UNDER THE RADAR of most Portlanders, local publisher Tin House has quietly been spending its summers building one of the most respected writing workshops around. Now in its 12th year, the Tin House Summer Writer's Workshop brings faculty and students from around the country to Portland for one week in July.
For those of us not participating in the workshop, there's still good reason to be excited: seven nights of open-to-the-public readings from the workshop's faculty, all widely published professional writers. These lineups are some of the best Portland sees all year—and some of the most unexpected, bringing together writers who rarely share the same bill.
While every night provides reasons to come out—writers like Anthony Doerr, Wells Tower, Joy Williams, and Kevin Young, plus the scenic setting at Reed's outdoor amphitheater—a few readings are not-to-be-missed events.
Jo Ann Beard
On Wednesday night, July 16, critically acclaimed but relatively unknown essayist Jo Ann Beard joins novelists Mat Johnson (Pym) and Sarah Shun-lien Bynum (Ms. Hempel Chronicles) on stage.
That most people have never heard of Beard may be one of the greatest injustices in modern literature. Her 1999 collection of interlinked essays, The Boys of My Youth, is an intricately tuned work that considers the ways culture and place influence our entire lives. The collection's stand-out essay, "The Fourth State of Matter," is about the 1991 University of Iowa school shooting. It commonly breaks hearts and appears on writers' lists of favorite essays; it even made it onto Best American Essays series editor Robert Atwan's "The Top 10 Essays Since 1950." The long years since The Boys of My Youth have brought just one more book, in 2011—the largely ignored In Zanesville, a charming coming-of-age novel that brilliantly plays with the line between literary fiction and young adult. Her live appearances are almost as infrequent as her books, so don't sleep on the chance to see one of the most celebrated essayists and hybrid genre writers alive.
Poet Mary Ruefle, novelist Antonya Nelson (Bound), and hard-to-pigeonhole-as-fantasy author Kelly Link (Magic for Beginners) grace the stage on Thursday night, July 17. Ruefle is known as a poet, but it's her 2012 book of collected lectures, Madness, Rack, and Honey, that's created a feverish excitement around her work. Like Rainier Maria Rilke's classic Letters to a Young Poet, Ruefle's Madness, Rack, and Honey is less about the writing of poetry than about looking at poetry as a way of life and a concept that informs all art. Anyone who believes the world would be a better place if people spent more time thinking about poetry should not miss the chance to see her at the podium.
Memoirist/poet/playwright Nick Flynn reads with novelist Dana Spiotta (Stone Arabia) and poet D.A. Powell (Useless Landscape, or a Guide for Boys) on Friday, July 18. Flynn's hard not to love: His casual onstage manner and ability to write about substance abuse and the inner lives of honeybees with equal power endears him to any audience. His great early poetry books Some Ether and Blind Huber have led him into a stretch of popular memoirs—Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, The Ticking Is the Bomb, and The Reenactments. From reuniting with his estranged father in a homeless shelter to investigating post-9/11 torture to having Robert De Niro and Julianne Moore play his parents in the film adaptation of his life (2012's Being Flynn), Flynn's books take unexpected courses and contribute to the ever-expanding idea of what a memoir can be.