By BRIAN KEARNEY
There are plenty of good reasons to go along to The Magic Barrel, an evening of readings from Oregon writers that takes place in Corvallis every October. There’s the worthy cause, of course, with all the evening’s proceeds going to raise money for Linn Benton Food Share. There’s also the high quality of readers, which this year includes Corvallis resident Tracy Daugherty, whose recent Joan Didion biography has been rave-reviewed in the national press. Then there’s the venue, the Whiteside Theatre, a Corvallis gem from the 1920s with Italian Renaissance décor intact. But the kicker for me is that it’s billed as “the Mid-Willamette Valley’s premier literary event,” and any claim that manages to be at once grand and endearingly modest is one I’m going to want to check out.
Taking the stage on Friday October 23rd in front of a packed house, the host for the night is Elena Passarello, an essayist and OSU professor quickly making a name for herself as the most edgy and provocative literary emcee in the Willamette Valley. Earlier in the day Elena tweeted, “I just jury-rigged a brassiere to fit a roll of calculator tape for my opening monologue @magicbarrelread tonight. So yeah. I’m going HAM.”
And she does a great job, informing as she delights. I didn’t, for example, know that Elena once played Rachel Carson on stage, which involved stripping off her workaday clothes to reveal a skin-tight jumpsuit covered in manatees. On a more serious note, neither did I know the extent of the hunger problem in Oregon—“the third hungriest state in the Union” as we’re told. Apparently one in five families in Oregon face hunger, and a total of 4.7 million pounds of food have been given out by Oregon food banks in the past year. The good news, however, is that every dollar donated to Linn Benton Food Share provides 15 pounds of delivered food for families who need it. “In other words,” Elena remarks, “the dollar you donate will be the easiest 15 pounds you ever lose.’”She has a novel method for coaxing these donations. Onstage with her, Elena has a swear jar in the form of a giant snifter glass, and attached to every program is a slip of paper for audience members to write down swears past and donate accordingly. Elena shares a few of her own, starting with the time she looked out the window to see a deer take a dump on her lawn chair, and the aforementioned calculator tape comes into play as she reads more swear-worthy incidents from the magician’s stream of paper she pulls from inside her dress.
The first writer up on stage is Molly Gloss, who reads a quietly moving section from her novel Falling Off Horses. This is followed by poetry from Danielle Cadena Deulen and John Witte and an excerpt from his novel, The Jaguar Tree, by Corvallis resident and Magic Barrel committee member John Addiego. Karen Karbo rounds out the first half with “A Wench of Excellent Discourse,” her essay about not attending the wedding of her boyfriend’s mother at a renaissance fair in Baltimore.
Spirits are high as locals eat, drink and mingle during the intermission, which runs ten minutes long to clear the queue for the Whiteside’s Prohibition-Era restrooms. But there are clearly no hard feelings about the wait, and when Elena reads selections from the swear jar, they include fifteen singles from the women in the line.
Albany writer Karelia Stetz-Waters opens the second half, reading from her recently published novel, Forgive Me if I Told You This Before. There are poems from Ashley Toliver, including one inspired by the brain-tumour induced blindness she suffered shortly after the birth of her child—an experience she describes, to audience chuckles, as “not as bad as it sounds.” OSU professor and long-time Magic Barrel veteran Tracy Daugherty is the only person not to read from his own work, instead giving a spirited reading of his former teacher Donald Barthelme’s story, “The School.” Peter Zuckerman is the final reader, with sections from Buried in the Sky, his nonfiction book about Sherpa mountaineers on K2.
There’s a real sense of festivity and occasion to the evening, and a sense that the major group effort here has paid off, both in terms of entertainment and donations received. The swear jar tallies up to $793, bringing the amount of money raised for the Linn Benton Food Share to somewhere in the region of $8,000, a record for the event. The figure is bolstered by the generous people at Squirrel’s Tavern and Grass Roots Bookstore, who are on hand to supply booze and books respectively and who donate net proceeds from the night.
Afterwards, I talked to local writer and steering committee member Gregg Kleiner. He’s very happy with how the reading went, and particularly with how high the attendance was, considering it’s Oregon State’s Homecoming weekend and a lot else is going on in town. “There were maybe six hundred people out there,” Gregg tells me. “It can be hard to get a big crowd at a literary reading, but the nice thing about Magic Barrel is that you get different readers in small doses. By the time you’ve had enough of one, another one comes along and it keeps it interesting. Plus it’s for a good cause.”
He tells me a little more about the history of Magic Barrel, which grew out of a similar event called Writer’s Harvest. When Tracy Daugherty and Jennifer Cornell at OSU saw that the money raised by Writer’s Harvest wasn’t staying in the area, they started Magic Barrel as a way to make sure it did. And it’s changed a lot over the years. Gregg remembers when it was 40 people in a room, and all the writers were local to Corvallis. “Now that it’s well known,” says Gregg, “it’s easier to get people from Portland and other places to read. It’s a good thing for any writer to read their work in front of 600 people. And it’s such a mix of writers now. We’ve got a good balance of writers across genres and from different parts of Oregon.”
This year was the event’s biggest fundraising year yet, and I ask Gregg what he puts that down to. “Elena!” he laughs. “Elena, and also the fact that on our website we had the option for people to donate money when they bought their tickets. Some people would buy two tickets on the website and then give a $200 donation. Someone else gave $500. People just seem to really believe in it.”
I ask Gregg how long he’s been involved. “My wife tells me it’s been 15 years,” he says. “And every year I say it’s going to be my last.” Clearly it’s a lot of work, and the committee is always eager for new people to get involved. “We have a good committee,” he says, “and we love to have new people. Every year there’s one or two, but it’s always nice to have more.”