Powell’s Books

LitWatch Monthly: Joy Harjo and author conversations

March marks another full calendar of author conversations and virtual workshops, including a seminar on the work of United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo

I came into poetry feeling as though, on some level, these words were not just mine but my grandparents’, their parents’.”
― Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo is America’s first Native American Mvskoke Nation Poet Laureate. Named the 23rd United States Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress in 2019, she is the second-ever poet to serve three terms in this position. Her third term, beginning this Spring 2021, brings forth a new digital signature project, Living Nations, Living Words. This unique project will feature a fully interactive map of First Peoples Poetry, focusing on 47 different Native American poets by mapping their works and locations nationwide.

Harjo first began writing poetry in 1973 at the age of 23. Before becoming one of the country’s most beloved living poets, she attended the University of New Mexico to study medicine. Inspired by her heritage, the company of artists around her, and the beauty of New Mexico’s landscape, Harjo changed her major to art before penning her first book of poems, The Last Song, in 1975.

Joy Harjo has continued to inspire many artists and writers throughout her long and successful career as both a poet and musician, describing her work as “a memory on which to build.” Her latest book of poems, An American Sunrise, is a breathtaking collection about the beauty of her native homeland and the forced displacement of her own ancestors. This new book of poems will be the topic of an upcoming six-session-long seminar presented by Literary Arts and Delve Readers Seminars called Joy Harjo: American Sunrise. Each Thursday from March 25 to April 29, writer and educator Danielle Frandina will lead participants in the reading of Harjo’s 2019 release An American Sunrise and her 2012 memoir Crazy Brave.

23rd United States Poet Laureate Joy Harjo. Photograph by Karen Kuehn.

Open to all poetry lovers, the Joy Harjo: American Sunrise workshop will offer an engaging look into the works and early life of Harjo, examining how themes of ancestry, repetition, and loss exist within her work. On Tuesday, April 20, participants of this course will also be given access to Harjo’s much anticipated live lecture as part of the Portland Arts & Lectures Series.


LitWatch Monthly: Love and literature

February brings Valentine’s Day and an abundance of virtual literary events from lectures by Pulitzer Prize-winning authors to workshops on the intimate act of letter writing

On December 16, 1884, Oscar Wilde penned to his wife, Constance Lloyd, a letter of both intoxicating literary prowess and heartfelt affection:

Dear and Beloved, Here I am, and you at the Antipodes. O execrable facts, that keep our lips from kissing, though our souls are one. What can I tell you by letter? Alas! nothing that I would tell you. The message of the gods to each other travel not by pen and ink and indeed your bodily presence here would not make you more real: for I feel your fingers in my hair, your cheek brushing mine. The air is full of the music of your voice, my soul and body seem no longer mine, but mingled in some exquisite ecstasy with yours. I feel incomplete without you. Ever and ever yours, Oscar.

Though now in the digital age of 2021, when letters such as this one are seldom delivered by post, Wilde’s words still deliver the vulnerable sentiment and beauty that they did in 1884. From Zelda Fitzgerald and Jack London to Simone de Beauvoir and Khalil Gibran, writers have injected poetry into their epistolary engagements, drawing from their literary muse and delighting the recipients who read them.

Oscar Wilde in 1884/Photograph by Napoleon Sarony

It is not necessary, however, to be a prolific author in order to write a compelling letter. An upcoming workshop presented by Literary Arts called Four Letters: The Epistolary Form seeks to teach exactly that. This four-session series, occurring on Thursday evenings from February 25 through March 18, was created for the letter-writing literary in each of us. Whether your writing experience consists of having published multiple novels or only scribbling phrases into the notes section of your smartphone, the class suggests letter writing as an inherently generous act that can be done by all. 


On revolt in the streets, circa 1971

The Mayday anti-war protests led to the largest mass arrest of demonstrators in American history, which author Lawrence Roberts will talk about via Powell's Books

Portland protests.

The city has been doing it a long time now—it seems like forever—and given the new justifications for protest that arrive almost every day, I don’t expect the protests to stop any time soon. I expect them to grow. So, the city has had to do a lot of thinking about protests, demonstrations, marches, and the nature of its dissent, and that will go on, too, I suspect.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading around these topics, and one of the most useful books to me has been Mayday 1971 by longtime investigative editor Lawrence Roberts. I met Roberts in Seattle at the very beginning of my own journalism journey, but Roberts soon left Seattle and spent most of his career in pursuit of answers to difficult questions, running investigations teams at the Hartford Courant, the Washington Post, Huffington Post, and Pro Publica, among others, leading three teams to Pulitzer Prizes along the way.

Mayday 1971, his first book, is about the week of anti-Vietnam War protests in Washington, D.C., that led to the mass, illegal arrest of around 12,000 protesters by D.C. cops. Despite claims to the contrary at the time, they were operating under the authority and order of the Nixon administration, as it turned out. The book makes the connection clear. Maybe already you’re getting the idea that past protests can inform our own.

Think of Mayday 1971 as a case history of a specific protest, maybe, or a military history of a specific battle. Roberts discusses the thinking of both the protesters and the government leading up to the engagement, considers the strategies employed by each side, follows the events as they unfolded, and then tracks the legal and political threads afterwards. Are the seeds of Nixon’s eventual destruction apparent in his response to the May Day protest, the lies that were told and the dirty tricks that were played? These weren’t tea leaves; they were practice.

The joys Mayday 1971 provides are considerable, especially if you know something about the time. Roberts sketches characters as diverse as Richard Nixon and Abbie Hoffman, telling delicious stories about the bully boys in the Nixon administration and the lives of the protest organizers.  He maintains a clear narrative thread through various digressions into their biographies, legal matters, drug consumption, paranoia and constant deceit. The stories are new, beautifully told, and get to the heart of the quixotic attempt by protesters to shut down the government for a day. They also reveal the absolute indifference to laws and the Constitution by the government, and the grotesque tough-guy talk they used to express it.

We learn, for example, that Nixon never for a moment thought about the position of the demonstrators, why they opposed the war and his part in it. He only thought of the demonstrators as enemies, maybe like the Viet Cong. As such, they didn’t deserve the truth, the protection of the law, or humane treatment once they were arrested. This idea—that those who dissent are automatically enemies—seems to be endemic to governments of all sorts. And it elicits a visceral, violent response to protests by the government, along with a whirlwind of lies and coverups. So yes, Roberts’ deeply researched account has a lot of parallels to our own tragic times.

Powell’s Books is hosting Roberts for a Zoom conversation about his new book at 5 pm today, Thursday, Sept. 24. I’ll be on hand, too, and we will be talking about some of these matters, I have no doubt. Please join us with your own questions and considerations?

In the Frame: Eleven Women

In photographic portraits, K.B. Dixon captures the essence in black and white of eleven people who've helped shape Portland's creative soul

Not too long ago I published a piece titled In the Frame: Eleven Men, which included portraits of eleven men. This is the second part of that In the Frame project: eleven women. As with the first installment, the faces here are those of talented and dedicated people who have contributed in significant ways to the character and culture of Portland, people who make this city what it is, people whose legacies are destined to be part of our cultural history.

Why eleven? I originally answered this question jokingly, saying “why not—it was the atomic number of sodium, the number of players on a football team, the number of thumb keys on a bassoon.” I suggested this capricious choice was some sort of salutary exercise, a confrontation with a personal bias in favor of symmetry. It was, in fact, the product of capitulation—of surrender to a troublesome temperament. The return to the number eleven here is simply a nod to this serendipitous template and to equity.

As with the previous set of portraits, I have tried to produce first a decent photograph—a truthful record, one that honors the unique strength of the medium. I have tried also to produce one that is more than just a simple statement of fact, one that preserves for myself and others a brief glimpse of the being behind the image. These are not formal portraits, but casual ones—portraits that offer, I hope, some of the authentic intimacy that only a guileless reality affords.


Barbara Roberts


First woman to be elected Governor of Oregon; Associate Director at Portland State University’s School of Government Executive Leadership, and Member of Portland’s Metro Council.