"I feel unnerved by how precious the aesthetic has become. It'd be nice to see some variation, considering that we're kind of in the midst of a global catastrophe."
Lisa Wells and I are sitting in a coffee shop on East Burnside, and our conversation has just turned meta. We're talking about quirkily written interviews, about inane questions like "What did you have for breakfast?" which leads to Wells' frustrated exclamation that cutesiness hardly seems an artistically appropriate response to a world as fucked up as ours.
More appropriate, in fact, is Wells' own recent output, the just-released essay collection Yeah. No. Totally. Wells' ranging, largely nonfiction collection is many things: insightful, acerbic, frustrated, even wistful. But despite a cover that evokes an old J.D. Salinger paperback, precious it is not: Whether she's writing about a trip to Nicaragua or the role the rock club La Luna played in her teenaged years, Wells' voice is above all direct, as she levelly describes the world as she sees it.
Wells grew up in Portland's suburbs, and Yeah. No. Totally. is distinctly rooted in the social and physical landscape of the Pacific Northwest. But this isn't another meditation on the beauty of Oregon's salmon runs—Wells is less a nature writer than a writer who remembers nature; a sensibility shaped by forces long gone.
In "Knell of the Worried Well," she reflects on childhood camping trips to the Nehalem River—catching crawdads, watching Blue Herons. "It seems to me now that my love for those trips, for that configuration of family, for the river as it was, precipitated a certain melancholy," she writes. As an adult, the smell of water in the desert casts her back to those childhood trips—to a river whose banks have long since shifted.
"I don't think of myself as a nature writer," Wells tells me, "but of course, by virtue of the fact that I'm from here, it makes its way in—it's a huge part of the landscape, like skyscrapers in New York." And just as long-time New Yorkers love to dwell on how that city has changed, Wells' writing at times reveals a native's prickly possessiveness. On Portland's never-ending influx of bands, she writes, "Everyone in Portland comes from somewhere else, and no one moves here because they just want to play music... The salt of the earth indie vibe is long over."
Calling out Portland's music scene for its careerism is bold in a town that prides itself on "community," but Wells is quick to note that she doesn't hold herself apart from her criticism of the music scene. "I've always hung out with musicians," she says. (One of the pieces in the book, in fact, is a diary of her tour with local band Panther.) "I don't really feel outside of it, looking in." Maybe that's why, when I asked her to sum up her thoughts on her book, she reached for a punk-rock analogy.
"There were all these legends about [punk] bands going into the studio recording straight through, without a lot of high-production value, no one worrying too much about mic placement. And the idea was if you were practicing enough and playing enough, what came out would be good. Skilled, but there's a level of amateurism at work. The book feels that way to me," Wells says. "And maybe the fact that some of the essays feel kind of unfinished, and overall feel sort of fragmented, reflects the way that I feel about the world, and trying to make sense of it all."