CULTURE

State of the poet laureate

A conversation with Kim Stafford, Oregon's new laureate, who carries on a family tradition of spreading the word and its power to all corners

Broadway Books, the lively literary-oriented bookstore in Northeast Portland, recently hosted a celebration for Kim Stafford, Oregon’s ninth, and newly appointed, poet laureate, who succeeds Elizabeth Woody for a two-year term. We met for a bite close to the venue beforehand, joined by his longtime friend and fellow poet and teacher, Tim Gillespie. The conversation clocked in at under two hours and meandered with gusto and ease. We spoke on subjects ranging from his views on teaching, to the perils of writing programs, to the wonder of Verslandia, Literary Arts’ citywide youth poetry slam, and even to the late Irish mystic and poet, John O’Donohue (Kim brings him to mind in so many important ways), but it was truly Stafford’s way of seeing–and his friend’s way of seeing him–that left echoes for days and also sent me home celebrating Governor Kate Brown’s auspicious appointment.

Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford at Eagle Creek.

Chatting with Kim Stafford is a bit like stepping out of time. There’s something both ageless and perennial about him. He possesses a sort of egalitarian everyperson quality and inspires the feeling that he has always existed somewhere, that you could run into him anywhere, from a muddy river bank to a fancy lecture hall — that he’s spent a hundred lifetimes cultivating just the skills that make a great poet. His roots are deeply Midwestern, with a father (the poet William Stafford, who also served as Oregon’s poet laureate) from Hutchinson, Kansas, and a mother whose family hails from Beatrice, Nebraska — both quaint, conservative towns. But his parents met and fell in love in California, perhaps recognizing “each other’s homesick Midwest ways,” Kim wrote in his riveting book, Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford.

Kim has lived in Oregon for most of his adult life despite early years that found the family trailing behind his “gypsy scholar father.” By Kim’s eighth year of life, he had moved eight times. His father was “always looking for a different job. California, Iowa, Indiana, Alaska, from the Midwest to the West Coast. We did that several times,” the younger Stafford said. Even though there’s a hint of the way-back Midwest to him (a practicality, maybe, or a certain restraint and graciousness I always associate with some folks from my own birth region of Missouri) Kim belongs to Oregon as surely as rain belongs to the valley, a fact he seems proud of, and one that seems fitting for our new poet laureate. He relishes the diversity of our great state. “Having coast, mountains, Eastern Oregon, enables us to have different powers of thought than other, more homogenized environments,” he said. He also sees the benefit of connecting all of our disparate parts: “I am hoping that poetry can make the cultures of communities more diverse, the emotionally informed communities deepen, and make communities more curious about themselves and each other.” 

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Backstage at the Big Stage

New York City Journal: From ballet to theater to taxis to an open book of biographers, ArtsWatch's Martha Ullman West takes the city's pulse

NEW YORK – All New York’s a stage, and there is nothing “merely” about its citizens as players. I witnessed the following players make their exits and entrances in a packed visit to my hometown last month, in no particular order:

  • Taxi drivers muttering imprecations against the President for snarling up traffic with a brief visit to midtown Manhattan;
  • Writers and academics performing at a biography conference;
  • An anthropologist and an innovative (very) executive coach holding a public dialogue about using improvisation to cope with change;
  • Actors of varying ages in a production of Dan Cody’s Yacht at the Manhattan Theatre Club;
  • American Ballet Theatre’s dancers giving their all to fine choreography and not-so-fine in an all-Stravinsky program at the Metropolitan Opera House;
  • And New York City Ballet’s dancers, fleet of foot, airborne, and miming like mad in Balanchine and Danilova’s Coppélia.

I arrived in the city close to midnight on Friday, May 18, and at 8:30 the following morning, bleary-eyed and not exactly bushy-tailed, scampered into a building I will always think of as Altman’s department store on Fifth Avenue and 35th Street (it is now the Graduate Center of the City University of New York). I had paid big bucks to attend the second day of the Biographers International Organization’s ninth annual conference on the writing of, and – it almost goes without saying in these Mammonite times — the marketing of biography. I was headed to four sessions, the first on Writing Multiple Lives, the second on Resurrecting Forgotten Figures, the third on Biography and the Arts, the fourth on What to Leave Out. Each panel bore some relevance, I hoped, to the dual biography I’ve been working on for more years than I wish to admit to, Dancing American Character: Todd Bolender, Janet Reed and the Flowering of American Ballet.

Iceberg Slim, a.k.a. Robert Beck, subject of two biographies by Justin Gifford. Photo: Phase4 Films, for the documentary “Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp,” produced by Ice-T.

And yes, there were performers on each panel, the most interesting of whom was Justin Gifford, an associate professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, who was on the one on Resurrecting Forgotten Figures. A lanky figure in full hipster costume, jeans, stubble, and long hair, he was bare-headed for the conference yet unabashedly wearing two hats: writer of a trade book and author of a scholarly one, both about the same subject, Iceberg Slim, who wrote and was the publisher of black pulp fiction. The self-styled Marxist (an ideology not perceptible from the language he used in his presentation) summed up succinctly and well the difference between writing for the academy and the marketplace: for the first you are argumentative, the second narrative. Nobody throughout the conference mentioned the word readable, at least in my presence.

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Killjoy Collective makes space for ‘Children of Revulsion’

The Killjoy Collective exhibition is for people who feel marginalized, regardless of the reason

To get to Killjoy Collective, you have to go through what curator and artist Tabitha Nikolai calls the “airlock”—a set of closely-spaced, rattly and slightly-rusty doors on the side of the handsome but mysterious Troy Laundry Building,at 221 SE 11th Avenue in Portland.

It’s a bit of a dance for two people to enter at the same time, but once inside you descend into a basement warren of studios. The established spaces are clearly very active, and the scent of drywall and sawdust and the piles of power tools indicate the building’s attempt to grow and attract new clientele to freshly-partitioned units. Even just five or six years ago, you were likely to hit a space like this if you chucked a rock off any rooftop in inner Southeast Portland. Now, with closures of places like Towne Storage and Recess Gallery, it’s one of the few remaining concentrations of DIY and community art spaces in this fast-changing neighborhood.

children of revulsion – opening night

Killjoy’s space is close to the bottom of the stairs, and with the front doors open, it presents a remarkably spacious world all of its own in what could easily feel like a cramped basement. It’s a fitting home for a show that describes itself as follows:

“Children of Revulsion is about living inside media when you can’t go home again.

It’s about making a house from virtual trash, lashed together with scraps of code, and uploading it to your dear ones, wherever they are. Big enough for everyone, you dwell in it together, replay and reply. Every pixel a good night kiss on the forehead. Every beat a tender hand-squeeze in the dark.”

It’s an ambitious group show featuring more than a dozen artists, musicians, and meme-makers. Multiple large monitors featuring homebrew videogames and digital environments ring a central bench that invites you to sit, don a pair of headphones, and pick up a wireless keyboard where the control keys are indicated by textured flower stickers. In the far corner, a modern LCD screen is housed in the skeleton of a small 1980s CRT TV set, perched atop a dresser. This echoes the homey, inner-sanctum vibes broadcast from the squishy, colorful installation of blankets, stuffed animals, and fabric creations at the front of the room on the same wall.

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DramaWatch Weekly: Summer Shakes into view

Summer arrives on the wings of Shakespeare and lands in Ashland

In a recent TV ad, pretty young folks in swimwear cluster on a beach while one of their ilk thrusts a hand into a cooler. They look on expectantly, until he fishes a beer from amid the ice, then rejoice at the news he offers: “Summer is here!” The tell-tale sign, we’re told, is that the beer is in its “summer can.”

This, apparently, is how morons recognize the change of seasons.

Summer starts when summer starts—that is, at the solstice (3:07 a.m., next Thursday, should you have some pagan ritual to plan). But there are other markers in the popular imagination, such as Memorial Day (for the truly anxious), the last day of school, or, in Portland, the end of the rains of Rose Festering.

“You kiss by the book.” Romeo (William Thomas Hodgson) and Juliet (Emily Ota) fall in love at first sight./ Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

But if we orient ourselves around what really matters, we know that summer starts this weekend with the opening of three plays in the open-air Allen Elizabethan Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

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Spotlight On: The Portland Horror Film Festival

In its third year, the Portland Horror Film Festival and founders Gwen and Brian Callahan continue to subvert the dominant Hollywood Horror Paradigm

This weekend, the Portland Horror Film Festival once again will turn the Hollywood Theatre into a morass of thrills and chills and spills of blood. This is only the third year of the festival, but in that time it has grown from two nights to four days, showing more than 40 short films (varying from one to 24 minutes), five feature-length films, guests, shwag, awards and an ever-expanding audience of ghoul-and-ghost seekers.

It’s fun, but more than that, the Portland Horror Film Festival is a bastion of art, of independent spirit, of resistance to the corporate construct that dominates the American landscape. At the PHFF, you won’t find examples of what founders Brian and Gwen Callahan call Hollywood-style “committee filmmaking.” Instead, you’ll see the singular visions of auteurs, “pure” and unadulterated, without the the greatest common denominator or the almighty bottom-line hovering above it all.

In their mind, they’re providing a “service to the audience by exposing them to movies they might not otherwise see; and serving the filmmakers by putting them in front of audiences they wouldn’t be able to reach on their own.”

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Tim Stapleton: Call and response with paint

After a diagnosis that at first sounded like a death sentence, the Portland theater designer decided to live without fear—and return to painting

Tim Stapleton lives these days in a little house set back below an out-of-the-way Portland residential street not far from the Columbia Slough. Despite the years worth of blackberry vine overgrowth he’s hacked away, he’s still surrounded by vegetation, and the tiny runnel a few yards from the front door just adds to the sense of being in the country. He refers to the place only half-jokingly as “the holler.”

That nickname is a fitting reminder of his upbringing in southeastern Kentucky, in a hamlet known to the locals as Haymond. It also underscores how far he’s come in a lifetime, from one holler to another: In the 1950s and ‘60s, he was one of seven children in a coal miner’s family, poor, gay, and at a certain point, sexually abused. Now, he’s one of Portland’s most respected and beloved theater artists—best known as a scenic designer of what might be termed poetic efficiency, but also liable to show up as actor, writer or teacher—the recipient of a 2017 Drammy Award for Lifetime Achievement for decades of work with the historic Storefront Theatre, Artists Repertory Theatre, Profile Theatre and countless other companies and projects.

Tim Stapleton’s set designs have been evolved into spare but intense distillations of their plays/Photo by Gary Norman

However richly deserved that award, its timing owed something to an unwelcome development. In March of 2017, Stapleton was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the motor neuron disease that leads to progressive weakening of the muscles and loss of body control. Near the end of a particularly busy 2016, he’d noticed some difficulties working on a set for a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. A bit later, he was at the home of his friend, the photographer Owen Carey, when another bad sign appeared. “Owen and I often trade Negronis [gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth] for painting. So I was over there, up on a ladder doing some texture work or something, and I couldn’t raise my arm up.”

“I went from diagnosis to acceptance immediately,” he said in April of last year, sitting in his cozy holler home. “I refuse to live for the end. I refuse to live in fear.”

Instead, Stapleton has continued to live for, or at least through, his art. He continues his theater work, including the scenic design for Artists Rep’s current production of Lauren Gunderson’s I & You. Perhaps more importantly, he’s rededicated himself to his first love: Painting.

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VizArts Monthly: Canoes and ice cream are involved

A big Richard Diebenkorn show at the Portland Art Museum, R.B.Kitaj at the Oregon Jewish Museum, and a host of other shows

There’s no denying it—summer is here (well, technically, maybe not)! And what better way to enjoy the precious, fleeting sunny months in Portland than to look at art in small indoor spaces? OK, there might be more appropriate summertime activities, but in between all the biking and lounging in parks and rafting on rivers, the seasonal blooming of events and shows has plenty to offer. In addition to the following list, take note of S1’s anniversary party weekend, June 8—10, with details available at http://s1portland.com/.

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