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Wordstock 2: The new comics, the unwanted book, donuts & dystopias

By TJ Acena

November 19, 2017

Despite a late night (for me) at Lit Crawl the night before, I managed to arrive at the Portland Art Museum last Saturday right as this year’s Wordstock literary festival opened. I had spent hours crafting my schedule for the day, weighing various panels and readings against each other, and realized the morning would be the only time I’d have to check out the Book Fair.

Yes, you can buy books there, but you can also: Get information on MFA programs, learn how to self-publish a book, buy literary-themed gifts, discover literary magazines, find writing retreats, join literary organizations, and sign up to volunteer in the community. It’s an amazing reminder of how vibrant the literary scene is in Portland and the Northwest. There’s also a lot of free pens there.

Sometimes you listen. Sometimes you look. And Wordstock offers plenty to browse through. Photo courtesy Literary Arts

A note on Lit Crawl: If you haven’t been to this pre-Wordstock event it’s a great way to get to know local writers. I went to readings organized by Incite, Perfect Day Publishing, and Pie & Whiskey.

On the way to my first panel I passed by someone handing out free books. I could tell I wasn’t going to like the book as I skimmed the back cover, but I took it anyway because I am meek and don’t like upsetting people. Even people paid to hand out books they did not write. I plan to drop it off in my neighborhood’s tiny lending library, because even though it’s not for me it might be for someone else.

The first panel I caught was at the Oregon Historical Society. It featured Nicole J. Georges (Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home), Elizabeth Haidle and Deb Olin Unferth (I, Parrot), and Leslie Stein (Present).Artwork from each book was projected above the panelists. City commissioner Chloe Eudaly opened the panel with this remark: “Comics are as sophisticated as the maker wants them to be.” If you’d ever thought that comics were “just for kids,” this panel would have shown you how wrong you were. Moderator Kelly Sue DeConnick (Bitch Planet) used each artist’s work as a springboard to delve into the craft of making comics. It’s not just coming up with the words, but the placement of the words on the page, the color palettes, which angle you see a character from, how much detail to include, the use of negative space. There were a lot of kids in the audience, and the artists talked about what motivated them to keep making comics when everyone told them to “grow up and make real art.” “It’s like being a vampire,” Georges said, “You can’t stop yourself.”

Talking comics at the Historical Society: On beyond Archie. Photo courtesy Literary Arts

I had 45 minutes to spare so I ran from the Historical Society back to the art museum to try to catch a pop-up reading in one of the galleries. I stumbled into the end of poet Stephen Lackeye’s reading. His last poem invoked Ragnarök (the Norse myth, not the movie) and the decline of America. It left me feeling a little haunted. His latest collection of poems is appropriately titled Self-Portrait in Dystopian Landscapes.

I like art galleries as reading venues. They are generally quiet, even when strangers wander through. The acoustics are good. And if staring at someone makes you awkward you can scan the room, taking in the art as you listen. Since Wordstock admission also includes entry to PAM it brings the bonus of having something to do to kill time between panels, or find a quiet space to enjoy.

Next was the noon taping of State of Wonder. The first guests were Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink, creators of the popular fiction podcast Welcome to Nightvale. The two discussed the creation of the podcast with host April Baer and how having a loyal and vocal fan base influences the art you create. “Once it’s out there it doesn’t belong to you,” said Fink. Their latest book, It Devours, just came out and the podcast will be performing a live show in Portland on December 5. After the break Aaron Scott talked with poets Morgan Parker (There are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé) and Tommy Pico (Nature Poem). The two were irreverent onstage, constantly cracking jokes. Both poets deal with heavy subject matter in their work and use humor as a tool to engage readers. “I use a moment of levity to put sharp objects in a poem,” Parker said.

Lunch at Pip’s, because even at a literary festival you can’t just eat your words. Photo courtesy Literary Arts

After lunch, which was Pip’s Donuts, because I am an adult, I caught Jeffrey Eugenides (Fresh Complaint) and Danzy Senna (New People) in conversation at First Congregational United Church of Christ. I appreciated moderator Julie Buntin’s focus on discussing craft with the two. Hearing two venerable authors talk about what makes for compelling characters was like getting to sit in on a writing workshop. I took a lot of notes.

I remember when Wordstock was set over two days and I wonder if returning to that model might be warranted. I would have loved to see more panels, or been able to catch more of the pop-up readings.

I headed back to the museum for another taping of State of Wonder. While moderators stumble sometimes in guiding the conversations, there is often a sense of discovery in these discussions as the artists bounce off each other. It feels organic. On the flip side, watching professional interviewers like Baer and Scott is a treat, the way they efficiently guide the guests through the segments, making every segue feel natural no matter how sharply the subject changes. Scott interviewed famed cultural critic, and recent Portland transplant, Chuck Klosterman (X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century), discussing what the purpose of sport is and whether you can really know Taylor Swift. Baer brought on Katie Kitamura and Hannah Tinti to talk about their new novels. In A Separation, Kitamura subverts the mystery trope of starting a story with a missing woman and explores the grief of a woman whose estranged husband has gone missing. Tinti’s novel The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley takes on suspense in a different way, alternating points of view between father and daughter.

On my way to the last panel of the day I passed a copy of that free book I got, sitting on the wet sidewalk.

Writing: It’s a hands-on experience. Photo courtesy Literary Arts

I ended Wordstock with dystopian fiction. The panel featured local authors Lidia Yuknavitch (The Book of Joan) and Omar El Akkad (American War) as well as Benjamin Percy (The Dark Net). Each author presents a different version of dystopia. Yuknavitch explores a world ravaged by climate change while El Akkad heightens the divide in America into an all-out civil war over resources. Percy’s dystopia is digital, and listening to him talk about his research into the digital world made me reconsider having any kind of online account of anything. All three authors see art as a form of resistance. “None of what’s happening [in the country] is new,” said Yuknavitch. She sees it as the logical outcome of late capitalism. But she sees the way forward is to create a “plurality of voices,” making it harder for people to reject the one narrative they believe.

I’ve attached links to the various authors I saw. Find their work. Buy it from a local seller. Find new voices and new stories to show you how complex the world can be.

Also, support Literary Arts.


More on Wordstock: See Danielle Vermette’s Wordstock 1: stiffed grandmothers, E.B. White, and collective desires.

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