Tin House

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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Tin House: vulnerability & risk

As its celebrated literary journal shuts down, the Portland publishing house's summer writing workshops at Reed College continue to thrive.


By BEN BARTU


Midsummer has arrived in Oregon, and every surface at Reed College seems ripe with books. The campus is hosting the sixteenth annual Tin House Summer Workshop, as a few minutes walking the grounds makes plain. Signs for lecture destinations and attendee housing point in every direction. Above Cerf Amphitheatre, tables are stacked high with various issues of Tin House’s quarterly journal. 

The journal’s final issue – printed in July, and marking the end of a 20-year run for one of Portland’s most esteemed and far-reaching literary magazines – stands out from its predecessors, a robust volume with a pitch-black cover on which is etched a gilded rendition of the press’s logo.

Tin House has come a long way since it was founded in 1999 as a literary journal and nothing more. It was established by Holly MacArthur and Win McCormack (MacArthur remains a founding editor and deputy publisher; McCormack, who is also editor in chief of The New Republic since buying the magazine in 2016, is Tin House’s publisher and editor in chief), but it was not until 2003 that the publishing house held its first writing workshop at Reed. Another five years went by before Tin House also became a press, publishing novels, nonfiction, and poetry.

This was my first year attending the conference. Its lectures, panels, and readings have always been open to the public, although the workshops themselves are strictly for accepted applicants. In most cases, those accepted are also required to pay a substantial fee to cover the cost of working closely with some of the United States’ literary superstars.

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Poet D.A. Howell, “The Godfather” of Tin House’s writing workshops.

THE 2019 WORKSHOP, which ran July 7-14, included many big-name authors, among them R.O Kwon, Garth Greenwell, Natalie Diaz, Camille T. Dungy, Kaveh Akbar, and Mitchell S. Jackson. Also in attendance was poet D.A. Powell, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, who has earned the affectionate nickname “The Godfather” for having attended every Tin House summer workshop since 2003.

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Playing chicken at the book bash

Stamina, lively conversation & Colson Whitehead's chicken recipes help our correspondent survive the crush of the AWP's national gathering

I don’t eat chickens, much less cook them. That didn’t stop me from enjoying the delectable chicken-themed keynote speech by Colson Whitehead that officially kicked off the 2019 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) national conference the last week in March at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.

Established as a nonprofit group by fifteen writers in 1967, AWP “supports literary authors who teach, provides services, advocacy, resources, and community to nearly 50,000 writers, 550 college and university creative writing programs, and 150 writers’ conferences and centers.” To get a sense of the breadth and scope of this year’s conference, imagine how such a mission statement translates into the organization’s premier annual event—the biggest of its kind in North America, one that draws somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 attendees each year.

Colson Whitehead: on writing, and cooking chicken. Photo: Madeline Whitehead

Like any story, time—the actual fact of it, and how it’s negotiated—is really the engine of the narrative. Sessions began at 9 a.m., lasting an hour and fifteen minutes, and went all through evening, with fifteen-minute breaks, allowing for an airport-like rush from one end of the convention center to the other. Preparation was unruly and complex, and scrolling through the substantial online schedule seemed to be the only real option (though, I confess, it took me hours to do this: more than once, I would get half way down a page and forget what time-slot I was looking at). I did hear a few stories from those daredevil types who went without any plan whatsoever, and they seemed to fare just fine. If I had advice to offer future attendees, just know that your swag bag will contain a comprehensive glossy program, and unlike the impressively designed online app that didn’t work because my phone could not manage to stay connected to the internet in the conference center, the glossy program never let me down!

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