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A room of their own

Wordsmiths converge for The Center Salon

Washington state poet laureate Claudia Castro Luna. Photo courtesy Claudia Castro Luna

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Salon is the French word for room. It sounds much the same in la langue française as it did in Latin (sala) or Italian (salone) in days past, but leave it to the Italians and French to elevate it into the realm of the intellectual. Beginning in the 1500s, artsy-smartsy Italians organized gatherings of invited guests in small rooms to talk about philosophy and the affairs of the day. The French embraced this idea in the 17th century, refining it as a gathering of poets who met to do what their hero, the Latin poet Horace, said poetry should only do: educate or entertain. True, house parties weren't a new invention, but what made these salon gatherings remarkable is they were organized and moderated by wealthy women. Such so-called salonnières as Isabella d'Este, Madeleine de Scudéry and Catherine de Vivonne would literally lounge in their beds to look fabulous while surrounded by artists, intellectuals and poets dubbed the hostesses' prècieuses. In this way, in an age when women were barred from higher learning and political power, they could treat themselves to an intimate version of postsecondary education. Historian Dena Goodman believes these events, which upheld the French ideals of civility and honesty, were the spark that ignited the European enlightenment. Well into the 20th century, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas hosted a famous salon frequented by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

Leave it to artsy-smartsy Olympia to champion this proto-feminist tradition in the now. Actor, chanteuse and choreographer Amy Shephard will once again host The Center Salon in The Washington Center for the Performing Arts' black box, a perfect venue for an intimate series of performances. This fourth-annual salon will gather name-brand prècieuses, including Washington state poet laureate Claudia Castro Luna; bestselling, Olympia author Jim Lynch (The Highest Tide, Before the Wind); and Bryan Willis of the Northwest Playwrights Alliance. "It's unlike anything I typically do as a performer," said Shephard. "I hear it for the first time as they perform it. ... These people, whether they're writing fiction or nonfiction, it's great to be able to hear the authors and writers read their own writing, because each of them has such a unique and different voice. And so, it really is just a very engaging experience."

Also appearing will be Tacoma poet and Weekly Volcano contributor Christina Butcher (Still Clutching Maps, How to Overstay Your Welcome). "What I want to do is read new work that speaks to how I'm looking at the world now," she said. "In the past, I think a lot of my work wrestled with where I grew up and the culture I grew up in, and I think I've finally started to embrace it. My family's seen a lot of loss in the last year, so I'm kind of working through grief through poetry. A lot of the things right now deal with death and loss and heritage." Butcher is particularly excited to hear Castro Luna, adding: "I think she has a lot of value that she brings to the community through her experiences." She admitted, "I feel like absolutely an underdog, so I'm just excited to be in the same room with a lot of people who are so deep in their craft."

Andrea Griffith of Browsers Bookshop will be on hand to offer work from many of Shephard's prècieuses.

THE CENTER SALON, 7:30 p.m., Friday, April 12, The Washington Center for the Performing Arts Black Box, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia, $15, 360.753.8586,

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