LANGUAGE ARTS

Wordstock 2: The new comics, the unwanted book, donuts & dystopias

After Lit Crawl, the main event: Literary Arts' annual festival of writers and writing packs the Park Blocks with ideas and words

Despite a late night (for me) at Lit Crawl the night before, I managed to arrive at the Portland Art Museum last Saturday right as this year’s Wordstock literary festival opened. I had spent hours crafting my schedule for the day, weighing various panels and readings against each other, and realized the morning would be the only time I’d have to check out the Book Fair.

Yes, you can buy books there, but you can also: Get information on MFA programs, learn how to self-publish a book, buy literary-themed gifts, discover literary magazines, find writing retreats, join literary organizations, and sign up to volunteer in the community. It’s an amazing reminder of how vibrant the literary scene is in Portland and the Northwest. There’s also a lot of free pens there.

Sometimes you listen. Sometimes you look. And Wordstock offers plenty to browse through. Photo courtesy Literary Arts

A note on Lit Crawl: If you haven’t been to this pre-Wordstock event it’s a great way to get to know local writers. I went to readings organized by Incite, Perfect Day Publishing, and Pie & Whiskey.

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Wordstock 1: stuffed grandmothers, E.B. White, and collective desires

This year, Portland's literary extravaganza has the fervor of an evangelical revival. In fractious times, maybe that's a good thing.

In a Paris Review interview in 1969, when asked about the role of the writer, E.B. White famously answered: “A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge.” Despite his use of the male-centric pronoun, Mr. White’s sentiment seems to hit on something vital and true, and might also explain the 10,000 or so people lined up at various venues around the Park Blocks last Saturday for Portland’s annual book festival, Wordstock. This turnout, larger than in years past, felt hopeful somehow. Our collective desire to enter into those conversations between reader and writer, particularly on Veterans Day, to examine the role of narrative and history and words— that our curiosity is so intact— went a little way toward fortifying against what recently feels like a never-ending assault of troubling news.

E.B. White, with his dog Minnie: a spirit, hovering over Wordstock. Photo: Tilbury House Publishers

And, really, there’s no denying that times are troubling. This came up repeatedly in discussions throughout the day. What also came up is that times have always been troubling for somebody, depending on the happenstance of your birth. Given the peril of our planet, the unearthing in recent days of the uglier sides of human nature, and the anxiety that still lingers after last year’s election, maybe we can just agree that times are even more troubling for more people. Perhaps this can account for the size of the crowd and the quite-audible fervor that emanated from it as people stood in line for one of the headlining events, Ta-Nehisi Coates in conversation with Jenna Worthman of the New York Times Magazine at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

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Atticus, tried and all too true

Lakewood's sharp and moving "To Kill a Mockingbird" does justice to an American classic that reverberates in a curious time capsule

To Kill a Mockingbird is a cherished time capsule of American literature and culture, a concise and moving statement about childhood, innocence, courage, and race. Its main characters – feisty tomboy Scout Finch, her brother Jem and friend Dill, the mysterious and frightening Boo Radley (much talked about but rarely seen), and above all that towering figure of decency and strength, Atticus Finch – are genuine American icons, up there within shouting distance of Huckleberry Finn and Captain Ahab and poor besmirched Hester Prynne. Scout and Jem and Dill and Boo and Atticus, of course, are all white Southerners, and it’s telling that the novel’s major black characters – Scout’s substitute-mother cook and housekeeper, Calpurnia, and Tom Robinson, the honest laborer who is falsely but fatally accused of rape – are not nearly so well-etched in the public consciousness.

Mockingbird doubles, maybe triples, in time. Harper Lee’s novel was published to acclaim in 1960, in the midst of the civil rights movement, after Brown v. Board of Education and Rosa Parks’ bus rebellion and the Little Rock desegregation crisis, before the Selma marches and the rise of the Black Panther Party and the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. It was both a repressive and an exciting time, when liberal hopes and expectations, in spite and perhaps in part because of the naked resistance they faced, ran high.

Kate McLellan as Scout, Monica Fleetwood as Calpurnia, Bram Allahdadi as Jem in “Mockingbird.” Lakewood Theatre photo

The novel is set, however, in an earlier time – the early to middle 1930s, during the depths of the Great Depression, in small-town Alabama, a seat of rigid segregation and no small amount of mob violence. From that viewpoint the actions of Atticus and the lessons Scout learns are truly heroic: resolute stands against the corruption of the place and culture they knew and loved. Tom Robinson loses his life. Scout loses her innocence, but gains something much larger: an understanding of the moral universe, and an emerging ability to cope with its demands.

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Portland’s Grand Central Station

Everybody comes to Powell's, and photographer K.B. Dixon's new exhibition and book find volumes in the mix of people and place

Photographs by K.B. DIXON

Powell’s City of Books is Portland’s Grand Central Station, the teeming crossroads of the city’s cultural life: not just one of the nation’s great commercial repositories of literature and language, but a busy transit center of people and ideas. Kids, teens, singles, doubles, parents, grandparents. Locals who drop in for an hour and spend the day. Serious scholars doing research. Tourists who treat it like a shrine. Foreign visitors looking for something in their native language, or something to help them brush up on their English skills. People on their way to someplace else. People on their way back from someplace else. Browsers, buyers, passersby. Like Rick’s, it seems, eventually everybody comes to Powell’s.

 

Entering the temple: the south entrance on Burnside.

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IT IS ALSO, LIKE THE MULTNOMAH County Central Library just a few blocks away, one of Portland’s best people-watching places, an almost endless fascination of faces, connections, and enthusiasms. Something about a great bookstore encourages people to be very public and very private at once – lost, publicly, in the obsessions and curiosities of their own minds. Portland photographer and writer K.B. Dixon believed Powell’s was an ideal spot to pursue his own obsession for creating interesting and culturally telling black and white images. He gained permission to spend hours and hours in the aisles, following his eye where it led. The results of his project are now on view in a sort of meta-exhibition: images of Powell’s at Powell’s, in the bookstore’s Basil Hallward Gallery, upstairs in the Pearl Room, through October. Images here are from the exhibition or the larger selection of photographs in Dixon’s accompanying book, titled simply The Bookstore.

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Tess Gallagher on Raymond Carver

The celebrated poet, who'll be in Portland for Imago's Carver stage adaptation "Human Noise," talks about life with and after Carver

It’s difficult to imagine a question that has not been asked of the poet, short story writer, essayist, playwright and teacher Tess Gallagher. As one-half of the legendary literary partnership with the revered, Oregon-born poet and short story writer, Raymond Carver, there was a time when Gallagher, well-published on her own, was one of the world’s most interviewed artists. If you’re familiar with her writing, you are not surprised.

Gallagher’s been generating poetry and prose for decades that shocks and moves with its vast range of expression. All of her work, even the most emotionally raw, seems to be guided by a steadfast intelligence and relentlessly penetrating vision.

Tess Gallagher: writing a life.

She’s published and taught extensively while also being the devoted steward of Carver’s work since he died in 1988. After reading Gallagher’s Moon Crossing Bridge and seeing the invaluable Carver collections that Gallagher shepherded to posthumous publication, one gets a sense that the communication between the two never really stopped.

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DanceWatch Weekly: Dance film, dance text and actual dance

We open the post-eclipse, pre-school window and find dance film, dance discussion and real dance: Tango, Flamenco, modern.

We have now entered the post-eclipse and pre-school window, and I am feeling the impulse to go out there and grab the last little bit of freedom and sunshine that’s left. I have run away to the glitz and glamor of Las Vegas—and the sweltering desert heat—to celebrate my summer’s end. What will you do?

If you’re in Portland right now, might I suggest a dance film festival? Raucous dancing by WolfBird Dance? Or a romantic evening of Tango by moonlight, or a trip to Spain with Espacio Flamenco Portland at Bar Vivant? Or maybe you’re in the mood for something really really big such as Cirque Du Soleil’s performance of Kurios: Cabinet Of Curiosities. Or maybe you would prefer to wind down with something a little quieter and more intellectually focused—a reading group discussion with the dance artist of Physical Education, say. Well, it’s all there waiting for you. What will you choose?

Performances this week!

Portland Dance Film Fest August 24-September 6. Photo courtesy of Portland Dance Film Fest.

Portland Dance Film Fest (PDFF)
Directed by Kailee McMurran, Tia Palomino, and Jess Evans
Presented by NW Dance Project, Dance Wire, Bad Hands Studio, and Design By Goats
August 24-September 2
SubRosa Dance Collective members Kailee McMurran, Tia Palomino, and Jess Evans, have curated a massive, five-day dance film festival, spanning two weekends (and several locations), that will screen dance films from around the globe.

The festival begins Thursday with an opening night celebration that includes a mini-screening, an interactive dance for film creation in real time, food, drinks and “danceable jams.” It continues with three separate, curated evenings of dance films (each evening lasting approximately one hour), and concludes with a panel discussion featuring several Portland filmmakers. Check out Portland Dance Film Fest’s website for screening times, film descriptions, interviews with select filmmakers, and more.

The deep-sea creatures of Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities. Photo by Martin Girard shootstudio.ca.

Kurios: Cabinet Of Curiosities
Cirque Du Soleil
August 24-October 8
This fantastical big top performance draws the viewer into the mysterious curio cabinet of an ambitious inventor who defies the laws of science, reinventing the world around him. Out of his cabinet comes a wacky cast of characters: quirky robots, underwater creatures, a human accordion and contortionist sea creatures. What is “visible becomes invisible, perspectives are transformed, and the world is literally turned upside down.”

Where To Wear What Hat by WolfBird Dance. Photo courtesy of WoldBird Dance.

Where To Wear What Hat
WolfBird Dance
Choreography by Selina DiPronio and Raven Jones
August 25-September 3
New Expressive Works, 810 SE Belmont
Commenting on society’s constraints on women from the 1950s until now, choreographers Selina DiPronio and Raven Jones juxtapose iconographic ‘50s imagery with displays of force in both humorous and disconcerting ways to demonstrate the power and strength of women.

DiPronio and Jones have been working together since their student days at the University of South Florida and are interested in creating in collaborative environments and abandoning all conventions.

Flamenco Friday #4
Hosted by Espacio Flamenco Portland and Bar Vivant
7 pm August 25
Bar Vivant, 2225 E Burnside St
FREE. All ages.
Espacio Flamenco Portland and Bar Vivant close out the summer’s Flamenco Friday nights with performances by Flamenco dancer Lillie Last, accompanied by singers Randa BenAziz, Montserrat Andreys, and Kelley Dodd, guitarist Brenna McDonald and percussionist Nick Hutcheson. Let the sights, sounds, and tastes of Spain transport you.

Photo from Director Park Tango 2011. Photo by Claude Lavaiano.

Director Park Tango 2017
Produced by the Portland Tango Community
6 pm August 25
Director Park, 815 SW Park Ave
Free and open to the public, Tango dancers and musicians from California and Oregon will converge on Director Park in downtown Portland for one magical evening of dance classes, Tango dancing, and live music. Check out the Facebook event page for updated performer info and class times.

Physical Education Reading Group: De-Canon UNA Closing Event
Hosted by UNA Gallery and De-Canon: A Visibility Project
3 pm August 26
328 NW Broadway Ave. #117
In contemplation of the question “What lies {beyond/under/within} language for you?” De-Canon: A Visibility Project and Physical Education, a Portland collective made up of dance artist keyon gaskin, Taka Yamamoto, Allie Hankins, and Lu Yim, have chosen reading materials to help ponder this question. This open forum discussion will be the closing event for De-Canon’s pop-up library installation at UNA. All are welcome.

De-Canon is a “pop-up library” and web resource project that will showcase literary art by writers/artists of color. “Our goal is to put forth an alternative literary “canon” — or multiple canons — that are inclusive, diverse, and multi-storied in their approach to representation. De-Canon wishes to challenge existing ideas of what constitutes the North American literary canon, especially in our current culture.”

Reading materials are available on De-Canon’s website.

“We cannot fight old power in old power terms only. The way we can do it is by creating another whole structure that touches every aspect of our existence, at the same time as we are resisting.” — Audre Lorde in an “An Interview: Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich” (1979)

What are the literary works that have defined the educational experiences in the U.S.? Which authors continue to shape the thinking and writing of those entrenched in this country’s educational systems and academic institutions? De-Canon, a newly launched project in Portland started by literary artists and educators Dao Strom and Neil Aitken, is turning a critical eye on popular understanding of this country’s literary canon—bridging the idea of a site-specific “library” with digital resources, visual art, and performative practices, all centered on literary artists of color.  

De-Canon at UNA Gallery

Questions of educational pedagogy have fueled the organizer’s drive to offer an alternative to the hierarchy of western literature. “Courses, and even workshops (practice-oriented workshops), are consciously or unconsciously built around the assumption that there’s only a western canon to have a conversation around,” explains Aitken. Gesturing to his and many of his fellow writers’ shared experience, he notes, “When we sit in an MFA workshop or someone teaches us the craft of writing, the texts that they reference are almost always exclusively white male writers, with a handful of white female writers. And it ignores generations, hundreds of years, even millennia of other aesthetic work that’s out there. And it also ignores contemporary writers of color.”

With aspirations to “create a forum in which many voices contribute to the defining–or un-defining–of the literary canon,” De-Canon was launched with funding from Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s granting program, the Precipice Fund. In addition to a website of literary resources and an archive of dialogue between writers of color, De-Canon is also taking physical shape this August in the form of a pop-up library at UNA Gallery that will host a slew of cultural programming. Library open hours are 12-5 pm Saturdays and Sundays through August 26th.  

According to Aitken, the foundation for De-Canon began to emerge in 2015 after Wordstock, Portland’s major book festival. “Portland’s literary spaces can be very, very white,” notes Aitken, nodding to the lack of local POC writers at the festival that year. Shortly afterward, a group of writers of color began meeting and found that a common theme surfaced.

“In those home-based conversations, this type of a conversation would come up often, about both people sharing their experiences in university programs and writing workshops, and frequently feeling silenced or excluded from a discussion about literature, or being told that their experiences or their stories didn’t fit within what other people were writing about,” says Aitken. “So the question then becomes, well where are those stories? Why are we not exposed to other people who write from a world of experience that’s more in line with ours?”

A deeper dive into the field reveals that there are plenty of writers with other modes of sharing their stories and with a range of lived experiences—more than could ever fit in one syllabus, or even multiple syllabi—and many working on a local level in Portland. The idea of multiplicity emerges as a recurring theme in the organizers’ efforts to put together an entire library. This self-made space for building community is not trying to “replace” the Western canon, but instead, it offers numerous canons for people to interact with and think about on their own terms.

It is important for the organizers not to assume a position of authority in presenting de-canon(s), and this is reflected in the setup of texts within the library. “We’re not dictating ‘this is exclusively for this type of thing; This is exclusively for that’,” shares Aitken. “That part of the exhibit is an invitation to anyone there to move things around, to reform what goes into a box or a canon, and think about it differently. What fits together, what doesn’t fit together, for them?”

Art by Sam Roxas-Chua, featured as part of De-Canon’s pop-up library exhibition at UNA Gallery

While plenty of books can be found in De-Canon’s pop-up library exhibit, Strom explains, “We’re loosely interpreting ‘literary arts’ or ‘literary expression’ as something that can happen not just through words on the page or through books but also through other forms, like oral, or image text, or music, or visual [forms].” As a practitioner of hybrid literary forms herself, Strom also elaborates on the hybrid focus, remarking, “You know, that square with text on the page is not necessarily the only shape that we can receive stories or experience through.”

De-Canon’s inclusion of hybrid forms of literary art also reflects an effort to unlearn or subvert the authority of language, particularly the English language, which Strom describes as a “language of colonization, war, and dominance”—a language that many writers of color use, but that is not always the primary language of their culture. Aitken explains that one’s relationship to a language might differ, “whether they’ve grown up in a household where English is not the only language, or maybe it’s the second or third language, or [maybe] they’ve grown up where English, for multiple generations, has been the language, even though everyone around you assumes that it’s not.”

This critical lens on the English language is coupled with an impetus to move away from the tropes and narratives it perpetuates—a societal consciousness of categorization. For Strom, this includes tropes in Asian American “ethnic” literature, such as “food and family, immigrant stories that herald triumph of the spirit or redemptive themes, assimilation narratives…the unacknowledged expectation of gratitude that is wanted of the immigrant tale, which silently reinforces white savior/America as land of rescue complexes.”

“I think that all of us are trying to write beyond that,” Strom continues, “if you speak to any writer of color, most of them are reaching beyond particular tropes.”

But even as the organizers work to move away from tropes, they find themselves having to confront categories as a way to deepen and grow their understanding of the intersecting, overlapping, and expanding canons within the project. Aitken describes “the tension between the project goals of being very flexible with terms and definitions…and then the very practical side of bookkeeping, of trying to track what we’ve actually ordered, and whether or not we’re representing genres, representing different populations of people. It’s like they run at odds with each other, and yet they’re both necessary.”

Strom follows this with her own insightful interpretation of this organizing work. “I guess it develops empathy between people, like to be able to admit that you don’t know something, so you can open yourself up to listening, which, especially right now, seems like a practice to try to engage in,” she says. “And I think it’s hard because then, yes, things aren’t definite…you come in contact with your own discomfort.”

In terms of De-Canon’s aspirations into 2018, both organizers dream of a space where De-Canon can be housed permanently, something well overdue as a local cultural resource. However, for now, the act of coming together to create spaces for the POC literary community in Portland and, as Strom puts it, “a context for the work that we’re doing”—this is vital, and it includes an investment of work in the virtual world as well. “If we profile Portland as part of the website, we were thinking that could be something that could happen in other places,” she continues.

“We don’t have the power to change everything that happens out there,” muses Aitken, “but what we do have is the power to call attention to different things that we see.” This includes a host of literary artists of color in Portland, many of whom are highlighted by De-Canon in their programming at UNA Gallery this month.  

For more unlearning and de-canonization, please see the numerous resources and full schedule of remaining events on De-Canon’s website—the next event, De-Canon {Music+Poetry}, is August 19th; the Unlearning Podcast by Béalleka, one of De-Canon’s presenters; and Strom’s upcoming performance with Samiya Bashir, in collaboration with Shayla Lawson, as part of Time-Based Arts Festival. To take a deeper dive, join Physical Education for Reading Group August 26th, 3-5 pm at UNA Gallery (remember to do your reading beforehand!).