SAD FACT: Convention centers, like their hospital and shopping mall brethren, are just right if you're in the mood for an attack of existential dread bathed in fluorescent lighting, but they're terrible, incongruous places to see authors read. So it's an even sadder fact that until recently, Portland's biggest literary festival, Wordstock, was relegated to the Oregon Convention Center.
But don't cry! Because when Wordstock, now operated by bookish giant Literary Arts, resurfaces on November 7, it'll be in a venue that's an almost absurd upgrade: the Portland Art Museum (PAM). And that's just one of many changes—the fest's also been cut down to just one day, and will feature Portland's very own Lit Crawl; in the grand tradition of San Francisco's Litquake, Lit Crawl will feature readings and literary-minded activities in nontraditional spaces (think art galleries and bars) radiating out from a well-chosen epicenter, the proudly low-tech bookstore lovers' bookstore, Mother Foucault's. The festival will also feature a 70-exhibitor book fair, with a book fair voucher built into ticket prices. Taken together, it sounds like this year's Wordstock will be much more in line with progressive, unconventional literary events that have gained popularity in other cities, like Seattle's Lit Crawl, and less so with the increasingly creaky single-author-on-a-stage-in-poor-lighting model of readings.
One of the key organizers behind all of these changes is Amanda Bullock, Literary Arts' new festival and events manager. Bullock moved to Portland this year from New York, where she previously coordinated events for Housing Works Bookstore Café, a shop and events space that's achieved institution-level status through its strong, social justice-oriented mission—100 percent of the bookstore's proceeds benefit Housing Works' programs to support the homeless and people living with HIV/AIDS. Bullock was also an organizer of Moby-Dick Marathon NYC, a three-day marathon read-through of Melville's classic, dispersed between three "ports of call," including Housing Works and the Ace Hotel New York.
That's just the real-deal background in innovative literary event-organizing Wordstock seems to need. And though the move to PAM was arranged before Bullock moved here, she calls it "a really important shift" in the festival's evolution. "It's smaller, but the idea is that it's denser," she says. She's also adamant that the festival not look like it just landed in an art museum by accident, but that the space be used intentionally to explore intersections between visual art and writing.
- Amanda Bullock
Since relocating, Bullock, says—not surprisingly—that she's been impressed with Portland's literary community. She's quick to point out the city's strong presence in small press publishing, from Tin House to Tavern Books. But if you think that to appreciate Wordstock you need to already be deep into Portland's small press scene—or Herman Melville—you'd be wrong. Bullock says that the festival's readings and Q&A structures have been revamped to fend off the monotony that can sometimes turn otherwise scintillating literary events into proven sleep aids.
"It's not going to be just one person reading," she says. Instead, each event will find at least two people on stage—author Q&As will be more intentionally curated, and local writers will show up alongside nationally recognized names. "If you're someone who reads one book a year, there will be something for you," she says. "If you're someone who reads 1000 books a year, there will be something for you."
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Brave New Wordstock