LANGUAGE ARTS

Poet Alice Derry: Speaking out against barbarism

Derry, who will lead a workshop on writing political poetry at the Terroir Writing Festival, says the personal is the way to approach bearing witness

Aspiring poets who struggle either with writing or getting published should take heart from the example of Alice Derry. She doesn’t consider herself a natural; a teacher even once “shut down” her work in school, she said. But she discovered early on that poetry provided her with “necessary oxygen,” and she made it her life’s work.

On Saturday, Derry will lead a workshop at the sold-out Terroir Creative Writing Festival in McMinnville on “Writing the Political Poem.” Many of her poems are political in nature, with topics that range from the psychic scars left by Nazi Germany to the Sandy Hook school shooting. Derry’s approach, according to the workshop notes, is to “begin with the personal and vulnerable, and then reach out, drawing honest and authentic parallels.”

Alice Derry says she “came to poetry consciously mostly through desire and not through an inherent love of language.” She adds, “My first book of poems involved a 10-year process of reading, writing, revising, revising, revising.”

Alice Derry says she “came to poetry consciously, mostly through desire, and not through an inherent love of language.” She adds, “My first book of poems involved a 10-year process of reading, writing, revising, revising, revising.”

Derry’s “personal and vulnerable” approach is evident in her work, which includes six poetry collections, the most recent of which is Hunger, published in 2018 by Tillamook-based MoonPath Press. Prior to corresponding with her this spring, I sat down with Hunger and then later with an earlier collection, Strangers to Their Courage. This book, according to her website, was “distilled from more than thirty years of experiences with the Germans and their language” and explores the meaning of “her investment in a population compromised and reviled” by 20th-century fascism and the Holocaust. Poems in this collection are based in large part on conversations with relatives who lived in Germany during World War II. The book was a finalist for the 2002 Washington Book Award.

Derry is an Oregon native raised in Montana and Washington, where she taught writing and German at Peninsula College in Port Angeles, Wash., for 30 years before retiring. Her work has appeared Southern Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Portland Review, The Seattle Review, Hubbub, Crab Creek Review, and Raven Chronicles. She also can lay claim to having had Raymond Carver say this about her first manuscript, Stages of Twilight: “I felt she was writing about real things, things that counted. Her poems seemed honest in their conception and execution — they made a claim on my interest right away. I would even say they made a claim on my heart.”

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‘Writing poems gave me the chance to know myself’

Oregon poet Lynn Otto, who will participate in McMinnville's Terroir Creative Writing Festival, talks about what people seek in reading and writing poetry

This weekend marks the 10th annual Terroir Creative Writing Festival, which for the first time in the event’s history has sold out. Organizers hit the legal capacity for their venue in McMinnville weeks ago and started a waiting list. Fortunately, we reached out to a couple of the poets who are giving workshops this weekend and today offer the first of those interviews below. On Wednesday, look for a conversation with Alice Derry.

Lynn Otto earned her MFA from Portland State University and serves on the board of the Oregon Poetry Association. Prior to our email exchange, I read her first collection, Real Daughter, published this year by Unicorn Press. In more than 60 poems, Otto shifts gracefully and sometimes mysteriously from writing as a daughter who is bearing witness to her parents’ advance in years to her capacity as a mother. Even here, the perspective is not always clear. In one poem, Makeup (The Mother, the Daughter and the Other Daughter Speak), she appears to be writing as her daughter. The cover features artwork, Knit Process V, by Carol MacDonald.

"I read somewhere that most poets are people who, for some reason or other, have not been able to speak in any other way," says Lynn Otto. "I wonder whether more people are writing poems because they feel unheard."

“I read somewhere that most poets are people who, for some reason or other, have not been able to speak in any other way,” says Lynn Otto. “I wonder whether more people are writing poems because they feel unheard.”

Publication was originally set for last October after the book won the North Carolina publisher’s 2017 First Book Award, but flooding in that state delayed the book until January. Otto said she met Unicorn editor Andrew Saulters at the recent Association of Writers & Writing Programs book fair in Portland and learned more about the delay. “Unicorn Press hand-makes their books,” she explained. “The pages are hand-folded, punctured with an awl, and sewn, and the signatures [sections of pages] are hand-glued into each cover. After that, each book is trimmed. The hardcovers take even longer.” All that for a print run of 501 copies.

Otto has presided over poetry workshops before in Yamhill County, and this weekend she’ll work with a lucky few at the Terroir Festival. At the top of our interview, I asked for her thoughts about the poetry world.

I suppose it’s a bit silly to inquire about “the state of poetry,” as that’s so subjective, but let’s start by throwing the door open for you to call attention to any issues, trends, problems, etc. you see. Basically, what’s on your mind?

Otto: I’m not a cultural analyst or part of an academic community that might be discussing such things, so my take on “the state of poetry” is indeed subjective. There’s certainly no lack of it. You can read poetry all day without even cracking a book, thanks to websites such as the Poetry Foundation and scads of online journals. New titles are printed all the time, especially by indie presses.

What I suspect, though, is that there are more people writing poetry than reading it. I see so-called poems posted on Facebook and Instagram, for example, that are little more than emotional outbursts broken into short lines. Writing is a great way to process emotion, but, because most readers don’t read poems in order to find out what it’s like to sit in the therapist’s chair, writers need to offer something more satisfying if they’re going to make their work public.

You’re giving a workshop at Terroir called “Moving Your Reader to Move Your Reader.” Could you elaborate?

One of my aims is to help writers think about how their choices affect where readers find themselves as they read — where the poem takes them in place and time, and in relationship to the poem’s speaker and subject. As a reader, I don’t want to be put in the therapist’s chair. It’s not a place that allows me to be moved by the poem.

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Gather round, grown-ups, for tales of pets and marriages

Actor Liz Cole pulls a circle of adults around her reading chair, her lamp and her mama's rug to relive the childhood pleasure of being told a story

Remember when you were a kid and the teacher gathered your class in a circle and read you a story? Well, turns out you don’t have to be a child to savor story time.

Professional actor Liz Cole came up with the idea of Story Time for Grown-Ups one day while she pondered what she really loved to do. The answer was two-fold: ride a bike and read beautifully written poems and stories. She took her idea for a series of story times to the Hoffman Center for the Arts in Manzanita and got the go-ahead. She’s been hosting a story time about once a year for the six years since.

“It’s been just wonderful,” she said. The content of the shows is a mix of poems and little stories, with a heavy emphasis on poems because of their conciseness. Each show lasts a little over an hour, followed by any conversation the audience might want.

“Nearly all the poems and stories are the work of others, culled mostly from my bookshelves and the internet,” Cole said. “I gather a whole bunch of material, then identify common themes, do a lot of winnowing, and end up with what I hope is a fine balance between light and dark pieces. I’ve increasingly emphasized lightness the last couple of episodes, possibly because there’s more than enough darkness around.”

Actor Liz Cole says her Story Time for Grown-Ups aims to create an atmosphere like childhood, "or like childhood should have been." She will share stories and poems this week and next in Tillamook and Manzanita.

Actor Liz Cole says her Story Time for Grown-Ups aims to create an atmosphere like childhood, “or like childhood should have been.” She will share stories and poems this week and next in Tillamook and Manzanita.

In the coming week, Cole will present the series in two locations. This weekend, she’ll be on stage April 13 and 14 at the Tillamook Association for the Performing Arts (TAPA) with Reigning Cats and Dogs. On April 17, she will present Marriage and Other Lapses of Judgment at the Hoffman Center. Tickets are $15 and $10.

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‘It started with poetry’: A conversation with Darnell McAdams

The Portland-area photographer talks about his "Black Santa Project" and the storytelling link between poetry and photography

Those of us who write about the arts at some point trot out “visual poetry” to describe something other than actual verse — a painting, a film, even a tour de force staging of a dance or scene in a play. Though we’d likely stumble in trying to define what we mean, “visual poetry” seemed like the obvious descriptor for Black Santa, Darnell McAdams’ remarkable photography that was included in Photo Club PDX’s Photographic Intentions exhibit in Newberg earlier this year. Next month, The Black Santa Project will take up residence in Photo Club PDX’s Community Drawer at Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery, from May 14 through June 11.

While it may seem a stretch to fold his work into my series of interviews with poets this month, I wanted to circle back to McAdams because of a line from his bio that stayed with me: “It started with poetry.” Soaking up the sensual black-and-white imagery of Black Santa, one recalls the plainly self-congratulatory but nevertheless apropos remark by Orson Welles that “a film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.” McAdams brings a poet’s sensibility to his work, which I sensed even before learning that “it started with poetry.”

"Be Calm and Keep Breathing" is part of Darnell McAdams’ “Black Santa Project,” selections from which were part of a photography show at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg this winter. It will be exhibited May 14-June 11 at the Blue Sky Gallery in downtown Portland.

“Be Calm and Keep Breathing” is part of Darnell McAdams’ “Black Santa Project,” selections from which were part of a photography show at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg this winter. It will be exhibited May 14-June 11 at the Blue Sky Gallery in downtown Portland.

So I asked him about this.

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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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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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