Barbara LaMorticella

Going, going, gone: 2019 in review

A look back at the ups and downs and curious side trips of the year on Oregon's cultural front

What a year, right? End of the teens, start of the ’20s, and who knows if they’ll rattle or roar?

But today we’re looking back, not ahead. Let’s start by getting the big bad news out of the way. One thing’s sure in Oregon arts and cultural circles: 2019’s the year the state’s once-fabled craft scene took another staggering punch square on the chin. The death rattles of the Oregon College of Art and Craft – chronicled deeply by ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson in a barrage of news stories and analyses spiced with a couple of sharp commentaries, Democracy and the arts and How dead is OCAC? – were heard far and wide, and the college’s demise unleashed a flood of anger and lament.

The crashing and burning of the venerable craft college early in the year followed the equally drawn-out and lamented closure of Portland’s nationally noted Museum of Contemporary Craft in 2016, leaving the state’s lively crafts scene without its two major institutions. In both cases the sense that irreversible decisions were being made with scant public input, let alone input from crafters themselves, left much of the craft community fuming. When, after the closure, ArtsWatch published a piece by the craft college’s former president, Denise Mullen, the fury hit the fan with an outpouring of outraged online comments, most by anonymous posters with obvious connections to the school.

Vanessa German, no admittance apply at office, 2016, mixed media assemblage, 70 x 30 x 16 inches, in the opening exhibit of the new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University. Photo: Spencer Rutledge, courtesy PSU

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Barbara LaMorticella: a woman of her words

From her Mime Troupe days to "Talking Earth," the Portland poet has been a potent force for writers. Now Soapstone gives her Bread & Roses.

On a recent Monday night a familiar voice returned to the airwaves of Talking Earth, KBOO community radio’s long-running interview show about poets and other writers and reading aloud. The voice was soft and conversational, confiding, helpful, gently guiding the talk into topics not usually considered on modern American radio: the structure of a poem, the ways that words and lives braid together, the themes that define a poet’s career. Five years after her last turn in the interviewing booth, Barbara LaMorticella was talking with her friend and fellow poet Judith Barrington about life and loss and language and Barrington’s newest book of poetry, Long Love.

LaMorticella, who has interviewed hundreds of writers on KBOO beginning in the 1980s, had taken a break from the studio for personal reasons. She was caring for her husband of 56 years, Robert (Roberto), who died last year, and the Talking Earth interview was something of a reemergence into public life. That fact was delivered with an exclamation point a few mornings later when I met in a Southeast Portland bakery with Ruth Gundle of Soapstone, the women’s literary organization, which has named LaMorticella the first recipient of its biannual Soapstone Bread and Roses Award. Meant to honor a woman writer who has created opportunities for other writers and helped sustain the writing culture in Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington, the award, which includes a $500 check, will be presented at a private luncheon on March 8, which not coincidentally is International Women’s Day. “We wanted to honor women who’d been here over the long haul, who’d been mainstays of the literary community,” Gundle said. “Barbara was the obvious choice.”

Two days after talking with Gundle I met with LaMorticella in a Northeast Portland coffee shop near her daughter’s house, and there was that voice again: warm, earnest, smart, almost always with a touch of humor near the surface. It reminded me that although we usually read poetry and therefore think of it as a literary art, it is also oral and musical, and so ideally attuned to live performance or the radio dial. “Poetry is an audible art. Or should be,” LaMorticella commented. “When I finish a poem I always read it out loud. And if it doesn’t work out loud, I change it.”

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Barbara LaMoricella, up close.

In the KBOO studio LaMorticella took the long view of a life in words, going back to Barrington’s childhood in Brighton-on-the-Sea, England, and surprising her audience with stark revelations delivered in the most congenial of tones, underlining without having to say so directly that personal history shapes a writer’s art. Barrington was born in wartime, she informed her listeners, “… into a bombing raid, and … you were born into a world which in one poem you said, ‘This is the world I came in, and I have to learn to love it.’”

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