Portland writers

Interview: Jennifer Robin on politics, mothers, and mortality

In a time of political unrest, Portland-based author and local literary visionary Jennifer Robin gets candid about her past works, what keeps her writing, and the current state of our society

As one of Portland’s most prolific writers, Jennifer Robin has presented work across a myriad of platforms since the age of 18. Robin is an unapologetically authentic literary voice. Her long and eccentric history includes reading alongside electronic musicians Spirit Duplicator and The Dead Air Fresheners, and a 10-year career as the booker and host of a live experimental music and text radio show on Portland’s KBOO radio.

Robin’s most recent published books, Death Confetti: Pickers, Punks, and Transit Ghosts in Portland, Oregon (Feral House, 2016) and Earthquakes in Candyland (Fungasm Press, 2019) are down-to-earth, intimate, and surreal examinations of the individuals who make up the complex stew that is our society, in turn initiating a whole new group of adoring fans into Robin’s already devoted assembly.

Jennifer Robin’s down-to-earth, intimate, and surreal writing examines the here and now. Photo: Kenneth Barton

I met Jennifer Robin roughly six years ago through a monthly independent reading series that took place in various cafes and minuscule bars across the Southeast Portland area. The first time I heard her read—or rather, saw her perform—her work, I nearly fell off my bar stool. “This is what he did!” she sang into the microphone, her ultra-thick eyeliner, pointedly swaying body language, and commanding tone sending the room into a trance. Within seconds, I was hooked. Hooked on her words and on her candid storytelling; on the beauty she created from the mundane and the grotesque, enough so that I found myself in an online search after the show that eventually resulted in Jennifer Robin’s Facebook page.

While continuing to dazzle audiences on her Youtube channel and newly found Medium platform, Robin seems to have had most interaction with her readers through her Facebook page, where for years she posted captivating character vignettes, larger-than-life tales of her mother, and political stances, all of which broke the usual trend of humdrum Facebook content. Posting stories, book snippets, and even late-night musings into the sex-lives of her neighbors, Robin has been a wealth of contemporary, and sometimes controversial, literary material—sparking discussions, epiphanies, and arguments among her followers.

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The Artists Series: Writers, Part 2

Ten portraits in black and white by K.B. Dixon of Oregon writers who are making a mark in the world, with excerpts from their work


TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY K.B. DIXON


This is the second installment of portraits in The Artist Series. Like the first, it focuses on Oregon writers—the unusually gifted people who make up this state’s diverse and dynamic literary culture. 

The visual approach remains the same. It relies on an economy of means, on a simple alchemic mix of raw materials: time, light, and character.

My hope is to call attention to the uniquely rewarding work of these talented people, and, as always, to produce a good photograph—one that presents a feeling as well as a form, one that preserves for myself and others a faithful representation of the subject. 


FLOYD SKLOOT


Poet, novelist, memoirist, and science writer. Far West is his latest book of poetry.

“My brain is a jukebox stuffed with old songs

playing a phrase or two at random over

and over. I keep the volume turned low

but you can sometimes see my lips move

as I sing along, eyebrows rising as I reach

for a silent high note.”

Excerpt from the poem “Over and Over” in the collection Far West

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Chelsea Bieker, on her way

The rising Portland writer, with a $30,000 Rona Jaffe Foundation award in her pocket, is making her mark in the literary world

Chelsea Bieker cuts a striking figure as she makes her way into a coffee shop in Portland’s Foster-Powell neighborhood on a recent Sunday morning. It is impossible not to notice how put together she is, rather apart from the folks already gathered there who adorn themselves in sweatshirts and wind-breakers and general day-off, will-it-or-won’t-it-rain gear. Chelsea, dressed in a full-length gingham coat and looking as flawless as if she’s come from a photo shoot, reminds me of a movie star who has just appeared out of thin air, perhaps from a big city, which, in fact, she has. Our meeting lands on the heels of her having accepted a prestigious $30,000 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award on September 13 in New York City. As we stand in line next to each other, my first question comes out rather underwhelming: “Did you get taller?” Chelsea smiles. “Nah, it’s just the shoes,” she says in a sweet, these-old-things kind of way, pointing toward her feet (the shoes are lovely).

Returning into conversation with a person you haven’t seen in some time can be a powerful experience. Our relationships with peers provide a mirror, high-powered enough to reflect us back to ourselves while taking in the subtle shifts and differences in the other. As we order our drinks (she has tea; I have espresso), it occurs to me that this is not the same young woman I exchanged ideas with in workshops in Portland State University’s MFA fiction program years ago. Though she retains the poise and centeredness I associate with her early training as a gymnast, there’s a new dimension to her now, owed possibly to the fact that, since I last saw her, she has married a man she credits with fully encouraging her compulsion to write, and with whom she started a family (she is a mother two times over). She finds herself in that most wondrous place, past the threshold of “dabbler” and “aspiring” and “amateur,” and into the realm of bona-fide writer.

Chelsea Bieker, in the catbird seat.

SHE’S LANDED AN AGENT SHE ADMIRES (“I love my agent so much; she is just amazing”) and a two-book deal with Catapult Books, and has grown into a woman who takes herself seriously as a writer and wields the sort of work ethic to prove it. On top of parenting and writing, Chelsea also maintains a full-time job as a composition instructor for the Virtual Campus of central Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg Area Community College, a position that, she says, “takes a lot of time. It comes in waves.” The waves can be challenging: She teaches four reading-intensive classes a term, yet she enjoys the work and recognizes her luck in finding a position that allows her to work from home. Unlike many institutions that offer no job security for adjuncts, HACC provides yearly contracts, lending some peace of mind for her young family.

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Conversations With: Leanne Grabel

The Portland poet and memoirist talks about words, dogs, drawings, her new volume "Gold Shoes," and the attractions of the illustrated book

My introduction to the multimedia maestro Leanne Grabel comes by way of her small pup, Bailey, who sleeps nestled in her bed on the front porch of a turn-of-the-century house in a close-in Northeast Portland neighborhood. After figuring my way through the black wrought iron fence, I see Bailey and realize a moment too late that she’s been startled. Contrary to what I expect, she just looks at me wisely, assesses the threat level (zero), spins in her bed a few times, and retires right back into whatever dream I interrupted. This bodes well, I think, for what is to come. Sure enough, a knock later the door opens and brings me level with the bright and shining face of Grabel, who cordially shuffles me in and introduces me to her husband, Steve Sander, a well-met fellow going through some old books.

The poet/memoirist/illustrator, flexing her literary muscles. Photo courtesy Leanne Grabel

Meeting a literary figure can be a daunting affair, if only by the inherent lopsidedness of biographical knowledge, particularly if the writer’s work delves into the confessional. The experience can be downright exhilarating or painfully awkward, depending on chemistry, basic human laws of attraction, and the fact that some literary figures probably prefer not to be met at all but are forced into the fray of readings and mingling if they hope to sell their books. (Grabel’s own new graphic book of poetry, Gold Shoes, will be released at the end of March.)

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