Children, meet Charlotte’s dad

Newport author Barbara Herkert's picture-book biography of E.B. White is a finalist for the 2019 Oregon Book Award in children's literature

Barbara Herkert’s story is the classic tale of the would-be artist who shelves her dreams to pursue a more practical path. Starting out as an art major in the 1970s, Herkert switched to nursing at her parent’s urging.

Ten years later, she followed her heart, pursuing an MFA. The Newport resident has written picture-book biographies on artists Mary Cassatt and Harriet Powers and is an 2019 Oregon Book Awards finalist in the children’s literature category for her third one, “A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider: The Story of E.B. White.” The book awards ceremony will be held April 22 in the Gerding Theater at the Armory in Portland.

Newport writer Barbara Herkert has written three picture-book biographies for children.

Newport writer Barbara Herkert has written three picture-book biographies for children.

White is well known as the author of three classic children’s books — Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumpet of the Swan. He wrote for The New Yorker magazine from 1927 until his death in 1985, and his revision of William Strunk Jr.’s writer’s handbook, The Elements of Style, is known to legions of college students and writers.

We talked to Herkert about her craft and admiration for White.

What led you to picture-book biographies?

Barbara Herkert: When I was at Hamline University, I had the great good fortune of working with Jacqueline Briggs Martin, who wrote the picture-book biography Snowflake Bentley and many others since then. She was my mentor and I fell in love with the genre. I started out illustrating my biographies. Then my editor asked how I felt about using an illustrator. So I’ve had three different illustrators for the three biographies. It brought a whole new level to my words and was very exciting. I’ve been very pleased.

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Gigglefest’s mission in McMinnville: Make ’em laugh (again)

After a warm reception last year, producers of the sketch-comedy show promise to take off the gloves this time around

The United States has a long tradition of sketch comedy, with origins in vaudeville and later popularized on radio and eventually on television shows such as Saturday Night Live and The Carol Burnett Show from the 1970s. Ty Boice and Cassandra Schwanke, formerly of Portland’s Post5 Theatre, are keeping the tradition alive in Yamhill County under the banner of Gigglefest, an occasional and limited-run comedy-sketch series that returns Thursday for an April run.

The couple’s Soul of Wit Productions launched Gigglefest last summer with four weekends crammed with more than two dozen performances, with a new “episode” each weekend. Tucked into a makeshift theater in Mac Mead Hall (a “Viking-themed” mead-and-honey-wine bar that hosts game nights and is one of the city’s best-kept secrets) on the second floor of the Union Block building in downtown McMinnville, Gigglefest sold out night after night, winning friendly reviews on Facebook.

Gigglefest 2.ohhh! director Cassandra Schwanke discusses a scene with comic Chad Sharpe before a rehearsal. Photo by: David Bates

Gigglefest 2.ohhh! director Cassandra Schwanke discusses a scene with comic Chad Sharpe before a rehearsal. Photo by: David Bates

It was a strong start, Schwanke told me, but it was also too much.

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MusicWatch Weekly: spring songs

Choral concerts showcase songs of peace, love, hope … and monsters

These dark days, it does indeed take a lot of audacity to hope, much more than it did when those words first inspired the nation. Portland Gay Men’s Chorus’s concert of that title includes pop faves like Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me” and “You Don’t Own Me,” plus other contemporary works including an original piece, “Face the Mirror,” by PGMC’s own Wesley Bowers.
Saturday and Sunday, Kaul Auditorium, Reed College.

Portland Gay Men’s Chorus offers high hopes Saturday and Sunday.

• Along with hope, peace is another virtue in short supply, which makes Satori Men’s Chorus’s “Our Songs of Peace” 1820 NE 21st Ave. Portland, so welcome. Of course, every Satori show offers odes to peace, including “Peace Is a’Come,” and this one includes words and music by Leonard Cohen, Kahlil Gibran and Ysaye Barnwell, Robert Burns, Portland composer Joan Szymko and more.
Saturday, Central Lutheran Church, 1820 NE 21st Avenue, Portland.

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Two tales in black & white

John Henry Redwood's "The No Play" at PassinArt and Dael Orlandersmith's "Until the Flood" at Center Stage dig deep into race in America

It’s 1949, in the Jim Crow town of Halifax, North Carolina, and a private atrocity that threatens to destroy a close-knit family is going down.

It’s 2014, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri, and a white cop shoots and kills a black teen-aged man, setting off a firestorm of rage.

It’s 2018, at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and a gunman opens fire, killing 17 people. National Rifle Association spokesmen mock surviving students who push hard for stronger gun control, advocating for armed security in the schools instead. NRA membership spikes.

It’s 2019, in Christchurch, New Zealand, and yet another gunman opens fire, murdering 50 people in two mosques. Back in Parkland, two survivors of the high school shooting, still reeling from the trauma, commit suicide. After years of private grief, so does the father of a first-grader killed in the slaughter that took the lives of 14 children and three adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012. The word “survivor” becomes complex and fraught with multiple meanings.

The stories of those first two years, 1949 and 2014, are being told onstage in two sterling productions in Portland right now: John Henry Redwood’s family drama The No Play at PassinArt: A Theatre Company, and Dael Orlandersmith’s solo stage docudrama Until the Flood at Portland Center Stage. Both are plays specifically about African-American life and the American original sin of racism. And both, perhaps surprisingly given their subjects, are enthralling in the telling. They’re just good theater, delivering pleasure along with a punch to the emotional gut.

I bring up New Zealand and Parkland and Sandy Hook as well because, although they represent a different sort of trauma – mass murders, not solitary events – they, too, are connected to a sordid history of violence that reaches back to lynchings and slave ships and the ethnic cleansings of indigenous people, forward to migrations and fears of the Other, inward to the itch for infamy. Christchurch was an act of violence aimed specifically at Muslims because they are Muslim, echoing America’s history of white-on-black violence. The tragedy of the past week’s suicides underscores the lasting effects of trauma on those who undergo it. No one escapes unscathed, although many come to terms with it and move on, altered. For many others, the trauma gnaws and shifts and settles in, defining memory and seeping into everyday life, sometimes overwhelming it.

Parkland and Christchurch have their own stories that are being told in their own ways. Remember that they’re linked – it’s all linked – and let’s move on to Halifax and Ferguson and the Portland stage:

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The No Play

“The No Play,” from left: Lydia Fleming, David Meyers, Kobi Flowers, Andrea White, Sami Yacob-Andrus. Photo courtesy PassinArt

The talented John Henry Redwood’s 2001 play is a fiction, although it’s based on a thousand historical realities, and despite the trauma that sets its conflict into motion it’s largely a celebration of strength, mercy, forgiveness, and survival – and, yes, a little vengeance, too. I was going to write that at the story’s heart is the long history of the rape of black women by white men, but that’s not quite right. Rape, and the belief in racial supremacy that breeds it, is the evil of the tale, the thing that violates and poisons and spreads. The play’s heart lies in the ways the victims respond – the strength and even grace of the dispossessed who have been immorally and violently possessed.

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A great beach read

Cannon Beach's Get Lit at the Beach gathers writers and readers in an intimate setting to talk about books and reading

I am lucky enough to have attended literary gatherings all over the country, leaving me with great memories of meeting writing giants face to face, hanging out over cocktails or dinner, and, of course, scoring their signatures for my collection of autographed books. More importantly, I was lucky enough to be nurtured by some fine writers.

At one of my first conferences, Sandra Scofield took me under her wing like one of her own, and nearly 30 years later, I still turn to her for advice and support. At the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, I remember rising at some ungodly hour to gather in a small classroom with the late director and screenwriter Gill Dennis to explore themes in our work. And at the Denver Woman’s Press Club, a handful of us shared the living room of our clubhouse with Richard Ford who signed his short story collection, “For Lori… with very good wishes for you, for you know.” Seriously, I never knew for sure what he thought I knew, but I always hoped he was right.

Seattle-area writer Jonathan Evison signs books during 2017's Get Lit at the Beach. The 8th annual festival is April 5-7. Photo courtesy: Get Lit at the Beach

Seattle-area writer Jonathan Evison signs books during the 2017 Get Lit at the Beach gathering. The 8th annual event is April 5-7. Photo courtesy: Get Lit at the Beach

That intimate setting I experienced is what sets Cannon Beach’s Get Lit at the Beach, A Gathering for Readers apart from other, larger events. Not a conference or a workshop, the April 5-7 event is a weekend of small gatherings designed for the purpose of talking words and stories and all that goes with them. Events range from free of charge to $95 for the whole package.

Now in its eighth year, Get Lit can claim some pretty fine bragging rights by hosting authors such as the late Ursula K. Le Guin, National Book Award finalist Jess Walter, and the late, and much-loved, Brian Doyle. This year’s authors are Terry Brooks, Pierce Brown, Deb Caletti, Carol Cassella, Sophia Shalmiyev, and Leni Zumas.

The weekend starts with a reception Friday evening.

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‘As One’: e pluribus unum

Portland Opera production dramatizes inner journey to self-knowledge

by MATTHEW ANDREWS

Portland Opera’s As One is, on one hand, about one type of transgender experience (there are many); on the other hand, it’s not really about being transgender, any more than the Barber of Seville is about being a barber. The story—yet another hero’s quest—traces a journey to self awareness; it’s a story about how we integrate the disparate elements of our fragmented selves into a unified personal identity.

The idea has deep roots in esoteric philosophy. Alchemical traditions around the world speak of uniting the various parts of the initiate’s fragmented soul, and we hear echoes of the same idea in Whitman‘s “I am large, I contain multitudes,” Lilly’s “Responsibility starts with a satisfactory coalition between one’s self and the demanding 10 trillion cells of one’s own body,” and in headier science fiction such as Gene Wolfe’s sci-fi puzzle box Book of the New Sun, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. Jungians call it individuation.

Hannah Penn and Lee Gregory star in Portland Opera’s production of ‘As One.’ Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

The libretto by Pulitzer-winner Mark Campbell and documentary filmmaker Kimberly Reed (who also contributed filmed backgrounds in lieu of backdrops, a practical and entertaining staging strategy that should become the norm in these pocket operas) presents a raw and honest and refreshingly subtle series of vignettes exploring one modern woman’s journey (fictional, but inspired by Reed’s life). As One is fundamentally a coming-of-age and coming-out story, so the hero’s journey encompases not only youth-to-maturity and closet-to-pride but also male-to-female: Hannah is transgender, and the two singers portray her before and after her transition. Local mezzo Hannah Penn (whom we last heard as The Fox in Opera Theater Oregon’s production of The Little Prince) plays Hannah After; bass-baritone Lee Gregory plays Hannah Before.

Composer Laura Kaminsky writes in a vivid, plain-spoken American idiom that reminds me of Caroline Shaw and Lou Harrison: the music flows and surges and is generally quite tonal and beautiful. When it gets scary, it gets really scary; when it gets funny, it doesn’t get too funny. Her score for As One is theater music as much as it is opera, and as much a song-cycle as either: a dense 75-minute coming-of-age story scored for two singers and string quartet and an occasionally singing conductor.

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National Poetry Month draws near, and Yamhill County is lit

April brings readings, workshops, performance, and a documentary about poetry slam to venues around the county

In his introduction to The Best American Poetry 2018, published last fall by Scribner, editor Dana Gioia took a swing at the question, “What is the state of poetry?” and concluded with a wink and eye roll that it was both awful and had never been better.

Alas, never have so few read poetry, he lamented. And yet, this happy proclamation: The audience has never been bigger, etc., until finally: “All of these contradictory statements are true, and all of them are false, depending on your point of view,” he concluded, ceding to the obvious subjectivity in play. “The state of American poetry is a tale of two cities.”

Denice Frohman

Denice Frohman performs Monday at Linfield College.

If your point of view originates from Yamhill County, there’s cause for optimism. Poetry is alive and loud here, even when it’s not National Poetry Month, as it will be in just a few days. April marks the 23rd annual celebration, which was conceived by the Academy of American Poets in 1995. I’ve mapped out the month for poetry lovers in wine country, so this is a column to bookmark.

Ongoing: The McMinnville Public Library’s annual Spring Poetry Contest is live, with a 2019 theme of “literary spring.” It’s open to adults 18 and older. Poems must be original, unpublished, and no more than a page in length; limit of two entries per person. Bring them to the information desk upstairs or email to libref@mcminnvilleoregon.gov through May 21. Entries will be judged anonymously, and winners will be the featured readers for the library’s Poetry Night on June 4.

Nickole Brown

Nickole Brown

April 1: The month begins with a tough act to follow: Activist, educator, and poet Denice Frohman will perform “Stories of Ourselves: Celebrating parts deemed unworthy” at 6 p.m. in the Ice Auditorium, which is tucked away in Linfield College’s Melrose Hall. Frohman, a former Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion, has appeared on hundreds of stages in the United States and around the world, including the White House (when the occupants valued the literary arts), the Nuyorican Poets Café, and The Apollo. Frohman is a CantoMundo Fellow whose work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Nepantla: An Anthology for Queer Poets of Color, and Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism, and she is the organizer of #PoetsforPuertoRico. The performance is free and open to the public.

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