LANGUAGE ARTS

Exploring the epistolary art

Participants in a Sitka Center workshop may discover how letter-writing can survive the digital age, keep people connected, and restore deep focus

Tucked in the back of my closet is a small, blue suitcase I’ve hauled around with me since I was 18. Inside are bundles of letters, handwritten to me in the first years after I moved from Pennsylvania to Alaska.

Letters from my mom address my plans to move to France (“I don’t think France cares for us right now,” she wrote in 1979 on lined legal-pad paper) and eventually to study for my real-estate license. Letters from the musician I’d agreed to marry seem aimed at inspiring guilt, as in “I thought you were coming back.” Letters from my older sister detail, in her near-perfect penmanship, the mundanity of our small town – whom she ran into, where she applied for a job, how her daughter was (or was not) behaving.

Back then, unless you could afford the long-distance bills (my phone was frequently disconnected, thanks to my inability to keep-it-short), letters were how you kept in touch.

Laura Moulton will teach a workshop Aug. 17 and 18 on "The Art of the Letter" that will include making collage envelopes to deliver students' missives into the world.
Laura Moulton will teach a workshop Aug. 17 and 18 on “The Art of the Letter” that will include making collage envelopes to deliver students’ missives into the world. Photo courtesy: Laura Moulton

In recent years, I realized how much I missed writing – and receiving – personal letters, and I decided I was going to start writing them again. I even bought “fine parchment paper” and matching envelopes found on a clearance rack.

But after years of hurriedly filling reporters’ notebooks day after day after day after month after year, my  handwriting is illegible. It takes huge concentration for me to form an “ing” — the three letters have morphed into a hump with a loop. Likewise, the word “every” looks like an e with a wave and a loop. So while I was drawn to the idea of handwriting letters, I never quite got there. Sure, I could probably sit myself down and write a bit more nicely, but frankly, I’m not sure I have the patience.

Then, I saw the description for the upcoming class on The Art of the Letter: Writing, Collage & Mail Art at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology:

Continues…

Tin House: vulnerability & risk

As its celebrated literary journal shuts down, the Portland publishing house's summer writing workshops at Reed College continue to thrive.


By BEN BARTU


Midsummer has arrived in Oregon, and every surface at Reed College seems ripe with books. The campus is hosting the sixteenth annual Tin House Summer Workshop, as a few minutes walking the grounds makes plain. Signs for lecture destinations and attendee housing point in every direction. Above Cerf Amphitheatre, tables are stacked high with various issues of Tin House’s quarterly journal. 

The journal’s final issue – printed in July, and marking the end of a 20-year run for one of Portland’s most esteemed and far-reaching literary magazines – stands out from its predecessors, a robust volume with a pitch-black cover on which is etched a gilded rendition of the press’s logo.

Tin House has come a long way since it was founded in 1999 as a literary journal and nothing more. It was established by Holly MacArthur and Win McCormack (MacArthur remains a founding editor and deputy publisher; McCormack, who is also editor in chief of The New Republic since buying the magazine in 2016, is Tin House’s publisher and editor in chief), but it was not until 2003 that the publishing house held its first writing workshop at Reed. Another five years went by before Tin House also became a press, publishing novels, nonfiction, and poetry.

This was my first year attending the conference. Its lectures, panels, and readings have always been open to the public, although the workshops themselves are strictly for accepted applicants. In most cases, those accepted are also required to pay a substantial fee to cover the cost of working closely with some of the United States’ literary superstars.

*

Poet D.A. Howell, “The Godfather” of Tin House’s writing workshops.

THE 2019 WORKSHOP, which ran July 7-14, included many big-name authors, among them R.O Kwon, Garth Greenwell, Natalie Diaz, Camille T. Dungy, Kaveh Akbar, and Mitchell S. Jackson. Also in attendance was poet D.A. Powell, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, who has earned the affectionate nickname “The Godfather” for having attended every Tin House summer workshop since 2003.

Continues…

Poetry, painting, and polemics: ‘The Zine Show’ has it all

A show at Salem's Bush Barn Art Center & Annex demonstrates Oregon's zine scene is alive and well

If one were taking the vital signs of a region’s cultural life, the vitality of the local zine scene, it seems to me, would be a key indicator. It’s part of the fabric of an area’s DIY culture that can include (but is hardly limited to) a broad range of artistic forms: bookmaking, paper arts, collage, comics, drawing, photography, poetry, prose and polemics.

Based on The Zine Show, an exhibition at the Bush Barn Art Center & Annex in Salem, I’d venture that the state’s zine scene is alive and well. The exhibition, which  features zines from around Oregon, closes July 10, and a reception for the artists will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 5. Admission is free.

Bush Barn Art Center & Annex in Salem has opened one of its galleries to a selection of 'zines by Oregon artists, along with work by Salem artists Miranda Abrams and Eilish Gormley.
Bush Barn Art Center & Annex in Salem has opened one of its galleries to a selection of zines by Oregon artists, along with work by Salem artists Miranda Abrams and Eilish Gormley. Photo by: David Bates

Bush Barn really packed the gallery for this one. More than 70 zines are displayed, and artwork by Miranda Abrams and Eilish Gormley adorns the walls. The gallery space is relatively small, but there’s a lot to look at. Visitors should plan on spending at least a half-hour to take it all in. There’s plenty to read; it’s like folding a leisurely bookstore visit into an art-gallery trip.

Continues…

‘It’s not my poetry that matters, it’s poetry that matters’

Conversation and coffee with Oregon Book Awards finalist José Angel Araguz. Plus, McMinnville's festival of recycled art.

Here are two ways to know a poet:

One is to read the work, which in the case of José Angel Araguz, offers an astonishingly intimate window into his journals – not “poetry notebooks,” per se, but the Moleskines where he writes his personal diary by hand. Here, one gets a sense of his concerns and perspectives, his feel for language, etc. After completing a volume, he’ll put it aside, and only a year or two later when he returns does the poetry start to take shape.

The other is to meet for coffee.

I did both. As I drained an Americano at Starbucks, Araguz apologized a couple of times for the “tangential” nature of his thoughts, which over the course of an hour twisted and turned through anecdotes, opinions, and recollections. Interviews like this can be tough, though this one soon morphs into the kind that isn’t – an absorbing conversation with a clear takeaway, which is this: This gentle-spoken, 36-year-old first-generation American from Corpus Christi, Texas, is as passionate an advocate for poetry as you’re likely to meet.

Yamhill County poet José Angel Araguz: an advocate for poetry.

Araguz was among those up for an award Monday at the Oregon Book Awards, held in the Gerding Theater at the Armory in Portland. His collection Until We Are Level Again, published in 2018 by Mongrel Empire Press, was nominated for the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry by Oregon Literary Arts. Like much of his work, it’s a memoirish collection inspired by the years he spent growing up poor, and particularly, by a father who died in prison when Araguz was only seven.

Continues…

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.”

Continues…

‘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.

Continues…

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.

Continues…