Festival Literature and Spoken Word

Wordstock Returns, Overflows

Wordstock returns to Portland as a Literary Arts Organization venture, and a new venue swells with the city’s rain-braving readers.

The relaunch of Wordstock this last weekend reminded me of how large family holiday get-togethers go; noisy, overcrowded but in a festive, cozy way. Volunteers in red T-shirts were cheery in the mid-morning when everyone arrived, all of us squeezing through the entry doors of the Portland Art Museum, in a mash of umbrellas and chatter. The steady rain and slow city traffic sloshing by made for constant noise outside and inside, people of all ages were everywhere. It was a celebration. I could feel that sense of happy anticipation — I was a part of it — but there was also a lot to do and I held the day’s schedule in my hand like a weighty to-do list. Finding a place at the end of a long line for admittance into the first event, there was a collective anxiety too.

With Literary Arts undertaking the relaunch of Wordstock, there was renewed hype surrounding this year’s festival. Wordstock began in 2005 as a small nonprofit that developed writing programs to train both students and teachers in Portland’s school districts to improve their writing practices. The annual fall festival was its flagship program but missed one year as its organization folded. Literary Arts, a well established non-profit arts presenter, adopted the festival last year. Wordstock adds to their year-round program of a high-caliber authors’ lecture series, literary workshops and a Writers in the Schools program.

The shift in venue, from the Convention Center to the Portland Art Museum, was one big change to the festival. 

The museum is well-suited for a rainy day. The Convention center feels even draftier when it rains; it’s spaciousness and sterile carpeted expanses more fitting for an indoor car show or trade show than a book festival. And it felt a bit magical to nestle under the bright yellow trees of the park blocks in the rain, being immersed in a gray and brown wet downtown, walking from one stage to another.

Wendell Pierce. Photo by Joe Jatcko
Wendell Pierce at the OPB stage. Photo by Joe Jatcko.

It was indeed too crowded. I waited in line with hundreds of others to hear Wendell Pierce speak with Dave Miller for OPB’s Think Out Loud, and this is where that aforementioned anxiety first set in. At each time slot, in one hour intervals, four main stage events were happening on four separate stages, two in the Mark Building of the museum, one in the Main and one across the park blocks at the First Congressional United Church of Christ (UCC). The steady traffic of the Book Fair on the third floor of the Mark Building buzzed all afternoon. Writing workshops and a schedule of pop-up events were happening somewhere unseen.

Listening from outside, I heard Pierce (well-known for his role on The Wire) speak about his novel The Wind in the Reeds, and I could see from the line that wrapped around the Fields Ballroom, that there were no more seats. I was asked a few times by older women fresh from outside and hastily loosening scarves, “is this the line for Ursula Le Guin?” Le Guin was up after Pierce, in another OPB live broadcast but it wouldn’t start for an hour and so, before I knew it, that line became the line for the next show. I decided to find a pop-up — a brief reading held at semi-random places throughout the art museum.

Overlooking the lines wrapping around the ballroom.
Lines wrapping around the Fields Ballroom. Photo by Joe Jatcko.

I was misdirected however when I sought the first pop-up event. A sign was misplaced and a volunteer was confused. Myself and a handful of others waiting to hear Sekai Edwards, a 17 year old poet, were 20 feet away from where the event happened, in the maze of the museum, and we couldn’t hear or see the crowd. I realized that I wouldn’t be able to see most of what I had marked. So it was noon and I hadn’t seen anything yet so I headed to the closest stage and blindly got in line.

It was at the Whitsell Auditorium where I got in line for a panel called Unconventional History. The noise stopped when I sat down, the authors’ voices filled the auditorium like clear bells in the afternoon, and a caffeine-induced angst dissolved. Ah, right, listening to writers talk about their books, their writing processes — I had finally arrived at Wordstock after being there for hours.

Lauren Redniss, the author and illustrator of Thunder and Lightning, a graphic novel about weather, spoke about creating her own typeface. She wanted the letters to look windblown, “so they all have a slight tilt.” She wrote out every letter, upper and lower case, and each punctuation mark. Hearing her giggle and speak in the sweet, high voice typical of a younger person, the labor involved in this process was indiscernible in the delight of the speaker. She calls the font Qaneq, the Inuit word for falling snow. Luc Sante, when asked about the research that goes into books like The Other Paris, said he used index cards for the first time on this one and then, responding to the moderator’s emphasis on rigorous process, Sante conceded his practice consisted of a little “rigor and woo woo.”

The pop-events, although hard to find, were the unexpected treats of the day. They were held in far corners of various wings among contemporary art or sculpture, removed from the congestion of the main rooms, a welcomed opportunity to break from the festival without leaving it. I came upon Colette Alexander playing a cello in front of an oil painting titled The Cellist. Afterwards, I listened to Justin Hocking read from his memoir, The Great Flood Gates of the Wonderworld. The one chapter he reads brings us into NYC, in 2005 when hurricane Ophelia threatened the city. Hocking was a transplant to the city from Colorado, still trying to find his ground in the city, much less how to flex his writing chops.

Justin Hocking reading and all of us listening. That's me (Kate) in the tan coat and very intent gaze.
Justin Hocking reading at a pop-up event. Photo by Joe Jatcko.

Let me put you there sitting on the floor of the museum listening to him, while he reads falsehood filtering lines like, “[Opelia]…a crown of cotton thorns. Like everyone else new to the city, she wants everyone to remember her name.” There are no more than a dozen others in that basement corridor of the museum. He reads next to an oil painting, After the Hurricane by Marsden Hartley.

The reading is out of place, Hocking standing impromptu against the white spaces between paintings; all of us seated on the floor below heavy frames or leaning up against the walls. A Colorado surfer in New York, seeking a place in the city in the storm waves out at sea. He calls in sick at work, without much difficulty and dodges his struggle to feel secure in the city, by going out to surf and ride Ophelia’s angry invitation.

As I stood in line for the next main stage event, a woman passed by and announced to no one in particular that a small, undisclosed interview OPB was holding with Jesse Eisenberg was about to happen. I left the line and followed her down a hallway to a dead-end where Jesse Eisenberg sat upright on a stool under low ceilings being interviewed in front of 20 people. The actor is also a writer and his new book, Bream Gives Me Hiccups, is a compilation of restaurant reviews written from the perspective of a kid. After being at a high-end Malibu, CA restaurant and overhearing a kid reviewing the menu at the table next to him ask his mother, “do I like Tamago?” Eisenberg said, “I thought it’d be funny to write restaurant reviews from a rich kid’s perspective who just wants to eat animal crackers,” he told the interviewer, who unfortunately I never heard introduce himself. This spurred a conversation about how kids think, how honest they are and how they don’t interact falsely like adults. “Children are like immigrants to Earth.”

Katherine Taylor reading from her new novel, Valley Fever.
Katherine Taylor reading from her new novel, Valley Fever.

I got back in line for the Lost and Found panel which featured four female novelists and was funny, and endearingly awkward. Carmiel Banasky, Sloane Crosley, Katherine Taylor and Vendela Vita shared notes on characters, writing process, the roles of humor and booze in their stories. Authors are not performers and seeing them in person only amplified that connection I got from reading them somehow. They shift uncomfortably in the big red Wordstock arm chairs, appearing genuinely unsure of how to follow up 300 pages of writing, of private reflection shared, to impress or connect with readers in person. But it happens. Sloane Crosley, author of I was Told There’d Be Cake, is as naturally and effortlessly humorous in person as she is in those essays on apartment dwelling and dating in NYC. Her sense of humor flows so easily in her writing and in real time conversation, it visibly relaxes her.

On the third floor, I walked through the book fair shoulder to shoulder — had we been outside we could all share umbrellas — and saw the presses publishers that are well-known in town — Tin House, Tavern Books, Hawthorne Books and some I hadn’t heard of like the PSU staffed Ooligan Press. The Independent Resource Center set up a booth for fans to make prints, one of many aspects of the festival friendly to kids.

Lidia Yuknavitch capped the night for me downtown with OPB’s State of Wonder presentation including the women she workshops with: Chelsea Cain and Suzie Vitello. The writers spoke like they were out having a drink, and we learned that Cain is responsible for a few things that happen in Yuknavtich’s new book, The Small Backs of Children. Yuknavtich is the reason why a few of Vitello’s characters exist and also, why Cain, who writes thrillers, edited a story idea which had giant octopuses swarming a flooded Willamette. “The Willamette is fresh-water,” said Lidia. I could envision the pause in the quiet workshop circle, Cain crumpling up the paper to start again.

The change in venue was a renewing aspect of the Literary Arts’ takeover and the museum added some romance and adventure to the day. But slimming the span of the festival from two days to one overlooks a lot of reasons why festivals are compelling — because you can experience a lot more than one or two events. The lines, really, were not the problem — a great turnout is a good thing — but there wasn’t enough seating at all the events and choosing between events left you with a small number of options in a crowded program which felt like a two or three day festival smashed into one.

Ursula K. Le Guin at a live broadcast of OPB's State of Wonder on Saturday morning.
Ursula K. Le Guin at a live broadcast of OPB’s State of Wonder on Saturday morning. Photo by Joe Jatcko.

When I look over the festival schedule in retrospect, I realize I could not see very much, and nobody could. OPB recorded a few shows live at the festival, so the conversations with Ursula K. Le Guin and John Irving can be heard there.

After the festival I caught a poetry reading as part of the Portland Lit Crawl, the after-hours portion of the festival happening at several Southeast Portland bars. At the Green Dragon Bar poets were timed, yelling or singing at a pace determined by the clock. Booze replaced coffee, older folks and kids were no longer there — it looked like a rowdy but typical night at a bar in Portland.

I spent the rainy day not with hundreds of others but like how I enjoy spending rainy days, inside at home, doing some reading. I read about Jesse Eisenberg on Wikipedia, a book review of Hocking’s memoir; I reserved a copy Laruen Redniss’s book from Multnomah County Library. And because I missed most of the poetry events I wanted to see, I scrolled through my Instagram feed pretty often, where I’ve been recently getting my poetry fix.

Here are more images from Joe Jatcko, of talent not reviewed in the text above.

By Kathleen Dolan

I studied writing and English at Purchase College in NY State and graduated from PSU with an English degree. I contribute content, edit, and brainstorm at THRU.

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