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The Word Boom 

The creative writing program at EWU is the engine of Spokane’s thriving literary scene

click to enlarge Eastern Washington University writers and instructors (left to right):  Natalie Kusz, Shawn Vestal, Christopher Howell, Sam Ligon and Lohn Keeble. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Eastern Washington University writers and instructors (left to right): Natalie Kusz, Shawn Vestal, Christopher Howell, Sam Ligon and Lohn Keeble.

Huddled around a table in a bustling South Hill pub, five writers are talking about writing. This is what writers do when they’re not writing, and it’s not unusual for them to do it in places that might serve a beer or two.

They’re talking about how it’s a good time to be a writer in Spokane. Local authors are releasing excellent books. Poetry readings have popped up all over town. Young people are getting excited about literature and writing.

And whether these four men and one woman will admit it or not, they all have something to do with this as part of the creative writing Master of Fine Arts program at Eastern Washington University — which has served as an engine of sorts, powering the literary surge you’ll find in the city and beyond.

“The writing scene is vigorous in Spokane. And the artistic scene is really strong in this town, and it really wasn’t 10 years ago,” says Sam Ligon, a novelist and EWU associate professor in the program who also serves as the editor of Willow Springs, the university’s literary magazine.

“But we’re not the whole scene,” says Ligon after a pause.

Next to him, the poet Christopher Howell, an EWU professor and former Washington Book Award winner, chimes in.

“It’s a natural attitude of the community, which is a creative and integrated community. No one is saying, ‘Hey, we need to make an impact,’” says Howell.

But at the head of the table, John Keeble, nursing a pint of beer, knows how much the literary landscape has changed in Spokane since the advent of EWU’s creative writing program, the Inland Northwest Center for Writers. He’s now semi-retired, serving as the program’s professor emeritus as he prepares for the release this fall of his latest novel, The Shadows of Owls, but in the early 1970s he arrived at EWU from Rhode Island to find hardly a writer in sight.

“There were no readings in Spokane. None. It’s hard to believe everything there is going on now,” says Keeble.

Around the table, everyone nods. Across the table from Ligon, Keeble and Howell sits Natalie Kusz, a widely published memoirist who heads up the program, and Shawn Vestal, a Spokesman-Review columnist who studied under those around the table when he got his MFA about five years ago. This year he released his debut collection of short fiction, Godforsaken Idaho, which received positive reviews from regional and national publications.

The two-year MFA program, conducted out of EWU’s Spokane branch, features about 50 students ranging in age from 22 to 58. Very few are from the region, Ligon notes.

“About 90 percent of the students are from elsewhere in the country — all over the country. That’s good for Spokane,” says Ligon.

The program’s most visible public element is its Get Lit! literary festival, bringing big names to town each spring for a week of events including workshops, lectures and something called Pie and Whiskey — which is exactly what it sounds like — served with a chaser of readings from excellent wordsmiths. But the MFA students are out in the city beyond that festival — they enroll in internships with local organizations, and teach at prisons, nursing homes and schools through the Writers in the Community program.

Kusz’s own child experienced one of the elementary school poetry sessions, giving her an inside perspective on what her own program is doing in the community.

“At that age, the more physical-type kids are the safe people. When kids read their poetry in front of the class and realize it’s something they’re good at, that is powerful,” she says.

With all this outreach, combined with a staff that includes award-winning novelist Gregory Spatz, creative nonfiction writer Rachel Toor and poet Jonathan Johnson, the school’s literary impact is hard to ignore. Add the graduates and local writers who serve as guest teachers, including Shann Ray and others, and that impact is even more discernible.

Vestal has another way of measuring the boom in the Spokane literary scene. He just looks up at his bookshelf.

“I decided that I should put all the books by people I know on one shelf. By the time I got the poetry and the short stories and the chapbooks, the books from Spokane people wouldn’t fit on that shelf,” he says. 

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