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2021: A literary year of loss, renewal, and re-emergence

Looking back at the authors we lost and the bookish events that cheered us this year.

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This year has been one of renewal for literary artists, poets, authors, and readers across Oregon and the world. With the (semi) emergence of 2021 from last year’s COVID-19 isolation, book people became united in our love of words and inspired by the return of book festivals and in-person readings.


2021: THE YEAR IN REVIEW


Beverly Cleary, beloved children's book author and Oregon native, died in March at 104.
Beverly Cleary, beloved children’s book author and Oregon native, died in March at 104 years old.

For many American readers, 2021 was also a time of mourning the passing of beloved authors, including children’s book writer of the Ramona Quimby series, Beverly Cleary; American icon, journalist, and prolific prose author, Joan Didion; Beat writer and founder of City Lights Books, Lawrence Ferlinghetti; journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner, Lucinda Franks; gothic fiction and horror writer, Anne Rice; and activist, author, and professor, bell hooks.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, literary pioneer and one of the last self-proclaimed bohemians, died Feb. 22 at the age of 101. Considered the father of the Beat generation, Ferlinghetti founded City Lights Books, the bookstore and publishing house that brought us Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, or Howl for Carl Solomon — the poem that in 1957 would propel both into the obscenity trial, People of the State of California v. Ferlinghetti, that would forever alter the course of literary censorship.

Joan Didion, nonfiction writer, journalist, prose author, and icon, died Dec. 23 in her Manhattan home due to complications of Parkinson’s disease. She was 87 years old and left readers with more than five decades of work, ranging from recollections of her family’s pioneer history and musings on grief to beautiful depictions of the patchwork landscape of America’s people and places. In The White Album, written in 1979, she penned her famous words, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” A voice that remained an honest and steady standard amid the otherwise increasingly hysterical narrative of America’s trajectory, Didion believed first and foremost in truth-telling as a method of authorship.

“Mad! (Fou!)” combined animation with poetry during the Cadence Video Poetry Festival in April.

September brought the return of Portland Institute for Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s TBA:21, or Time-Based Art festival, including The Who Cares Clock by Eileen Isagon Skyers. Making its debut exclusively through USPS postal mail, the zine-meets-diary had us contemplating time capsules and the forms in which they can appear and stepped into the related world of Henry Miller with its second astrologically based chapter, titled Tropic of Cancer.

Another festival, Cadence: Video Poetry Festival presented by Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum, went virtual this year. It featured both international and Oregon-based authors and filmmakers collaborating to bring poetry to the big screen. Stand-out films included Mad! (Fou!) directed by No Budget Animation with poetry by Hélène Matte, Barbed Wire Land by Portland-based artist Olivia Louise, and Canadian video poem Winter Sleep directed by Chad Galloway with poetry by Sheri Benning.

Author Gary Shteyngart (right) talks with Jon Raymond during Saturday's Portland Book Festival, covering topics ranging from his family’s immigration from Russia to the United States to his botched circumcision.
Author Gary Shteyngart (right) talks with Jon Raymond during the Portland Book Festival in November. Photo by: Andie Petkus Photography, courtesy Literary Arts

In May, Literary Arts presented a virtual conversation between U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo and Oregon Poet Laureate Anis Mojgani. After spending more than a year online, Literary Arts took the leap to produce its 2021 Portland Book Festival in a combination of virtual and in-person events, with headlining author Louise Erdrich joined by more than 60 other presenters and writers, including Gary Shteyngart, who excited the morning crowd with humorous anecdotes and discussed his new book, Our Country Friends.

Summer, fall, and winter each brought a Cygnet Productions radio hour directed by Louanne Moldovan. In June, Cygnet produced Edith Wharton’s Xingu, a witty look at high society book clubs. In October, we got a kick from the Roaring ’20s with a vibrant rendition of Joseph Moncure March’s narrative rhyming poem The Wild Party, followed in December by an adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights called Withering Looks.

Oregon poet Judith Barrington advised readers to follow their truth and write what they know — not bad advice to take into the new year.

This year also marked the start of ArtsWatch’s Poet’s Q&A interview series, featuring poets and writers who helped shape and continue to influence Portland’s literary scene. Back in May, Leanne Grabel, graphic artist, poet, and founder of Café Lena, met me over coffee to discuss outrage, comedy, and the heyday of Pacific Northwest poetry. Toward late summer, poet, teacher, memoirist, and activist Judith Barrington reminded readers to follow their truth and keep writing what they know. Reed College professor and poet Lisa Steinman chatted with me over Zoom in October about community and embodiment of the page.

Though 2021 saw the literary community lose bright voices that helped pave the way for future generations of writers and thinkers, it also saw formation of writing endeavors big and small. Bookstores reopened their doors, readers took to the coffee shops with their favorite novels in hand, and writers of all ages put their pens to papers.

Also in “2021: The Year in Review”

  • 2021: The people who made the art. From Damien Geter and Leapin’ Louie to Bonnie Meltzer and Willy Vlautin, celebrating almost 30 artists in Oregon whose visions stood out and helped define and rethink a precarious year.
  • Stage & Studio: Reflections on 2021. Dmae Lo Roberts talks in her newest podcast with ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks, Steph Littlebird, Brett Campbell, and Amy Leona Havin about the highs, lows, and landmarks of the cultural year.

Amy Leona Havin is a writer, choreographer, and filmmaker based in Portland, Oregon. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington, and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based multi-media dance company The Holding Project. Her works can be read in Humana Obscura, San Diego Poetry Annual, The Dust Magazine, The Chronicle, Mountain Bluebird Magazine, and others, and she has been shortlisted for the Bridport International Writing Competition Prize in Poetry. Havin’s artistic process is rooted in classical and somatic movement practices, non-fiction writing, and honoring the landscape of the natural world.

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