Poetic justice: Cafe Lena cooks again

On Wednesday, a reunion of the legendary hangout and poetry open-mike space will bring back the good times and rhymes

Well, only metaphorically: the actual cooking’s been history for fifteen years now. But Cafe Lena, the sassy little joint on lower Hawthorne Boulevard where the breakfast and lunch spot Jam is now, was something of a legend in Portland literary circles during its ten-year run that began on April 3, 1991.

“Neither of us had restaurant experience,” recalls poet and memoirist Leanne Grabel, who ran Lena with her husband, poet Steve Sander. “The idea was to do a poetry place. The restaurant aspect was secondary … but the cafe turned out to be a restaurant with three meals a day, an in-house baker, and so on and so forth.” Poetry, though, was Lena’s raison d’être, and especially the open mike, which regularly drew performing poets like Doug Spangle, Marty Christensen, Brian Christopher, Walt Curtis, and of course, the owner/operators.

Cafe Lena was packed and jumping on open-mike nights. Photo courtesy Leanne Grabel.

Cafe Lena was packed and jumping on open-mike nights. Photo courtesy Leanne Grabel.

“I’m sure the open mike started within two weeks of opening,” Grabel recalls. “It lasted the whole 10 years. The first night it was totally packed. I remember I had both my daughters there as I was the employee and Steve was the cook. I remember having to drive around looking for day care, as it was obvious I couldn’t have my daughters with me. It was really busy.”

Words, words, words: you could invent ’em, you could eat ’em, you could rearrange ’em, and for a razzle-dazzle decade, people did. Melissa Sillitoe of Show and Tell Gallery (“Art. Caffeine. Community. Good Times. Beginners Welcome.”) has carried on the poetry open-mike torch with weekly events at Sound Grounds Cafe, 3701 Southeast Belmont Street, and from 6 to 8:30 p.m. this Wednesday, June 22, she’ll be hosting the Cafe Lena Oral History and Reunion. Leanne and Steve will tell their stories, Sillitoe says, and then other people can come up to the mike and tell their own. Let the good times, and the tall tales, roll.

Grabel, Sander, and kids: Lena was a family affair. Photo courtesy Leanne Grabel.

Grabel, Sander, and kids: Lena was a family affair. Photo courtesy Leanne Grabel.

PNCA 2016 Edelman lecture: Life After Death

Portland author Sheila Hamilton speaks on destigmatizing mental illness


Editor’s note: On May 10, Emmy-award winning journalist Sheila Hamilton will deliver the 2016 Edelman Lecture at Pacific Northwest College of Art“Destigmatizing Mental Illness.” Hamilton, whose 2015 memoir All the Things We Never Knew recounts her being blindsided by her husband’s bipolar disorder and suicide, will speak about her personal experience with mental illness and advocate for a more holistic approach to mental health. 

After the talk, musician and activist Logan Lynn and Jennifer Pepin, whose J. Pepin Art Gallery works to reframe the perception of mental illness, join Hamilton in a discussion moderated by Benedict Carey, science reporter for The New York Times, followed by a question and answer session with the audience.

Hamilton hosts the KINK morning show in Portland and serves on the boards of Girls Inc. and The Flawless Foundation. This excerpt, from chapter 24 of her memoir, is used by permission of Seal Press/Perseus Books.

I took a big breath, steadied myself, and began, “Deepak Chopra joins us this morning on Speaking Freely; his newest book is called Life After Death: The Book of Answers.”

If I’d prepared myself the way I should have, the way I normally do, reading and rereading the publisher’s notes, the author’s bio, the prepared questions, I wouldn’t have been so jolted by the words “Life After Death.” Instead, the lump in my throat threatened to explode, and tears squeezed out the corners of my eyes. My voice halted, then broke, and I couldn’t continue speaking.

I hit the space bar on my computer to stop the recorder. Deepak leaned back in his chair.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “This is my first day back to work—my husband just died.” The flesh in my nose swelled up, and my voice sounded weak. I could not continue with the interview until I got myself under control.

Deepak nodded. There was no change in his facial expression, none of the mournful, twisted expressions I’d seen on others’ faces when I told them of David’s death. Chopra was a spiritual leader revered by millions of people around the world, and he couldn’t even offer sympathy?

I prodded him. “Suicide. He shot himself.”

Sheila Hamilton delivers the 2016 Edelman lecture at Pacific Northwest College of Art Tuesday.

Sheila Hamilton delivers the 2016 Edelman lecture at Pacific Northwest College of Art Tuesday.

No change. His breathing pattern wasn’t altered. He opened his mouth to speak, deliberately and carefully. His lips formed complete o’s and e’s.

“He is exactly where he needs to be, and so are you.”

“Excuse me?” My blood pressure surged. I suppressed a rage building in me that had been buried for years, one in which my emotions, my emotions, had been ignored, sidelined, minimized by the people I cared most about. I loved Deepak Chopra; I’d read every one of his books, except for his latest. The least he could do was show compassion; Chopra owned the word compassion, for God’s sake.

He folded his long fingers carefully on the desk and scooted forward in his chair. “What we’re talking about is pertinent to the book. Would you like to continue?” he asked.


Austen’s ‘Emma’: a wit and a way

Bag&Baggage's adaptation of Jane Austen's classic comedy of manners plugs into a great literary tradition of wit

I’ve been thinking about wit lately, partly because Bag&Baggage Theatre is about to open the Oregon premiere of Michael Frye’s stage adaptation of Emma, two hundred years after Jane Austen’s comedy of manners first met the printing press. Using just five actors, Frye’s adaptation presents the story as if it were a “private theatrical” in the Austen family home, an approach that in itself seems at least a sly conceit. The production opens Friday and continues through May 29 at the Venetian Theatre in Hillsboro.

Like Rossini‘s splendidly whimsical opera buffa The Barber of Seville, which also made its debut in 1816Austen’s novel was technically part of the 19th century. But both feel more like products of the 18th century (as the Edwardian years seem an extension of the 19th century, which could be said to have ended in 1914).

Clara Hillier as Emma, Joey Copsey as Knightly for Bag&Baggage. Casey Campbell Photography.

Clara Hillier as Emma, Joey Copsey as Knightly for Bag&Baggage. Casey Campbell Photography.

Certainly Rossini’s opera, with its libretto by Cesare Sterbini adapted from a 1775 comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais, is fully in the spirit of the Age of Reason, embellished by a happy nod back to the 17th century theatrical glories of English Restoration comedy and the French satires of Moliere. And Austen’s class comedies seem slung somewhere between classic Enlightenment intellectual balance (Haydn, Swift, Mozart, Gibbon, Pope) and the surge of Romanticism that would engulf the 19th century (Beethoven, Byron, Mary Shelley, Harriet Beecher Stowe, on down to Wagner).


Elizabeth Woody, Oregon’s voice

The state's new poet laureate talks about writing, poverty, salmon, dams, race, family, and the keeping of a way of life

Elizabeth Woody walked into a Southeast Portland coffee shop two minutes behind me, just long enough for me to have snagged the only free table among a crowd of isolated laptop jockeys, and we sat down. She didn’t bother with coffee: she’d had a press of meetings and interviews since the day before, when her appointment to be Oregon’s eighth poet laureate was announced, and more coffee wasn’t in the cards. Plus, she was getting over a lingering bug.

She smiled, warmly, and we began to talk. About writing, and philanthropy, and poverty, and salmon, and dams, and racial violence, and friendships, and family. “I was brought up in a family that believes in public service,” she said at one point. “The house was always open to people from all over Oregon. People were always welcome.”

When word came from the Oregon Cultural Trust that Gov. Kate Brown had appointed Woody to succeed Peter Sears for a two-year term as poet laureate, I thought it seemed an inspired choice. I didn’t know her, though I knew several people who did, including her aunt, the artist Lillian Pitt. But I’d been familiar with her work for a long time, and knew her to be both a bridge-builder and a master of the difficult art of elevated plain speech, an approach to language that draws people in rather than shutting them out. Both traits seem key to the role of poet laureate, who is something of an ambassador-at-large for language, culture, and connection. They are qualities that helped Billy Collins, whose work is otherwise very different from Woody’s, become such a successful national poet laureate in the early 2000s.

Elizabeth Woody. Photo courtesy Oregon Cultural Trust.

Elizabeth Woody. Photo courtesy Oregon Cultural Trust.

Woody, who was born in the Navajo Nation town of Ganado, Arizona, and is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, is fifty-six years old, and she wears them well, like someone who’s made sure they fit. She’s one of those people who seem present. She embraces situations, concentrating directly on what and who are in front of her, and like a lot of writers she exudes both a comfort with new situations and a protective reserve: a desire to engage the world, and also a determination to safeguard her solitude. Her conversation rambles like a river, and the water’s clear.


The Snow Queen Cometh: Lauren Kessler’s ‘Raising the Barre’

Eugene writer Lauren Kessler braves the hazards of ballet and 'The Nutcracker' in her new book


Once upon a December, back when my daughter was still a baby, I offered to take my daycare provider’s seven-year-old daughter to see the Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Nutcracker. She had never been to the Keller (then Civic) Auditorium. I’m not sure she had ever been downtown. She wore a summer party dress over her acrylic knee socks and scuffed sneakers, and she was more nervous than excited, like this excursion might be some sort of punishment. Her agitation came to a head as the Waltz of the Snowflakes began. All that fake snow trickling down on all those twirling ballerinas had a predictable effect on her bladder, and the peak of the pirouetting found the two of us jostling past a long row of annoyed balletomanes.

Raising the Barre book coverThe point of this little anecdote is not that no good deed goes unpunished, but simply to illustrate one of the things Eugene author Lauren Kessler learned on her Nutcracker odyssey: everyone has a Nutcracker story. Somewhere along the way, the Nutcracker has become the most-performed ballet in the world. It helps fill the coffers of ballet companies every year. For instance, it accounts for 44% of the Eugene Ballet Company’s annual earned income, and that’s a pretty typical number. And for most people, The Nutcracker is the only ballet they will ever see.

For Kessler, it’s most likely the only ballet in which she will ever perform. Her new book, Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts, & My Midlife Quest to Dance The Nutcracker (Da Capo Press), is a record of her audacious and frequently hilarious mission, which culminates in her dancing the part of Clara’s Maiden Aunt Rose. Sure, it’s not the Sugar Plum Fairy. The part doesn’t even call for dancing sur les pointes. But still—it’s The Nutcracker!


‘The Moth’: close to the flame

The hit storytelling platform flutters onto the stage at the Schnitz for an evening, and five "regular folks" tell their tales


Portland is one of the most well-read cities in the United States. Our beloved county library has one of the nation’s highest circulation rates, and Powell’s, by many measures, is the  largest independent new and used bookstore in the world. It’s far from unbelievable that many Portlanders are not just readers, but also writers and storytellers in their own right.

The Moth is a New York-based multi-platform for true-life storytellers, and the meeting between it and like-minded Portland has been a mutual triumph. The Moth, much like Portland, is always finding new ways to catch stories and share them: It has a Peabody Award-winning podcast, a book, and even a hotline to call in your story. The Moth and Portland have a similar passion for hearing a good tale and creating an ingenious way to tell it.

The Moth fluttered into Portland’s Schnitzer Hall on Monday night, and the Schnitz, with all its Art Deco glory, added to the excitement. It’s an exciting venue for a show like this: just passing by the old Broadway lightbulbs on a dark night can fill a passer-by with joy. Monday’s house was sold out, and filled to the rafters with an audience that seemed to contain most every kind of literary appreciation: conservative-suited Ernest Hemingway types, flamboyant eccentrics with colorful vintage slacks and sarcastic T-shirts, young Gloria-Steinems-in-training with long wistful hair and leather jackets. People in the audience had their manners, but were highly irreverent. They stood in their seats, and talked loudly. It was obvious that The Moth wasn’t so much an event to be heard on stage, but a gathering of 2,700 peers come to celebrate five authors and their stories. It was, organizers said, the largest attendance across the world in Moth history.


The quest for an autograph at Eugene Comic Con

Second thoughts foil an attempt to tattoo a B-level celebrity's autograph on the adventurer's body


I was taking a wander round the Eugene Comic Con on Saturday when a man came on the PA talking about how the Green Power Ranger, Jason David Frank, and original Ghostbusters cast member Ernie Hudson were down the back of the hall signing autographs. But I knew this already. What I didn’t know was that right next door, in the tattooing area, artists were on hand ready to tattoo these autographs straight on your body. “So get your autograph,” the PA man said, “get on down to Area 51 tattoo and get that autograph tattooed on, so you can remember this day FOR-EVER.”

At one time in my life, tattooing a minor celebrity’s name on my body is a thing it would never have occurred to me to do. But I’ve been living in the Pacific Northwest for a while now, I don’t have any tattoos and I’ve been feeling a little left out. So I thought about it for a second. Then I thought about it for another second. What if I got one on my lower back? Wouldn’t that be weird? I heard a voice in my mind call to me, as from the bottom of an abyss: “You could get an Ernie Hudson tramp stamp.” And in that moment, I could think of no good reason not to do it.