“Beneath the ivy are the brambles / beneath the brambles are the needles… Beneath the dirt is the water / beneath the water is the rock… Beneath the bones are the seas / beneath the sea is the glass…”
These were some of the words recited over a Zoom call by poet Chris Ashby, who wore a deep blue flannel shirt and gazed down at what he referred to as “a medley of geographic water poems.”
Ashby let flow a series of sea-driven passages, all paralleling the abundant yet shifting state of Oregon’s poetry community today, one full of writers eager to share their words while limited to the virtual boundaries of a post-pandemic world. Ashby was one of more than 12 poets who took part in A Poet’s Benefit for PWNW: The dance moves on and prose limps hopelessly behind, a virtual literary fundraiser presented by Spare Room and Passages Bookshop on January 31.
This event, originally created during the summer of 2020 in honor of the 20th anniversary year of Linda Austin’s Performance Works Northwest, also marked 19 years of the Spare Room Reading Series, hosted by David Abel. While the original live event concept had to be virtually revived due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the online aspect of the evening allowed for all five founding members of the Spare Room Reading Series to be joined by poet performers in Oakland, Arizona, and Toronto, in addition to Portland.
Founded by prolific dance-based performance artist Linda Austin, Performance Works Northwest is one of Portland’s most beloved art hubs known for its inclusive creative space, financially accessible rental costs, and groundbreaking experimental performances. As the year began, PWNW’s 2020 calendar had been packed full of events and happenings, and Abel had suggested a poetry event to raise funds for the institution. When the year came to a crashing halt in March, canceling all live presentations, the Poet’s Benefit preparations were first postponed and then reconsidered as a virtual night of literature, fully ASL interpreted by JmeJames Antonick.
On the night of the benefit, Austin seemed truly enthused to take part in the Poet’s Benefit for PWNW, smiling as she welcomed the group of virtual guests, and later opening with an acknowledgment that Performance Works Northwest rests on the lands of Clackamas, Cowlitz, and Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, along with the many other tribes who made their home on the Willamette River. Shortly after, Austin turned the evening over to Passages Bookshop’s David Abel, who donned an olive green fedora hat and glasses while perched before a backdrop of bookshelves. To more than 75 attendees, Abel explained the structure of the evening and noted that the Spare Room Reading Series has held over 250 readings throughout its long history.
Poet Sam Lohmann, reading among the first of four groups, dazzled with poignant phrasing, his pale pink shirt illuminated on the screen by a bright light as he read about “paperweights of dew holding their colors…” and “how pretending not to hear ups the ante.”
In the same group of poets, Tucson-based, founding Spare Room member Maryrose Larkin read from an English translation of Greek epic poet Nonnus of Panopolis’s Dionysciaca, peering towards the computer screen over her black-rimmed glasses. In the second group, Jen Coleman’s playful mixing of personal pronouns redefined traditional concepts of you and we, creating a looking glass of childhood memories that were mimicked by her virtual presentation of a crystal ball facade, cupped by opaque fingers and projected beyond a computer-screen-sized wallpaper of handwritten notes. “My love says that to be young these days is to be given something monstrous,” she mused.
After a short break, the third and fourth groups continued. James Yeary, wearing a dark gray sweater against a backdrop of books posed the question, “Did you know in paradise the skies are always gray?” He was later followed by poet Endi Hartigan reading from the poem Split a Guava, her deep red hair and thin-rimmed glasses standing out in a room of beige and blue:
“Split a guava in half / and the seeds / even halved / are glossy pink… the only choice is to consume them.”
While each poet was unique in tone, style, and formatting, the two stand-out performances of the night included that of event host David Abel and Spare Room founding author and activist Laura Feldman. Abel chose to share two pieces with the group. One called Witness dated back to Performance Works Northwest’s 2001 inaugural year and a vocal presentation of Vocabulary Gatha, which was formulated by composer Jackson Mac Low. The vocal performance, involving a piece of gridded paper resembling a crossword puzzle, allowed Abel to audibly play with speed, repetition, and the deconstruction of existing words or phrases.
Laura Feldman read a striking collection about the dangers of oil fracking, the consequences of Fukushima, and the “EPA and its imaginary lines.” Noting how “…within less than a mile there are different clean-criteria…,” Feldman’s heartfelt reading left viewers in contemplation of our collective exploitation of the natural world. “Leave it in the ground,” she says in one poem; “…sound of the planet heating up in my head,” mentions another.
With a curated line-up of poets reading work ranging from the internally explorative to calls for action, the Poet’s Benefit for PWNW brought together a large number of passionate poetry lovers and dance patrons. Not only were we as audience members reminded of the importance of actively supporting long-time local art institutions that we know and love, but we were also inspired by the feeling of closeness cultivated during the 90-minute long event.
“Here is the city full of water / Spilling out / Spilling out,” finished one of Ashby’s poems. An apt analogy for the spilling out of creativity that continues to come from Performance Works Northwest, Passages Bookshop, and behind the virtual walls of our literary world in self-isolation.