Leanne Grabel talks about comedy, outrage and the heyday of Portland’s lit scene

A new interview series with Portland poets kicks off with long-time poetry activist Leanne Grabel

On a cloudy day in May, I sat at a wooden café patio table waiting to meet Portland poet Leanne Grabel for the first time. Though I had knowledge of her work, I wasn’t sure of what to expect during an era when in-person meetings still seem few and far between. My coffee was warm in my hand as the sun peeked periodically through the silver sky, and I looked up at the sound of an approaching bicycle. 

Leanne rode up to me like a ray of light beaming through a stormy fog, sporting a bright magenta sweatshirt embellished with sparkling gold hand-drawn flowers across the front of the Blazer logo, paired with reflective sunglasses resting over her expressive eyes.

“I brought some gifts!” she said cheerfully, as she reached into her horse-patterned carpetbag, pulling out three of her recent books. I leafed through them as she stepped away to order a latte.

Leanne performing at Ivories Jazz Lounge, photograph courtesy of Facebook

Leanne Grabel is not only a poet. She’s also an illustrator, writer, performer, and special education teacher who has worked with underprivileged youth and elderly people. Originally from Stockton, California, Grabel has been a Portland staple since 1975 when she fell in love with Portland’s then-bustling live poetry scene and charismatic open mic hosts of the era. In 1991, she and her husband Steve Sander founded the infamous and celebrated Café Lena, a community hub for poets, musicians, and artists to gather, drink, dine, and connect––where such legends as Ani Difranco came to perform.

A bustling scene at Café Lena, photograph courtesy of Leanne Grabel

After exchanging greetings, Grabel and I began to chat about life, literature, and California. We spoke of Stockton, and how it will always be part of the author’s identity despite its small-town rigidness. We discussed our families, about how casual shouting was always normal in our homes, and about the difficulties of self-acceptance faced by teenagers in rural and suburban towns. We spoke about transparency in memoir and where it comes from, and about Grabel’s passion for urging others to tell their stories, regardless of how unpleasant, in order to encourage empathy in others.

Leanne Grabel’s Gold Shoes (Finishing Line Press)

“I’m sort of aimless right now, which I don’t like,” responded Grabel with a laugh when I asked about her plans and works in progress, despite her intended forthcoming one-woman show on aging and vanity. 

I was immediately drawn to Grabel’s conversational honesty, which also runs, valiantly, throughout her body of work. One of the first poems I turned to when looking through Grabel’s 2018 book of graphic poetry, Gold Shoes (Finishing Line Press), was titled Pinkie Ring. A heart-wrenching depiction of an aging father and his unique collection of mostly Jewish jewelry pieces, the poem is an observant, earnest portrait of a difficult and headstrong patriarch. The poem appears with an illustration of a jewelry box overflowing with necklaces.

“Well, my father was such an interesting and tragic man, really,” Grabel explained. “He was very flashy and loud and outrageous… He screamed at the dinner table and ruined every family vacation with his disgruntledness… And he had this great blue sapphire ring. I realized the last time I saw Guys and Dolls, it was very much like the one Marlon Brando wore in that movie… I no longer have the ring. I actually traded it and some other jewelry to have a ring made out [of] my grandmother’s engagement ring.”

From earlier works like Anne Sexton: She Was a Sexpot to her incredibly current political graphic illustrations (which include a depiction of plated meat that poses the question “Multiple Choice: Is this Mitch McConnell, Steve Bannon, or a rump roast?”, it is clear that comedy, in addition to honesty, holds a strong place in Grabel’s writing.

“Does drawing on comedy allow the artist to go further,” she wonders later, as we discuss the subject of writing about trauma and difficult events and how the idea of outrage is making its way into her work.

According to Grabel, her knack for comedy comes from her adolescence where she was “part-brain, part comedian, and part preppie-wanna-be for some odd reason.“ Fortunately for us, Grabel has stuck to her oddball ways. Her poems, full of integrity and taut one-liners, present the plight of the outcast while having a thumb firmly on the pulse of contemporary culture. 

Leanne Grabel has an air of joy about her, even when discussing difficult topics. Her energy is bright and intoxicating, especially against the gray of the darkening sky. She is one of those people who makes you feel at home in her presence—warm and open in her way of speaking, radiating a kindness and acceptance that makes you want to tell her about where you’re from. She is wise, but she does not hold it over you. She’s accomplished, but does not speak with an air of superiority.

Upon finishing her 8-ounce coffee, Grabel removed the lid and placed it inside the cup. After what seemed like hours of discussion, Leanne reapplied her magenta lipstick for a second time and took a look at the clock before parting almost as genially and briskly as she had arrived.

In the words of Grabel’s poem, Purple, which opens the third chapter of Gold Shoes, I find it fitting to leave you with this thought as you embark on the Q&A portion of Oregon ArtsWatch’s first Poet’s Q&A Series interview:

Plums. I tell you. Eat the plums.”


Leanne and her father in 1952, courtesy of Leanne Grabel

When did you begin writing?

I was an avid and compulsive diary keeper and journal keeper and letter writer and poster maker, etc., but I thought my main strength was math—egged on by my ambitious Jewish father. I got a full ride to Stanford primarily based on math scores. At the time, girls didn’t do math. My father also lost all his money the year I applied. He moved from NYC, [a] first-generation Russian Jew, to Stockton, California, after World War II to be a farmer. He did great for a while—then his land flooded. It was opportune for me. My scholarship was not dependent on my major. I changed my major almost instantly.

I finally felt inspired by a professor in a Modern American Lit class…I ended up majoring in English, worked for Billie Jean King on her magazine WomenSports after graduation in the mid-’70s, but was restless. [I] quit my dream job, went to Europe, came back, visited Portland with college friends, and, first night, they took me to an open mic poetry reading and I saw my future. I ADORED IT. I had been writing sob story poems for a while, mostly love-related.

What originally brought you to Portland in 1975?

That poetry reading—watching performance poets waving their hands and bodies as they revealed themselves naked and vulnerable and honest—IT BLEW MY MIND. I got the guts to read about a month later at an open mic that was at The Long Goodbye, a bar in the Pearl—but then [called] Old Town. It was glorious. The highlight of my life up until then. Walt Curtis was the host. I fell instantly in love with him. He is still a friend. The poets do stick together–– a special bond—although most are severely introverted.

You and your husband Steve Sander founded Café Lena in 1991, if I’m not mistaken. What was the scene there in the ‘90s? Who read poetry and performed at the establishment?

We did start Café Lena. Without thinking, really. Our daughters were 10 months and 3 and a half. But this space came up, it was very cheap—would make a perfect poetry café. My college roommate’s father loaned us a chunk of money, and we went for it. We did not envision a restaurant open all day and night with a baker and 17 employees. 

After three years of it, I was done. I rejuvenated a Language Arts teaching credential and got back into teaching. But the cafe lasted 10 years. Many writers read there. And many musicians played there. Ani DiFranco, Shawn Mullins, Kelly Joe Phelps. The food was amazing. And such a small place. Just the corner space in what is now Jam on Hawthorne. Blake Nelson read his initial drafts of Girl

Grabel performing at Broadway Books, courtesy of Facebook

What led you to move on from Café Lena and work for Portland Public Schools? What was that shift like for you?

I did a performance at PSU one time and mentioned in [the] intro that I was substituting. A dancer asked me afterward if I would cover a maternity leave at a lockdown treatment center for teenage girls. I said I wanted to visit first. I did, and they were reading their poetry and my mind was blown. I took the sub job, went back to Lewis and Clark to get a special ed[ucation] endorsement and Master’s, and stayed teaching troubled youth for 11 years… It changed my life. I wrote a book and show about teaching in the treatment center (badgirls). The woman who got me into teaching for PPS is now principal at Helensview and an amazing woman and performer. Her name is Dawn Joella Jackson.

What would you consider the heyday of Portland’s poetry scene? When and where was it, and what was the feeling of that atmosphere?

The poetry scene over the past 45 years has ebbed and flowed and always reaches a mediocre level and then dips and dives and then goes up again––but never as high as the poets want it. Know what I mean? The ‘90s were great–– the open mic scene flowed into the slam scene–– which was giant for several years. I backed away because of my daughters and all that took up most [of] my time. I’ve done a lot of teaching poetry in the schools over the years since. Kids in high school are doing some great work—for Verselandia, for instance. Great writing and performance skills. 

What inspired your love for mixed media and genre-melding? At what point did you decide to mix illustration, performance, and poetry?

Been mixing it up since the beginning. The guy I moved to Portland with played drums. I read with him playing bongos from the beginning. Where did it come from? Good question. Then I started getting electronic keyboards when they first appeared. I had this little one that had like 40 voices. I worked with dancers a lot—musicians. Love it. I don’t know where it came from. 

Can you expand on the common use of metaphor and autobiographical material in your work? 

I am not a storyteller. I find myself fascinating, I guess, or troublesome enough to gobble up most of my focus. And if I have a higher calling, it is to be the comedian of vulnerability or something. I reveal my flaws, despair, weaknesses, oddities, secrets—add a joke or two, some good words, a sense of rhythm, a gut-punch, another joke—that is what I do and want to do. Robert Stone said writers make others feel less lonely. I like that. YES, I PICK MY CUTICLES. Hahaha. So what? You know what I mean? 

I just wrote a couple [of] grants to fund a one-woman show on aging, which I realize is not really about aging but about VANITY. Vanity takes the biggest hit when you age, I realized. I may work with a dancer on this. And one musician. 

There’s a whole page on your website dedicated to political drawings. Is this something you’ve always done or a new endeavor influenced by our current political climate?

I was in a state of outrage every day of the Trump administration. I initially was challenged on Facebook to do a daily drawing for a month in response to the 2016 election. I ended up turning the drawings into a couple sets of postcards called Antidotes to Despair. I sold those out… I wrote an illustrated book and performance piece about my outrage.

I just finished doing the drawings for filmmaker/writer Penny Allen’s novel, This Rescue Thing. Penny moved to Paris 29 years ago, but sought me out when a mutual friend sent her an illustrated essay of mine from Another Chicago Magazine. We are just beginning to seek out a publisher.

One of your earlier works is a detailed and colorful graphic poem called Dorothy Parker: A Sad Story About A Big Brain. What inspired this rendition of Dorothy Parker’s life and death? Have you continued to draw inspiration from her in other works?

I did this early study on Dorothy, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton—did illustrated books and performance pieces about all of them. Wrote a grant for a few shows and included their pieces in each show. I guess I was making sure I didn’t end up all fucked up like them.  

I do think they all changed poetry. I am lucky to have been born much later than these women. Sad lives. Horrible lives. 

What writers/books do you love to read? What authors are you inspired by?

Writers—well, my early influences were Marge Piercy and Nikki Giovanni and Diane Wakoski. I had my Bukowski phase and still like his work for its clarity! I love CLARITY! I don’t want to have to work too hard to understand a poem. Drives me crazy.

I grew to love William Stafford eventually and find him calming. I love Charles Simic–– love the Eastern European sensibility. I like Mary Oliver—not love… and these days, I’m loving these graphic memoirists like Alison Bechdel and Roz Chast, and I adore Maira Kalman—the combination of short text and image. 

Truthfully, I am a terrible reader. I am very restless and can’t sit still for long. I blame my mother who would never let us stay inside if the sun was out—and the sun was always out! I haven’t engaged in one book of fiction for the past year. And not much poetry is engaging me, either. Not sure why.

We spoke a bit earlier about memoir and encouraging others to tell their stories. Do you think there’s a general age that writers should reach before attempting to write it or do you believe that impactful memoir can come from writers at any point in their life experience? In other words, how much should someone “live” beforehand?

No, I do not think a writer has to be old to write a memoir. Memoirs are usually about impactful moments in life that change a person—teach, illuminate, alter perspective. That can happen any time. I guess it would be a little obnoxious if a very young person preached too much as if they had all the answers. 

I was in my 20s when I first started writing about my horrid rape experience in Mexico. To me, writing is the best way to make sense of things. 

What advice can you offer to younger poets and writers seeking to establish themselves?

Oh, younger poets are much more ambitious than we older ones, I think. Not sure what the definition for success is for a poet in America. [Is] money part of the equation? I don’t think so. Getting published in the right places? I don’t know. I know it’s been frustrating over the years to make so little money for my writing that takes up so much of my time. But what was I expecting?

Now I just do my taxes differently—and declare poetry a money-losing occupation. And of course, sticking with things helps.

Look forward to more interviews with the poets of Portland in Amy Leona Havin’s continuing Poet’s Q&A Series.

About the author

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, choreographer, filmmaker, and writer from Rehovot, Israel, currently based in Portland, Oregon, by way of San Diego, California. She has trained in Tel Aviv under Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company studying Gaga Movement Language and holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington. Havin is the founder and artistic director of the Portland-based dance company The Holding Project with which she received a Disjecta Contemporary Art Center 2016 Artistic Residency. Her films have been showcased internationally in Israel, Greece, Mexico, Austria, and France, receiving awards from Mexico City Videodance International, Portland Dance Film Fest, Thessaloniki Cinedance, and more. Havin is the founder and host of the occasional reading series It’s Rhubarb, and her literary works can be read in publications such as The Dust Magazine, Unchaste Anthology, When She Rises, and Gravity According to Birds. With a process rooted in the duality of her upbringing, Havin weaves together a collectively introspective body of work, honoring both heritage and the natural world.

3 Responses. Have your say.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    When Leanne was teaching the “badgirls” she asked me to come and do a session with them about writing about dancing. I treasure the memory of the time I spent in that classroom, showing these vulnerable girls George Balanchine’s “Serenade” and asking them to write about what they thought the dancers were thinking while they danced, among other things. They were so smart, so imaginative, and so forthcoming during the reading and discussion of what they’d written it was clear to me that Leanne is a genius teacher. She’s a terrific performance artist, too, particularly when collaborating with her friend, and mine, Gregg Bielemeier. Thanks for this interview, I enjoyed it mightily.

  2. Constance Malloy says:

    Infamous?

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