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.

“This feels so good in a time when so little feels good anymore,” Powell said at his public reading. He was sharing new work on the heel of Claire Vaye Watkins, who read her 2018 piece “The Ghost of Dennis How Haunts the G.O.P. In the Nevada Midterms,” a sobering examination of misogyny’s sway over the electoral system. Watkins was hardly the only reader sharing political work. Pieces were read about Angel Island Immigration Station, violent Christian fundamentalists, America’s prison-industrial complex, and much else deeply wrong with the design and nature of this country.

“In the last three years the workshop has gotten more and more political,” says Nanci McCloskey, Tin House’s director of marketing and sales. “And it’s important that the politics are being represented, that no one is excluded from that. The world is on fire, there’s an urgency to any kind of art form right now, so [we] make sure that this workshop isn’t some sort of ivory tower experience.” 

Tin House has put its money where its mouth is: The workshop makes available several scholarships annually so particularly talented applicants can attend the conference for free. Payment plans are available both for applicants and accepted students, so those who couldn’t otherwise justify the expenditure might still be able to attend. 

Serendipitously, because the literary journal finished its run in May, Tin House was able to offer a greater number of scholarship packages this summer. Now that the workshop has ended, there is likely writing that exists in the world that never would have had the literary journal stayed in print.

Tinheads (lovers of all things Tin House; not to be confused with the 1993 Sega Genesis game of the same name) will be happy to hear there has been talk of starting an online journal, though nothing can be confirmed yet. Exciting as it would be to have an online journal more readily accessible to a wider audience, McCloskey made clear that Tin House wouldn’t want any attempt at an online magazine to feel like a watered-down version of what once was. If they do it, they want it done right.

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The final issue of Tin House’s quarterly print journal. Photo: Diane Chonette

THE TIN HOUSE WORKSHOP, unlike the literary journal, shows no signs of ending any time soon. This year it expanded to make space for more than it was able to offer ever before. American Sign Language interpreters were present at all public readings, and a workshop for graphic novelists debuted, led by Kristen Radtke. The faculty selected to teach the workshops was more representative of the contemporary literary scene than any I’ve seen at a writing workshop before. 

Therefore it was no surprise when Lance Cleland, the workshop coordinator, said at week’s end that his priority for a long time has been to decentralize whiteness. A host of challenges is present in such an effort. Tin House’s Summer Workshop is located in a city that hardly has a clean slate when it comes to its civil rights record, and the institutional apparatuses of the literary world (particularly publishing) have long been white, something that continues to be the case.

Nevertheless – from an outsider perspective – Tin House was doing an excellent job of addressing these issues. As one attendee made clear in a blog post about their experience, they were profoundly impacted by how much work was put into inclusivity at Tin House. In the literary world, this kind of care and attention unfortunately remains the exception, not the rule.

Whole lectures designed to wizen workshop attendees to this unseemly truth were scattered through the week. Free for conference attendees and open to the public for $10, they often served a twofold purpose. The first was (re)introducing audience members to the limitations many authors face writing in this industry. The second was giving the writers in the room the literary tools to address these issues however they best saw fit.

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TWO SESSIONS I WAS PARTICULARLY impressed by were Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ lecture “Power, Audience, & Not Writing for White People,” and Mitchell S. Jackson’s talk, “Voice as Comp.” 

Ingrid Rojas Contreras: beyond white audiences

Contreras spoke about how language may be performed, consciously and unconsciously, to appeal to majority cultures, addressing racial inequalities that exist within the literary world, emphasizing her points with demographic statistics. I’d never had the information presented to me quite so starkly, and it struck a chord. Contreras, in her short piece published on Pleiades, explains the experience of this performance best herself: “[Y]ou can be in the middle of explaining the most trivial cultural detail—for example the tidbit that people from Bogotá are known as rolos—and you roll your r extravagantly, because you can, and in the wake of it, you wonder why are you performing this and for whom?”

Jackson’s lecture focused on the terminology of writing. The audience was made to reconsider how they might use language to craft their own voice, as well as the voices of characters they write. Terms used included: Hypotaxis, pleonasm, epanalepsis. “Eloquence,” Jackson posited, “is an act of composition. Eloquent voices make visible elements of one’s self that those in power try to erase or invalidate.” 

That identity, and the struggle against its erasure, was such a cornerstone of the summer workshop should come as no surprise: The contemporary literary scene is highly political. Rebecca Makkai might have put it most succinctly in her lecture, “You Talkin’ To Me? The Ear of the Story.” 

Like Contreras’ lecture, Makkai’s focus was on audience. “I’m here to teach you how to sharpen your swords,” she told us. Among looming ecological collapse, the continued existential threat the Trump administration poses to millions of Americans, American foreign policy’s sordid relationship with the military industrial complex, there’s plenty that young writers might want to be honing their work against. 

In the week following the workshop, attendees were asked to submit surveys detailing their experiences, what they enjoyed, and what they hope will change come 2020. Tin House is already planning next year’s Summer Workshop, which will again feature ASL interpreters, offer another series of scholarship packages for several lucky applicants, and, most likely, “The Godfather,” D.A. Powell himself, returning for his seventeenth consecutive year.

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Natalie Diaz: dangers and necessities.

ON THE LAST DAY OF THE WORKSHOP WEEK, Macarthur Genius Grant winner Natalie Diaz gave a lecture in Reed Chapel. It was called “The Necessary and Dangerous Differences Between Sense and Sensuality,” and no description was available on the Tin House website of what the fifty-minute talk would involve. Opacity increased when, upon arriving in the chapel, Diaz passed out a blindfold to every attendee. We were asked, if we were comfortable, to put these on later, to listen as Diaz read excerpts of her poetry.

Before and after we covered our eyes, we looked at a series of photographs documenting the drying Colorado River. In the images it sinks into extinction. The river now is almost gone. “The same thing happening to this body, this river,” said Diaz, as she flipped through the photographs “is happening to women all over the world, and it is connected. … If we can’t respect our bodies of water, how can we respect the bodies that come next?”

I am generally skeptical of photography, its tendency to sever a thing from its history. These photographs, however, worked against this erasure, revealing shadows left by hydroelectric dams, the old dark bruises where the waterline dug into the canyon rock, water-level measurers poking high above the surface. In the space of each picture the eye could track distance, time, what resources had been wrenched from earth.

Juxtaposed against the tragic reality they depicted, the photographs appeared sadly beautiful. I thought of Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others: “To designate a hell is not, of course, to tell us anything about how to extract people from that hell, how to moderate hell’s flames.” I can’t know, but perhaps in allowing for time the pictures allow as well for hope. In time, at least, a hope can live. 

The day closed in on joy, the subject of the conference’s final panel, a conversation with Justin Torres, Kelly Link, and Garth Greenwell. 

Joy.

“[A]n act of political resistance,” said Torres. 

“[It] exists in a space where not a lot of other things are allowed to exist concurrently,”  added Link. One could think of rivers.

Greenwell followed up: “No matter what you do to human beings, they will make art. And that brings me joy.” 

If art adjusts to the time it exists in, workshops adjust to the constantly changing needs of those art forms. Though the Summer Workshop is never designed thematically, I asked Lance if he sensed that a theme had emerged over the course of the week. He answered without hesitation. “Vulnerability,” he said. “Vulnerability, and risk.” 

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ON TUESDAY NIGHT, after the third day of the workshop, my phone was dead, Portland had remembered to rain, and my bus was half an hour late. A student from Portland State University waited with me, miserable as I was. A chemistry major, she had just attended the readings for the first time.

“I caved,” she said, “and got an Uber. You’re welcome to come, if you want.” 

The car arrived a minute later, Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You blasting from the speakers. 

We crossed the bridge in music, quiet, body of the car humming, the river body below it lurching forward, bearing its own burden, vulnerable differently. For a moment I thought nothing. Rejoice, maybe. Rejoice.



  • Ben Bartu’s poetry has been published or is forthcoming in The Blood Orange Review, The Mekong Review, Esthetic Apostle, Cathexis Northwest Press, and elsewhere. He studies Human Rights, Gender, and Public Policy at the Columbia School of International and Public Affairs.

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