Over the past couple of decades, Yamhill County writers and arts advocates have developed an infrastructure to assist their own, and the most visible of those efforts — a published volume of local prose and poetry — recently hit the shelves in libraries and bookstores.
Paper Gardens 2019 is a 116-page collection featuring work by more than 50 writers of all ages. They were among hundreds who submitted work in the categories of traditional poetry, free verse, haiku, fiction, and nonfiction. Two professional judges (one for poetry, one for prose) narrowed the field, and the book featuring their selections was released at a ceremony at the Chehalem Cultural Center earlier this year.
More so than live theater, music, or visual art, a region’s literary scene can be tough to track. The work is produced largely in isolation, often by those who are disinclined to call attention to themselves, and only a few of whom reach a level where the resources of a major publisher or magazine are brought to bear in nudging an author’s work into full public view.
Paper Gardens, sponsored by the Arts Alliance of Yamhill County and made possible with sponsorships by McMinnville Kiwanis and McMinnville Noon Rotary, has (with other events) helped raise the visibility of such writers.
The annual writing contest is more than a quarter-century old, the brainchild in 1993 of poet Rachel Burchard. She died in 2004, but I dare say lived long enough to see that the seed she planted would continue to grow long after her passing. The late, great Oregon Poet Laureate William Stafford was the first in a rotating series of judges that has included Ursula Le Guin, Floyd Skloot, Primus St. John, Barbara Drake, and Robin Cody.
This year, José Angel Araguz, a former Linfield College professor who this fall will begin teaching in Boston, reviewed the poetry. He is a CantoMundo fellow, the author of seven chapbooks and a 2019 Oregon Book Awards finalist. He sat down for an interview with Oregon ArtsWatch in April.
Tracy Daugherty was this year’s prose judge. He is the author of 16 books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently The Last Love Song, a biography of Joan Didion; and Let Us Build a City, a collection of essays on writing and literature. He is a five-time winner of the Oregon Book Award.
I asked each to comment on this year’s contest.
“Being the poetry judge for this year’s Paper Gardens anthology was a real treat,” Araguz said. “It was great to see so many promising entries from across all ages. I was especially moved by the strength of the entries coming from our youth categories. From insightful haiku to confident poems of identity, it’s safe to say that the future of Yamhill County’s writing community is in good hands.”
Here’s Daugherty, culling from remarks he made at the ceremony: “Good stories illuminate both the humble lives most of us lead as well as the immensities of time and space in which we move. That combination, the commonplace and the extraordinary, is literature’s gift to us. The power of narrative allows us a bigger, deeper, more far-reaching perspective than we normally possess. It was a great honor for me to read this year’s Paper Gardens prose entries, and to see that all of the participating writers, from early childhood to middle school to high school to adult, were keenly aware of the power of narrative, and practicing it skillfully.”
The collection contains too many pieces to comment on here, but a few stand out, particularly several written by young people. Here are two, the first in the free-verse category and written by Ko Depweg of McMinnville’s Memorial Elementary School. It’s titled Our Effects.
This beautiful land that will sometime become houses And the mice will crawl away And snakes slither The cats have to move their dinner For every 50 houses and roads you build You crush 100 houses.
Despite my reservations about video games, I was also impressed by one poem that explicitly celebrated Minecraft. Here’s It’s Getting Laggy [A Minecraft Poem], by Josiah Cummings of Grandhaven Elementary School:
When the game is loaded and the screen turns on, You hop into a world where gravity’s gone. Where you can walk from the forest to bay, And a place where you can mine all day. This is a place where danger can roam, And where you can mine and build your own home. In this place you collect stacks of blocks So you can craft things like maps and clocks. Now you’re geared up with some diamond armor, And you’ve faced danger, bravely with valor. Your next destination will be the end, It has a dragon teleporting men. And you’ve beat it, you’ve just scratched the surface, You see, this game, has so much more purpose. Now you could say this game is a no brainer But it all comes down to, are you a gamer?
Among the older children, I particularly enjoyed a short prose piece by Melea Wilder of McMinnville High School, who writes in Uncaged about a transcendent moment atop a cliff overlooking the Oregon Coast, and the yearning for “a land where my mind can be released from its cage.” A personal essay by Alicia Beck of Patton Middle School tells an inspiring story from a Juvenile Arthritis Conference in Seattle, where a group of young people scramble at the last moment to complete a project for presentation at the end of the event.
In the adult category, there’s a moving poem by John DesCamp, Belated Conversation, about visiting his parents’ gravesite:
My parents’ graves Are at the top of a hill I walk there sometimes It’s not far Hoping for the one conversation We were never able to have. We’re closer now than we were It’s life, not death, that separates us, Like the audience at an absurd play We really don’t understand the characters Until they’ve left the stage. Their voices are faint But clearer as the years pass My hearing has improved With age.
Finally, as someone who occasionally (not always) will take the time to remove a spider from the house and release it unharmed outdoors, I enjoyed Sally Collins’ nonfiction piece Bee Reprieve, in which a bumblebee weighed down with pollen crash-lands in her vehicle during a camping trip. Since the title implies as much, it’s no spoiler to say that the bee survives. But the moment of communion between the writer and bee is a joyful piece of writing.
Paper Gardens 2019 may be found at the McMinnville Public Library and the Newberg Public Library (or through any other municipal library in Yamhill County) or you can order one through a local bookstore.
ARTS JOURNAL: It feels like a defeat to confess it, but I finally put Neal Stephenson’s Fall, or Dodge in Hell, down without finishing it. I’d quickly cleared 600 pages (out of 883) but what began as a thrilling and fascinating sci-fi tale finally sinks into a bog of uninspired tedium populated by paper-thin characters for whom I had no interest or sympathy. Were there only 50 or so pages to go, I might have slogged through to the end, but well over 200 remained, and life is too short to spend in a boring book.
This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.