Yamhill County’s Fire Writers conference last gathered in the ballroom of Newberg’s Chehalem Cultural Center in January 2020, and thus enjoys the distinction of being one of the last major cultural events to be held there before the pandemic.
But having the conference shut down didn’t extinguish the creative spirit that compelled more than a hundred teenage participants to miss a day of school so they could participate in the arguably more arduous task of getting their writing mojo on for five or six hours.
We know this because of another tradition that didn’t miss a beat. The Arts Alliance of Yamhill County’s 28th annual Paper Gardens anthology was published this spring and may be found at local bookstores and the Chehalem center. It’s a snapshot of local poetry, nonfiction, and fiction by students and adults, selected by two professional writers from hundreds of submissions.
Submissions, many of which come from students who participate in the January conference, were down this year. But in both the poetry and prose categories, submissions were above the four-year average for 2015-19. Sixty-five children entered poems this year, down from 262 in 2020, but submissions from older youth remained the same, at 214. Nearly as many schools participated this year (23) as did in 2020 (25). In total, Paper Gardens received 351 entries this year, down from 556 in 2020. “Considering the pandemic,” said Deborah Weiner, who founded Fire Writers and also was a key organizer of Paper Gardens, “I am pleased with the number and quality of the submissions.”
A virtual release party was held May 13 and may still be seen on YouTube. Several authors signed up to read their work.
Reading Paper Gardens each spring provides cause for optimism and hope, particularly in the young writers categories. It’s a window into interiority, a glimpse of the hearts and minds of children. Clearly, these young people are paying attention to life; it’s common to find in their work references to homelessness, ecological problems, consumerism, and artifice.
“Something I think all the poems share was a sense of empathy, a reaching out to readers, a curiosity and deep desire to understand themselves in the world and our places in the world,” said John Sibley Williams, who served as this year’s poetry judge. “Some of the poems were kind of cultural and political, some were really intimate and personal, some were emotional, some were more abstract. There’s such a wide variety of incredible poetry.”
Williams continues the tradition of distinguished literary artists who have served as Paper Gardens judges. William Stafford was the first, in 1993; others have included Floyd Skloot, Primus St. John, Robin Cody, Paulann Petersen, Barbara Drake, and Kim Stafford. This year, author Dionisia Morales, who was among the workshop teachers at 2020’s Fire Writers, judged the prose category.
Williams hails from Massachusetts and lived abroad before moving to Portland. He earned his master’s in book publishing from Portland State University, where he was the acquisitions manager for Ooligan Press. During the streamed release party, he marveled at the work he sees locally.
“There’s something about Oregon, I don’t know what it is,” he said. “I’ve lived in a few states before, but there’s something about Oregon and Oregon poetry. People love their creativity here. They really shined, I thought, with all the amazing poems we received.”
He was excited to learn that Paper Gardens even has a children’s category. Having worked as a publisher, editor, and writer who has had his work in hundreds of journals, Williams said that children are too often excluded from opportunities like this. “I didn’t love poetry when I was a child,” he said. “And the fact that so many young children are this invested in creative writing just gives me so much hope for the future.”
As with the 2020 edition, Paper Gardens this year has work alluding to the pandemic, although it’s hardly “the pandemic issue.” One piece of free verse by McMinnville’s Deb Broocks is titled Anthropause, a term coined last summer to refer to the global reduction in human activity brought about by COVID-19. It begins:
Coyotes padded on daytime San Francisco streets porcupines snuffled through Rome’s ancient ruins Canada geese shepherded their young down an empty Las Vegas Strip jackals lounged in a Tel Aviv park and as still waters in Venice canals unveiled schools of darting fish cormorants arrived to feast.
Two poems by young people that took on social inequality stand out. In the youth prose category, Momo Scarboro-Ford from Duniway Middle School has a powerful piece, Long Live the Queen, in which those on the bottom of London’s economic ladder go through the rote exercise of praising Britain’s royal figurehead.
“Long live the Queen,” whispers a young girl nervously. Her dress is white, the sunset shines through the clouds, her family surrounds her, but she’s fighting back tears. She has to force a smile as they wrap her in their arms and plant kisses on her forehead. They do not notice that it’s all a lie. They never do.
Meanwhile, Grandhaven Elementary School’s Lyla Shilhanek cuts to the heart of it with haiku:
SpaceX The new world is here But we can’t afford it ‘cause The flight’s expensive
As often happens when you have artistic creations bumping up against each other, one finds individual pieces speaking to each other. That’s what happens in two wonderful pieces about trees. In youth nonfiction, Duniway Middle School’s Rylee Strong uses The Twisted Tree as a way to explore disability and mortality; Newberg’s Janine Saxton, meanwhile, looks at Life and Death of a Plum Tree in the adult nonfiction category.
But if I’m allowed to pick favorites, I’ll circle back to Deb Broocks, who has a fascinating nonfiction piece about a subculture I rub up against several times a year (in a normal year) but have never given much thought to: the people who stand outside Oregon Shakespeare Festival theaters, on “the bricks,” as showtime approaches, hoping to snag a ticket.
In Need 2 Tix, Broocks writes about her attempt to get two tickets to the popular musical Hairspray, which the festival mounted in 2019. I’ve always wondered about these folks. Do they ever get in? Clearly some do, or it wouldn’t be a thing. Broocks mentions one evidently more experienced ticket troller, who claimed to have seen 200 plays that year. It’s one of those things, I suspect, that really can’t be written about honestly and usefully unless you’ve actually earned some street cred doing it yourself, which is what Broocks brings to the party. Does she get to see Hairspray, or does she settle for the Downton Abbey film playing up the street? I’ll never tell … you just need to read it.