Wordstock 1: stuffed grandmothers, E.B. White, and collective desires

This year, Portland's literary extravaganza has the fervor of an evangelical revival. In fractious times, maybe that's a good thing.

In a Paris Review interview in 1969, when asked about the role of the writer, E.B. White famously answered: “A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge.” Despite his use of the male-centric pronoun, Mr. White’s sentiment seems to hit on something vital and true, and might also explain the 10,000 or so people lined up at various venues around the Park Blocks last Saturday for Portland’s annual book festival, Wordstock. This turnout, larger than in years past, felt hopeful somehow. Our collective desire to enter into those conversations between reader and writer, particularly on Veterans Day, to examine the role of narrative and history and words— that our curiosity is so intact— went a little way toward fortifying against what recently feels like a never-ending assault of troubling news.

E.B. White, with his dog Minnie: a spirit, hovering over Wordstock. Photo: Tilbury House Publishers

And, really, there’s no denying that times are troubling. This came up repeatedly in discussions throughout the day. What also came up is that times have always been troubling for somebody, depending on the happenstance of your birth. Given the peril of our planet, the unearthing in recent days of the uglier sides of human nature, and the anxiety that still lingers after last year’s election, maybe we can just agree that times are even more troubling for more people. Perhaps this can account for the size of the crowd and the quite-audible fervor that emanated from it as people stood in line for one of the headlining events, Ta-Nehisi Coates in conversation with Jenna Worthman of the New York Times Magazine at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

Ta-Nehisi Coates at Schnitzer Hall: “They expect me to be honest.” Photo courtesy Literary Arts

The whole day had an evangelical feel to it, but I guess I am only surprised by my own surprise. I love books more than I love many of my relatives, but if it hadn’t been for my press badge, which afforded me a certain privilege (another theme that came up repeatedly) I can’t say for sure that I would’ve had the stamina to endure such a large crowd and so many events rushing forward at once. I may have opted instead to enjoy books the old-fashioned way, by retreating to Portland’s favored living room (and arguably the greatest independent bookstore in the country), where a writer’s work is already done and the only question left to answer is whether he or she tacked enough on the page to convince their readers.

I am thrilled I did attend, though, and that so many others attended, too. How, then, did the one hundred or more authors fare? Did they heed Mr. White’s call all these decades later? Did they provide “inspiration and challenge and guidance?” The eight I saw were more than up to the task. My overarching impression of that small but mighty sampling is that they understood that by the sheer act of our elevating them— literally, structurally— placing them onto a stage higher up than everyone else and handing them a microphone, they had better have something to say.

Much is satisfying about the theater of an event like this, about we the audience getting out from behind our ubiquitous screens to watch thinkers think in living color, seeing an idea register on a face, the way hands move in accord with those ideas. One idea tumbles into the next, surprising both the idea-generator and the observers, pushing toward those sublime moments where a truly original thought comes forth or an old thought is washed in a new light. What Oprah might call an “aha” moment! I am convinced these are the moments most of us leave the house for.

Myrna Keliher, owner and operator of Expedition Press in the Kridel Ballroom. Photo: Danielle Vermette

THERE’S MORE TO WORDSTOCK, though, than just author panels. In fact, much as it advertises, the festival offers something for everyone. The Portland Art Museum sits front and center, but all sorts of periphery venues are packed to the fullest. The festival provides “pop-up” readings and performances, book signings, writing workshops, children’s storytimes, a book fair, and all the attending paraphernalia you could imagine— entrepreneurs extraordinaire wielding their wares, peddling everything from books and broadsides to teas, chocolates and writing programs! One of the highlights for me was checking out the exhibitors in the Kridel Grand Ballroom and the Fields Ballroom. These exhibits took a fair amount of time to navigate due to the absolute river of people doing the same but would be well worth the cost of admission even if one chose to skip the panels altogether. This might be a good time to mention how appropriate I thought it that veterans, active duty members and people under 17 got free admission. Nice one, Wordstock organizers!

Now, on to the author discussions. It seems to me that the least queasy way to tackle this is to create some metaphor about how choosing an itinerary for a one-day festival like Wordstock is quite like writing a book. First, you fall in love with your subject, and if “love” is too powerful a notion, you follow your interest, obsession or instinct as far as it can take you. Then, be prepared to face the rough times. Finally, abandon expectations, lower standards, and recognize that the ending may not work out as planned, and that is okay. After all, one day can contain only so much, and we are all limited by the constraints of time and space. I went in with a game plan to attend the panels that most aligned with my interests in either a particular writer or an interest in a particular person who also happens to write. This served me well.

Booking, browsing, selling, wandering: Wordstock is like a day at the fair. Photo courtesy of Literary Arts

FOR MY FIRST SESSION, I found myself joined in the crowd by the lively and spirited Katherine Moyd, a true-to-life “Hidden Figure,” who introduced herself and began to tell of her 30-plus-year career in a jet propulsion laboratory. Just as she was getting to the juicy part about how she had been subjected to different rigors than the men during the application process (surprise, surprise), out stepped the authors. It so happened that the discussion segued perfectly into Amy Stewart’s description of her real-life title characters in her book Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions, the Kopp sisters, who can only be thought of as well ahead of their time. Moderator Zach Dundas came prepared and the title held its fair share of promise, too: Suspense, Scandals and Secrets: Families in Crisis. Rene Denfeld and Victor Lodato kicked off with incisive readings from their newest novels, The Child Finder and Edgar and Lucy, respectively. Amy Stewart spoke about her Oregon connection (she wrote the book in part during a stint as the first Tin House Writer-in-Residence at Portland State University). She compared and contrasted our current values to “creaking Victorian morality” and offered plenty of anecdotes that brought forth an appreciation for her vigorous imagination and her research skills, not to mention a whole new understanding of the Mann Act of 1910.

After the introductions, when things got rolling, Denfeld looked to her co-panelists often for their input and to nudge them toward the direction of conversation, but to no avail. For the most part, the authors responded to the questions directed to them, and there wasn’t much of a sense of back and forth among them, which made me wonder if they were familiar with each other’s work or even if they had ever met.

Awash in red: the crowd at the Winningstad Theatre, where “Suspense, Scandals and Secrets” were being revealed. Photo courtesy of Literary Arts

Lodato spoke about his ease in writing fiction from a child narrator’s POV because “they are still learning the world,” which hit on a crucial thread in the discussion involving the importance of not having all the answers and not placing too great a value on facts over feelings. He elegantly described his “prevailing feelings from childhood for which stories invented architectures to house those feelings.” One of the unforgettable images came our way compliments of Lodato as he described his lead character in Edgar and Lucy. The aging woman was created as a nod to his own childhood, during which he grew up in a house with both sets of grandparents. For the book, he “took his tiny Polish grandmother and stuffed her up inside his larger Italian grandmother.” Lodato appeared quiet, reflective, and highly entertaining. In response to a question about the most difficult part of writing his book, he revealed that he abandoned his original ending but felt that the heart of his work lay in his mission to take marginalized characters and “fight as hard as possible to find some grace and dignity for them.” This perspective, both generous and powerful, felt much like the common thread among the panelists.

When asked the same question, what was most difficult in writing Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions, Stewart detailed her own night of the Iguana as she followed a middle-of-the-night hunch that she ought to change the novel’s entire point of view, which turned out to be a long and arduous undertaking. This garnered a fair amount of laughter, helped along by Stewart’s charisma and straightforwardness.

Denfeld: at heart, a poet.

Denfeld brought so many insights to the table that I barely hoisted my pen as she spoke. When asked how she could write so lyrically about dark subject matters, she acknowledged that, at heart, she is a poet. She went on to proffer a view on trauma, dignity and violence that drew on her lifetime as an investigator as well as her own family dynamics and experiences with childhood trauma. As I listened, I couldn’t help but take note of a good tip for any writer: if you want to create an autonomous and fully realized character, it’s best not to judge them or try to make them too much like a perfected version of yourself, either. Denfeld blows up the concept of “the other” and helps us to see more to people than just the mistakes they have made. That first hour passed in the company of three fine writers, and a final thought from Ladato summed it up perfectly: “fiction is civilizing because you get to care about people who are nothing like you.”

Author Alex Behr reading from PLANET GRIM at a pop-up in The Portland Art Museum. Photo: Danielle Vermette

NEXT UP, DESPITE A LINE that seemed to snake its way to Salem, I decided to attend the conversation between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jenna Worthman. I did get popped to the front (thank you again, Wordstock) and met another kind-hearted writer to talk with as we found seats and waited for approximately 2,774 people in Schnitzer Hall to do the same. We discussed near-death experiences and which of the senses is the biggest bully (that’s an easy one, if you think about it), but at a certain point it began to sink in that the discussion should’ve started by now. I think the conversation did begin roughly 20 minutes late, but any disappointment of missing future sessions abated quickly. For me, this was the highlight, and the only non-fiction panel I attended. Not only did the format lend itself to a much more relaxed dialogue between two people who obviously have a long-standing rapport, but by Coates’s own admission, the stakes just felt higher as a “public-facing black person” and because has has transcended the label of “author” into realm of “public figure” to such an extent that he is expected to have an opinion on, well, everything. After a six-week tour and family in attendance, Coates seemed relaxed and eager to shed the role of intellectual in favor for the role of just plain writer.

Without providing a play-by-play, and in full disclosure that you need not continue to read this article if you have better things to do, as these sessions will be made available at OPB’s Literary Arts Archive Project, I’ll tell you that nothing in the day felt more reflective of our times than hearing Ta-Nehisi Coates grapple with the Harvey Weinstein allegations (and multiple other allegations leveled at high-status people in the entertainment industry). He seemed to be connecting his own guilt, or more specifically the guilt of power granted to him by the happenstance of being born a male, as well as his disgust with that power being used in an injust way, to the experiences of well-meaning white people who even passively benefit from our country’s injust systems. He noted the difficulty of extracting yourself from these systems. He came back to the topic multiple times, clearly trying to make connections.

Jenna Worthman, in conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Photo courtesy Literary Arts

Coates’s most recent book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, is a collection of previously published essays on the Obama Era. The origin of the title itself speaks to his deep understanding of history and also reminds us how history tends to repeat itself. A simplified premise is that Barack Obama, similar to the South Carolina Congress of 1895 that excelled at governing, could not have been a better emissary from the black community, but due to the very fact of his decency, integrity, even-handedness and respectability, detractors hated him even more. White South Carolina government during the Reconstruction era did not fear “bad negro government. It was good negro government they feared.” The point landed squarely with this audience, and it felt cathartic to be part of a vital conversation that you rarely get to have.

Coates made clear that, first and foremost, he writes. He noted that “the idea of being smart actually obscures the work,” and added, “A lot of writers feel like their credibility is rooted in being right. That’s not expected of me. They expect me to be honest.”

Perhaps the most compelling part of the conversation came near the end, when he explained his less-than-cheery outlook by addressing how young our nation is, how we cannot expect our existential problems (including global warming) to work themselves out in our lifetime. It felt good to hear the truth, and so plainly. “Every human life ends badly,” he said. “What if you’re not going to win? Do you have the courage to confront how you’re going to live?”

Wordstock, Herdstock, Nerdstock: The line to get in snakes long and far. Photo: Danielle Vermette

I COULD HAVE LEFT AT THIS POINT, filled with ideas and bustling to act on them. Instead, I carried myself to a nearby coffee shop to reflect and plot out the last half of the day. As luck would have it, I ran into two long-time attendees, Carol Basch and Jill Bennett, who admittedly didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves quite as much as me. Their complaint, though, is that they came with their tickets to the first event only to discover that they had to wait in an extraordinarily long line to get a wrist band, too. They missed their first discussion as a result. This got me to thinking about the organization of Wordstock and how, if I were to come up with a catchy title, I might call it: Wordstock, Herdstock, Nerdstock, but as a self-identifying nerd, the “Nerdstock” part struck even me as a little too easy, a little below the belt. I did conclude after a quick sip of coffee with the girls that given the fact that you can’t really do a rehearsal of this sort of festival, meaning you can’t ask all the authors and vendors and volunteers to do a quick run-through, the real miracle is that it went as smoothly as it did. The volunteers went above and beyond.

For my last panel, Innocence Lost, I sat in on a discussion with moderator John Freeman and authors Maile Meloy and Claire Messud at the First Congregational United Church of Christ. The charming venue lent itself well to the purpose, and the talk carried some echoes of earlier talks throughout the day.

Meloy: It’s alarming.

Both Messud, author of this year’s The Burning Girl, and Meloy got into some interesting topics. Meloy’s most recent novel, Do Not Become Alarmed, was finished prior to the 2016 election when the publishers got fussy and considered changing the title because they didn’t want to alarm anyone. She scoffed at the irony that just a year ago, these were the kinds of considerations publishers had.

Freeman couldn’t get the titles of the books right, but he had done his homework. He made smart and interesting connections between the writers’ new works and their past books. The writers, more so than in earlier panels, got at the actual craft of writing by discussing topics like close third-person POV and one of Messud’s favorite quotes, explaining the novel as “a mirror walking down the road.” The discussion included American privilege and the idea that “innocence is not a blanket condition but is a condition of where you were raised and the color of your skin.”   I found myself so engaged that I made only a few notes. I also noticed that no one could ever seem to agree exactly what they were getting at when they tried to talk about Innocence, but it made for a lively discussion all the same. If you do plan to listen to the Archive Project, which I highly recommend, this would be a good place to start.

As I made my way back to the book fair to add to my stacks, I thought how lucky I am to share the planet, by the happy accident of my own birth, with so many smart and sensitive writers. E.B. White would be proud. Until next year, I’ll be trying to come up with a single image more evocative than a tiny Polish grandmother being stuffed into a larger Italian one.


More on Wordstock: See TJ Acena’s Wordstock 2: The new comics, the unwanted book, donuts & dystopias.


2 Responses.

  1. Lynne Duddy says:

    Excellent review, Danielle. Especially related to your response to Ta-Nehisi Coates. It was very moving to hear him say, “Every human life ends badly. What if you’re not going to win? Do you have the courage to confront how you’re going to live?” Good work.


    I so enjoy Dannielle Vermette’s articles. They are excellently written. Great work Dannielle.

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