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ArtsWatch Weekly: Sheer poetry with Grabel and the fishing crew

Leanne Grabel and Breads & Roses, FisherPoets and the song of the sea. Plus dance, drama, sight, sound.


IT’S A BIG WEEK FOR POETS IN OREGON, and an especially big week for longtime Portland poet Leanne Grabel, who’s been named the winner of the second annual Soapstone Bread and Roses Award. The prize, given by the women’s literary organization Soapstone to honor a writer who has helped sustain the writing culture in Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington, comes with a $1,000 award. It’ll be officially presented at a Soapstone board meeting on March 6, two days before International Women’s Day.

Portland poet Leanne Grabel, the 2020 Soapstone Bread and Roses Award winner. Photo courtesy Soapstone, Inc. 

Grabel, a native of Stockton, California, has been at or near the center of Portland’s poetry scene – especially its spoken poetry scene – since she moved here forty-five years ago and first hit the poetry open mic night at the Earth Tavern. She’s helped breathe a spirit of unrelenting honesty into the city’s literary scene, daring to dive into subjects often skirted or spoken of in hushed tones. Her autobiographical book Brontosaurus: Memoir of a Sex Life is built around her rape, while on a college-break vacation in Mexico, and its long aftermath; she later adapted it into an illustrated format, pairing the words with her distinctive graphic-narrative drawings.

In a sharply combative culture, Grabel doesn’t shy from politics and the morality or immorality of it. She’s published several volumes of poetry and other writing, and also spent many years as a teacher working with children experiencing homelessness and at-risk kids. Her writing often carries a dry and angry wit that gets to the nub of the idea of the poet as witness. As Susan Banyas, who staged Grabel’s chapbook Badgirls as a multimedia performance, puts it: “Leanne is…exciting, innovative, with funny bones and a keyboard, a tribal bohemian caretaker of spoken word stories, with a pithy ravenous desire for truth expressed through word and image and voice and glittery outfits.”

The illustrated Leanne Grabel, from a series she calls “Antidotes.” 

Danielle Vermette wrote a long and illuminating ArtsWatch profile of Grabel in 2018, on the occasion of the publishing of her poetry collection Gold Shoes. Barry Johnson reviewed the 2011 stage adaptation of Badgirls. In Poetic justice: Cafe Lena cooks again, ArtsWatch and Grabel revisit the “sassy little joint on lower Hawthorne Boulevard” that became “something of a legend in Portland literary circles” during the ten years beginning in 1991 when she and her husband and fellow poet Steve Sander ran it. And my profile of last year’s inaugural Bread and Roses Award winner, the poet and KBOO radio host Barbara LaMorticella, also includes a brief history of Soapstone and how the award came to be.


Dave Densmore says one of his goals in writing poetry is to “reinforce for the men and women of the industry a sense of pride in what we do and who we are.” Photo: Patrick Dixon, courtesy FisherPoets Gathering

A VERY DIFFERENT SORT OF POETRY IS COMING UP IN ASTORIA, where the 23rd annual FisherPoets Gathering is taking over the town Feb. 28-March 1. Think rhymes, and song, and introspection, and a certain amount of working-class swagger. Think of other blue-collar heroes: Paul Bunyan, John Henry the Steel-drivin’ Man, Casey at the Bat. Think of the battle between humans and the elements, and the lure of the sea, and the perils and pleasures of the catch, and the telling of the tales.

Lori Tobias, ArtsWatch’s coastal columnist, took in her first FisherPoets gathering 19 years ago, when the event was a sea whelp of 4. In her column Fishers of Poetry she recalls that first visit: “There was the young guy who hired on with a fishing vessel only to show up at the dock on the appointed day to find the skipper had headed out a day early. Not long after, he learned the entire crew perished when the vessel capsized. One woman talked of the time her boat burned on Thanksgiving, destroying everything, which wasn’t much in the first place. I made friends with Dave Densmore, who read Skeeter’s Song, the story of the day he lost his son and his father when they took Skeeter’s boat out for a quick cruise on the bay and never returned. It was Skeeter’s 14th birthday.”

Tobias talks with Densmore and other FisherPoets about this year’s gathering, a celebration of the commercial fishing industry that will include close to 100 poets, storytellers and songwriters.

George Bellows, “The Big Dory,” 1913, oil on panel, 18 x 22 inches,
New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut


“The insane are holier than the sane.” So says the Queen — or maybe she’s the Empress — in Imago Theatre’s “Special K.” Anne Sorce (center) stars, with (clockwise from left) Danny Gray, Matthew Sunderland, Emily Welch and Stephanie Woods. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

DRAMAWATCH: PUNCH-DRUNK LIFE. “In times such as these, who’s to say what’s crazy?” Marty Hughley comments about Jerry Mouawad’s new play at Imago, Special K, which closes Saturday, Feb. 22, and “is about going crazy. And about being crazy. And/or not being crazy after all. And about the way that craziness breeds more craziness around it.” Also: Corrib’s James X and other shows-about-town.

MUSICWATCH WEEKLY: STREAMS & TRIBUTARIES. Music editor Matthew Neil Andrews takes a look at the state of Oregon music in the coming week and considers, among other things, the meanings of the term “Americana”: “Most of the time, we mean Appalachian and other traditions of the American South, derived primarily from Irish and Scottish folk music (with massive amounts of uncredited influence coming from African musicians who were still regarded as property – the banjo itself is even an African instrument).” And what about that quintessential American music, jazz, which is in high profile this week with the kickoff of this year’s Biamp PDX Jazz Festival? “But of course jazz already has a name it likes (‘jazz’).”

DARVEJON JONES DANCE ENSEMBLE: LIGHT AND SHADOW. Elizabeth Whelan chats with the choreographer and watches his company’s first performances at BodyVox: “(J)oy rang out loudly in the virtuosity and pizzazz of the choreography and the dancers, (but) there was shadow, too. … Think of this first concert as a sampler platter, perhaps: a little sweetness, then a helping of something more complicated.”

NEOCLASSICAL STAGE OR THEATER OFF-KILTER? Jae Carlsson ponders whether Paula Vogel’s Indecent, opening on Saturday in a Profile/Artists Rep co-production, will do justice to its source material, Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, and travels through Hamlet, T.S. Eliot, and Coriolanus in his quest to find out. 

DANCEWATCH MONTHLY: FEBRUARY IS ALL ABOUT THE LOVE. Check Jamuna Chiarini’s column for updates on the February dance scene. This week it includes Oregon Ballet Theatre’s final performances of The Sleeping Beauty, Ten Tiny Dances in Corvallis, a free show by Argentina’s Grupo Krapp at Reed, PDX Contemporary Ballet at BodyVox, an Indian classical and folk dance benefit for Kalakendra, a collaboration by Eugene Ballet and the University of Oregon’s School of Music and dance, and the Bolshoi Ballet’s Swan Lake on film.


Pants by Alexa Stark. Photo: Alec Marchant 

UPCYCLED AND AVANT GARDE AT EVERYWHERE SPACE. “I am holding a pair of cargo pants made from flexible orange nylon. Their surface is symmetrically festooned with several smartly constructed, triangular fanny-pack zipper-compartments, which look large enough to be useful, and small enough not to obstruct the wearer’s mobility.” Sebastian Zinn visits Portland’s Everywhere Space, a “fun fashion playland, run by designers who want you to feel joy” and where “upcycling” designers create “clothing that is affordable, approachable, playful and for everybody” – a different sort of everyday duds.

SILENCE, GOLDEN? Frequent ArtsWatch contributor Friderike Heuer, on her blog YDP – Your Daily Picture, considers one of the art world’s perplexing questions: Should a work of art stand on its own, or does it benefit from explanation of its structure and sources? For Heuer, the question is more than academic: She has exhibits of her own work opening soon at the Newport Visual Arts Center on the Oregon Coast and the Stevens-Crawford Heritage House Museum in Oregon City.


“Eat the Rainbow,” in Sunday’s Experimental/A Bit Strange block at the McMinnville Short Film Festival, is a musical fable about an odd-yet-kind man who becomes a disruptive force when he moves into a conservative suburban neighborhood.

WE LIKE SHORT SHORTS. PRETTY LITTLE SHORT SHORTS. And this weekend’s McMinnville Short Film Festival has more than 80 of ’em, on all sorts of topics and from all over the place. David Bates gets a sneak preview and comes up with some favorites – including, for the locals and anyone else, Kendra Jacobson’s The 99W, about the Newberg drive-in theater, one of just three remaining in Oregon. Bates: “The film is 12 minutes long, but it packs in an astonishing amount of local history, film history, and anecdotes. I’ve never seen a movie at the 99W. But now, I really, really want to.”  

BORDERLESS CLOWNS, FILM BASH, MORE. Speaking of short shorts, this one has ’em, too: Five mini-stories all wrapped up in one neat column, from a Clowns Without Borders comedy blowout to a high-roller party for March’s Portland International Film Festival, last shot at The Sleeping Beauty ballet, bold new shows at the Portland Art Museum, and a big score for Portland-native playwright Tanya Barfield.

THE HOUSING CRISIS IN PORTLAND ARTS. At The Oregonian/Oregon Live, columnist Steve Duin takes a look at arts funding in the city and the squeeze on large players, who are seeing their cut of tax dollars dwindle at the same time rental costs for performance spaces are going up. Duin quotes ArtsWatch Executive Editor Barry Johnson, among others. It’s a good piece to read in tandem with architecture and planning writer Brian Libby’s ArtsWatch piece Spaces: Arts groups play the real estate game.

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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