional writers and street poets reading in small venues. But year after year, the festival grew. More days. More expensive tickets. Bigger names.

At its peak in 2004 and 2005, the festival drew in more than 10,000 attendees, with the names that even the most cursory of Barnes & Noble browsers knew: Dave Barry! Garrison Keillor! Kurt Vonnegut! Salman Rushdie!

But the (now-pricey) tickets sold couldn’t make up for the stars’ honorariums. The budget exploded to $150,000. One year, Howell says, Get Lit was left with a $65,000 overrun.

“There was a disastrous period a few years ago where unnecessary amounts of money were spent to bringing in big names,” says EWU English professor Tony Flinn. “[Today] we’ve hit the balance of identifying substantive figures, and not just bringing out some Steven King-like figure of airport literature.”

When Ringwald arrived in 2008, the star wattage had dimmed, though attendance still topped 7,000. But last year, the EWU Press, and therefore Get Lit, suffered a major blow.

Ellipses

“The Press has been, of course, decommissioned,” Howell says, sighing.
John Mason, the provost who pulled the plug, had nothing against EWU Press. He even has a background in literature.

But it was losing up to $500,000 a year, EWU spokesman Dave Meany says, with no way to become self-sufficient. With the Press no longer in charge of Get Lit, oversight of the festival was moved away from the Division of International and Educational Outreach (DIEO) and to the College of Arts and Letters. The problem: DIEO had funded the coordinator position for Get Lit. It promised two more years of coordinator funding, but warned that after 2011, Get Lit will likely need to find the $50,000 funding from another place.

Today, the future of Get Lit is also in Provost Mason’s hands. Mason’s committed to keeping Get Lit — but he also wants it to get self-sufficient, and fast.

On the one hand: “The university does state the future of Get Lit is solid,” Meany says. “We are not going to let the program slide.”

On the other hand: ““Will we be able to chip in a little bit? We can’t even say that right now,” Meany says.

For the year of 2009-10, EWU had to cut $13.3 million from its budget. The budget axe barely missed lopping away the entire marching band program. And deeper cuts — at least $3 million to $5 million — are coming.

But Ringwald still feels finding university funding is probably Get Lit’s best shot for continuing to be able to pay her salary. “There needs to be support that just comes out of the sky from somewhere,” Ringwald says. “I don’t feel confident right now we’re going to find that from an outside source.”

Every level where Get Lit used to find funding has been pummeled by the recession. Local funding sources have to compete with all the other local nonprofits clamoring for donations. Foundations hate funding a year-to-year salary — they want to see self-sufficiency as well.

So what if there isn’t a coordinator at all? “I’m not going to say the festival would absolutely go away, but it would require the festival to absolutely change,” Ringwald says.

Maybe it could contract back into the regional literary festival it was. Maybe professors from Spokane’s universities could collaborate, could come together and take over pieces of the festival, Ringwald says.

On the final hand: “I honestly don’t think the universities in our area or our community will let Get Lit disappear,” Ringwald says.

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