Portland Book Festival: short stories, apocalyptic poets and the art of coming home

Oregon writers were well represented on the stages and bookstore tables at Saturday’s Portland Book Festival. (Kate Beaton is a neighbor — she’s from Canada.) Photo by: Karen Pate

One rainy Saturday morning with coffee in hand, I climbed the crowded steps of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Portland. The line had begun to form an hour earlier; we were all there to see one of the first and most popular Portland Book Festival events of the day, George Saunders and Jess Walter in conversation with OPB morning edition host Geoff Norcross.

Attendance figures for the festival, put together by Literary Arts, were not available on Sunday, but from crowds attending events at nine city center venues, it appeared the festival – the first to hold 100% in person since the pandemic – was a success.

With more than 70 participating authors, the festival offered more than any visitor. My day started with the session called “Long Live Short Stories”, where Saunders and Walter lit up the room with their graceful, lively energy.

“If the heat doesn’t rise, you have to take a different course,” said Saunders, when asked about the planning process for his new collection of stories, The day of liberation. His writing philosophy is to try to reduce the anxiety of others, he said, and the work itself is both gruesome and hilarious. After reading a passage from the story Ghoul, he called it, “only as weird as the real world”, and explained that it generally aimed to narratively mimic real-world power and difficulty systems. As allegories of modern struggles, he continued, the news has the ability to show us how easy our quick judgments can be.

Walter, who read an excerpt from his new book, The Angel of Rome, started out as a novelist and said that compiling a collection of short stories is more like setting up a garage sale than creating a well-rounded concept album. Although he said he doesn’t write autobiographically, he draws on his experiences, like living off the literary grid in Spokane, to bring the work to life. Loneliness, he says, strikes him as a truth of life and makes a large appearance in his stories.

Truth is a major theme for both authors, who explore self-concepts, perceived permanence, and the dissolution of the ego through the realization of reality, mortality, and hope. Walter, like Saunders, leans toward developing parodies of devastating parts of our world, sparking hope through wistful, satirical humor and demonstrating unlikely connections between characters to surprise and delight the reader.

Poets CJ Evans and Saeed Jones, meanwhile, believe that hope is an unstable scale. They appeared at noon at the Portland’5 Brunish Theater in a session titled “Intimate Apocalypse,” hosted by Erika Stevens, Jones’ collection editor. Living at the end of the world.

Evans, editor of Two Lines Press and author of Lives, said he was quite convinced that we are living in the last century that will exist. His poignant and timeless poetry is filled with images of nature, storm and abundance, but emanates from a place of worry. While the environmental and political devastation of our world need not control the poem, Evans said, it cannot help but consider the unseen struggles of friends, neighbors, children and students, as well as ever-increasing societal fear. mass shootings, while developing his work. He said he always tries to notice others’ kind efforts and find beauty in our world today.

Jones said he started small when writing his new collection of poems, later deciding to explore the multiplicities of grief that eventually expand into what he calls the “end of days.” Like Evans, Jones explores disaster as an attempt to get away from it. Her collection of poetry features personal accounts of grief over the loss of her mother, as well as larger-scale alarm about human rights issues in America.

“Dystopia is a genre of culture in its own right,” he explained. “So who is the historian? Whose voice needs to be heard? »

Although his humor is dark and witty – joking that “we live in the age of the flop” and that his poetry collections and those of Evans “both have the same prescription drugs for ‘anxiety’ – he considers himself a cheerful person. “Love and pleasure are the twins of grief and loss,” he said. “It’s important to remember that.”

Between readings and author conferences, I visited the book market in the great ballroom of the Portland Art Museum. More than 50 exhibitors from bookstores, small presses and universities lined the aisles, as crowded as a departmental fair. There were lines to learn about Fishtrap’s writing programs in eastern Oregon, to buy Edward Gorey illustration puzzles as holiday gifts, and to pick up signed volumes from the table. Powell’s Books. At Red Hen Press, run by publisher Mark E. Cull, Portland poet and essayist Kim Stafford signed copies of his collections Wild honey, hard saltand Singer from afar.

Later that afternoon, I went to the museum’s Miller Gallery for “Homeland,” a talk by Chelsea Bieker and Morgan Talty, hosted by John Freeman, founder of Freeman’s literary journal and editor at Alfred A. Knopf.

“News is where America’s geographies take flight,” Freeman said of introducing the writers.


Profile Theater King of the Yees at the Imago Theater Portland Oregon

For Bieker, author of Godshot and Broken Heart, the house is linked to land, products and religion. Originally from Fresno and now living in Portland, she finds her hometown to be the only place she can write about. As a reader interested in high-stakes compressed fiction, she writes about low-income households struggling to support their families, in stories that deal with domestic violence, substance abuse, and labor. sex.

“There’s danger around every turn,” Bieker said of his characters. “And for many of them, most of the danger lies in leaving.”

Talty also writes about home but comes from an ecologically and culturally different landscape. Rather than the dry farming valleys of central California, Talty grew up on the Penobscot Indian Reservation in Maine’s humid riverine climate. His latest collection of Tin House Books, Living Ground Night, explores the violence resulting from repressed communication and the consequences of colonialism. For Talty, despair is a plot point from which he can derive both tragedy and humor – sometimes interchangeably – in his work.

For both writers, location is an important aspect of what allows their characters to exist. The places you love but want to leave, both authors agree, are the places you will always remember.

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