Danielle Vermette

 

Chelsea Bieker, on her way

The rising Portland writer, with a $30,000 Rona Jaffe Foundation award in her pocket, is making her mark in the literary world

Chelsea Bieker cuts a striking figure as she makes her way into a coffee shop in Portland’s Foster-Powell neighborhood on a recent Sunday morning. It is impossible not to notice how put together she is, rather apart from the folks already gathered there who adorn themselves in sweatshirts and wind-breakers and general day-off, will-it-or-won’t-it-rain gear. Chelsea, dressed in a full-length gingham coat and looking as flawless as if she’s come from a photo shoot, reminds me of a movie star who has just appeared out of thin air, perhaps from a big city, which, in fact, she has. Our meeting lands on the heels of her having accepted a prestigious $30,000 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award on September 13 in New York City. As we stand in line next to each other, my first question comes out rather underwhelming: “Did you get taller?” Chelsea smiles. “Nah, it’s just the shoes,” she says in a sweet, these-old-things kind of way, pointing toward her feet (the shoes are lovely).

Returning into conversation with a person you haven’t seen in some time can be a powerful experience. Our relationships with peers provide a mirror, high-powered enough to reflect us back to ourselves while taking in the subtle shifts and differences in the other. As we order our drinks (she has tea; I have espresso), it occurs to me that this is not the same young woman I exchanged ideas with in workshops in Portland State University’s MFA fiction program years ago. Though she retains the poise and centeredness I associate with her early training as a gymnast, there’s a new dimension to her now, owed possibly to the fact that, since I last saw her, she has married a man she credits with fully encouraging her compulsion to write, and with whom she started a family (she is a mother two times over). She finds herself in that most wondrous place, past the threshold of “dabbler” and “aspiring” and “amateur,” and into the realm of bona-fide writer.

Chelsea Bieker, in the catbird seat.

SHE’S LANDED AN AGENT SHE ADMIRES (“I love my agent so much; she is just amazing”) and a two-book deal with Catapult Books, and has grown into a woman who takes herself seriously as a writer and wields the sort of work ethic to prove it. On top of parenting and writing, Chelsea also maintains a full-time job as a composition instructor for the Virtual Campus of central Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg Area Community College, a position that, she says, “takes a lot of time. It comes in waves.” The waves can be challenging: She teaches four reading-intensive classes a term, yet she enjoys the work and recognizes her luck in finding a position that allows her to work from home. Unlike many institutions that offer no job security for adjuncts, HACC provides yearly contracts, lending some peace of mind for her young family.

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A life, stitched in time

Oregon's new national folk art fellow, Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim, embroiders her Palestinian heritage and refugee past into a living art

I had the great pleasure recently to meet with Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim, the master traditional embroiderer and newly named national folk art fellow, to discuss her life and work. Feryal, who was born in Palestine and lives in Milwaukie, Oregon, is one of nine artists named last month as winners of the 2018 National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship, the highest form of recognition for folk and traditional artists by the United States government. She received this tremendous distinction for her lifetime of work in the centuries-old art form of Palestinian traditional embroidery, or tatreez, which features detailed cross-stitch designs and adorns clothing, pillows, and wall hangings.

Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim, in her Milwaukie home, with memories on the wall. Photo: Danielle Vermette

When I arrived at her home I was unsure of which entrance to use, and my misstep left me a little jangled. But once ushered inside by Carrie Kikel from the Oregon Arts Commission and Oregon Cultural Trust, who joined us for our conversation, I quickly fell under Feryal’s spell. Soft-spoken, thoughtful, exceedingly kind, and with an uncanny ability to hear the questions within a question, Feryal offered a master class in her fascinating and endangered folk art form and a generous and moving look at her history and culture.

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State of the poet laureate

A conversation with Kim Stafford, Oregon's new laureate, who carries on a family tradition of spreading the word and its power to all corners

Broadway Books, the lively literary-oriented bookstore in Northeast Portland, recently hosted a celebration for Kim Stafford, Oregon’s ninth, and newly appointed, poet laureate, who succeeds Elizabeth Woody for a two-year term. We met for a bite close to the venue beforehand, joined by his longtime friend and fellow poet and teacher, Tim Gillespie. The conversation clocked in at under two hours and meandered with gusto and ease. We spoke on subjects ranging from his views on teaching, to the perils of writing programs, to the wonder of Verslandia, Literary Arts’ citywide youth poetry slam, and even to the late Irish mystic and poet, John O’Donohue (Kim brings him to mind in so many important ways), but it was truly Stafford’s way of seeing–and his friend’s way of seeing him–that left echoes for days and also sent me home celebrating Governor Kate Brown’s auspicious appointment.

Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford at Eagle Creek.

Chatting with Kim Stafford is a bit like stepping out of time. There’s something both ageless and perennial about him. He possesses a sort of egalitarian everyperson quality and inspires the feeling that he has always existed somewhere, that you could run into him anywhere, from a muddy river bank to a fancy lecture hall — that he’s spent a hundred lifetimes cultivating just the skills that make a great poet. His roots are deeply Midwestern, with a father (the poet William Stafford, who also served as Oregon’s poet laureate) from Hutchinson, Kansas, and a mother whose family hails from Beatrice, Nebraska — both quaint, conservative towns. But his parents met and fell in love in California, perhaps recognizing “each other’s homesick Midwest ways,” Kim wrote in his riveting book, Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford.

Kim has lived in Oregon for most of his adult life despite early years that found the family trailing behind his “gypsy scholar father.” By Kim’s eighth year of life, he had moved eight times. His father was “always looking for a different job. California, Iowa, Indiana, Alaska, from the Midwest to the West Coast. We did that several times,” the younger Stafford said. Even though there’s a hint of the way-back Midwest to him (a practicality, maybe, or a certain restraint and graciousness I always associate with some folks from my own birth region of Missouri) Kim belongs to Oregon as surely as rain belongs to the valley, a fact he seems proud of, and one that seems fitting for our new poet laureate. He relishes the diversity of our great state. “Having coast, mountains, Eastern Oregon, enables us to have different powers of thought than other, more homogenized environments,” he said. He also sees the benefit of connecting all of our disparate parts: “I am hoping that poetry can make the cultures of communities more diverse, the emotionally informed communities deepen, and make communities more curious about themselves and each other.” 

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A visit with: Shalonda Menefee

With her SISTAS network, a Portland artist and entrepreneur crafts a creative world of dolls and design, cloth and community

Shalonda Menefee, creator and talent behind SISTAS Dolled Up, finds herself between events on a recent Saturday afternoon. She’s just come home from hosting a brunch for women in the community and has a couple of weeks (and a whole lot of fabric beckoning to her) before the next extravaganza: a dance, theater, fashion experience and panel discussion on Tuesday, April 10, called “VISIBLY INVISIBLE, Honoring Our Unsung Sheroes.”

Shalonda will produce Tuesday’s event, which aims to explore the complex roles of black women in communities and pay tribute to their journey. “As women of color,” she says, “we carry a lot of weight. We are kind of the backbone of the country and everyone’s kids, but we get the least amount of credit sometimes.” The event, which incorporates many facets of her work and displays her commitment to both art and community, will run 7-9 p.m. at The Old Church Concert Hall downtown. Amid her preparations she has kindly eked out some time to chat with me in her Northeast Portland home while her two tuxedo cats mosey about the house and her teenagers occasionally make an appearance and then disappear again.

Shalonda Menefee, in one of her head wraps: art and community.

A lot of people know Shalonda for her colorful small fabric figures, which she describes as “similar to paper dolls except with cloth and hair,” and which seem comfortably at home with African traditional apparel and the communal tradition of African American quiltmaking. But her interests go far beyond making art for art’s sake. With three bachelor degrees, a certificate in project management, and a host of intense life experiences, she calls herself a “healer in the background,” and she seems to embody the aphorism that a rising tide lifts all boats. She runs creative workshops for women to make their own “healing dolls,” and creates clothing, jewelry, purses, hats, head wraps, and other fashion accessories.

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A visit with: Phyllis Yes

With her new play "Good Morning, Miss America," the well-known feminist visual artist turns her talents toward the stage

How refreshing to be reminded that sometimes an artist is an artist is an artist, no matter her chosen medium and despite our own reductive need to “frame” her as just ONE thing. This is most definitely the case with the multi-faceted contemporary visual artist Phyllis Yes, who also happens to be a fine and gifted playwright.

Her debut play, Good Morning, Miss America, premieres at CoHo Theatre on Saturday, March 10. The show tackles some tough issues, namely the psychological and logistical challenges of caring for ailing and aging parents who have lost their autonomy and ability to care safely for themselves. It features a crack cast including Lorraine Bahr, Rick Sadle, Jane Fellows (who also directs) and Kelly Marchant. With set design by Tim Stapleton and light design by Jamie Rea, the show promises to be top-notch.

Visual artist and playwright Phyllis Yes. Photo: Heaven MacArthur

Theater rehearsals are generally closed affairs, but I was lucky enough to sit in on one for Good Morning, Miss America at McCoy Millworks during the end of the third week of the process. I arrived in time to watch the industrious Fellows and the production stage manager, Annie Bosworth-Foley, prepare the space for rehearsal. Shortly after, Yes arrived, followed by Bahr (whose character, Jane, is based on the real-life Phyllis) and Sadle, who portrays Phyllis’s real-life stepfather, Lou. Small talk ensued about the show, the particularly gnarly evening traffic, and the outcome of a Portland Trail Blazers game, a team Phyllis follows enthusiastically.

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Conversations With: Leanne Grabel

The Portland poet and memoirist talks about words, dogs, drawings, her new volume "Gold Shoes," and the attractions of the illustrated book

My introduction to the multimedia maestro Leanne Grabel comes by way of her small pup, Bailey, who sleeps nestled in her bed on the front porch of a turn-of-the-century house in a close-in Northeast Portland neighborhood. After figuring my way through the black wrought iron fence, I see Bailey and realize a moment too late that she’s been startled. Contrary to what I expect, she just looks at me wisely, assesses the threat level (zero), spins in her bed a few times, and retires right back into whatever dream I interrupted. This bodes well, I think, for what is to come. Sure enough, a knock later the door opens and brings me level with the bright and shining face of Grabel, who cordially shuffles me in and introduces me to her husband, Steve Sander, a well-met fellow going through some old books.

The poet/memoirist/illustrator, flexing her literary muscles. Photo courtesy Leanne Grabel

Meeting a literary figure can be a daunting affair, if only by the inherent lopsidedness of biographical knowledge, particularly if the writer’s work delves into the confessional. The experience can be downright exhilarating or painfully awkward, depending on chemistry, basic human laws of attraction, and the fact that some literary figures probably prefer not to be met at all but are forced into the fray of readings and mingling if they hope to sell their books. (Grabel’s own new graphic book of poetry, Gold Shoes, will be released at the end of March.)

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Wordstock 1: stuffed grandmothers, E.B. White, and collective desires

This year, Portland's literary extravaganza has the fervor of an evangelical revival. In fractious times, maybe that's a good thing.

In a Paris Review interview in 1969, when asked about the role of the writer, E.B. White famously answered: “A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge.” Despite his use of the male-centric pronoun, Mr. White’s sentiment seems to hit on something vital and true, and might also explain the 10,000 or so people lined up at various venues around the Park Blocks last Saturday for Portland’s annual book festival, Wordstock. This turnout, larger than in years past, felt hopeful somehow. Our collective desire to enter into those conversations between reader and writer, particularly on Veterans Day, to examine the role of narrative and history and words— that our curiosity is so intact— went a little way toward fortifying against what recently feels like a never-ending assault of troubling news.

E.B. White, with his dog Minnie: a spirit, hovering over Wordstock. Photo: Tilbury House Publishers

And, really, there’s no denying that times are troubling. This came up repeatedly in discussions throughout the day. What also came up is that times have always been troubling for somebody, depending on the happenstance of your birth. Given the peril of our planet, the unearthing in recent days of the uglier sides of human nature, and the anxiety that still lingers after last year’s election, maybe we can just agree that times are even more troubling for more people. Perhaps this can account for the size of the crowd and the quite-audible fervor that emanated from it as people stood in line for one of the headlining events, Ta-Nehisi Coates in conversation with Jenna Worthman of the New York Times Magazine at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

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