The weekend before the election, the Wordstock festival kicked off with Lit Crawl (a festival in its own right) on Friday, November 4. I wrote about it imagining it would go up on the blog on Wednesday alongside some celebratory post-election posts—not even considering the possibility that we'd have a president whose power would make us scared for our friends and families and planet. Think of this as a time capsule from a more innocent time, because now more than ever, we need literature and community.
Here's the basic idea of Lit Crawl: Get a dozen local businesses/spaces to agree to be temporary venues, have a few dozen local organizations/reading series/presses/journals curate an hour with readings (and/or performances/activities), overwhelm the masses by holding these events simultaneously for three straight hours.
Lit Crawls happen around the world and are run in a franchise-like way by a San Francisco company called Litquake. So while they're organized locally, putting one on comes with an established structure, some free promotion, and some rules and regulations. There are valid criticisms of Lit Crawl as a whole—that they're too overwhelming, use less-than-ideal venues, and are too bound to Litquake's rulebook to adjust to local conditions—most of which were well-covered by Rich Smith prior to last year's Lit Crawl Portland. This is the second year of an “official” Lit Crawl happening in Portland (for a couple years prior, Portlanders got around the rulebook by doing the unaffiliated LitHop PDX), and these Lit Crawls have accompanied Literary Arts' restructuring of Wordstock: Portland's Book Festival.
When presented with the challenge of covering Lit Crawl, my first thought was: I'll run. I'm by no means a runner—I don't even fully understand why people find this an enjoyable thing to do [Ed. Note: they don't, they do it because it helps with their low-level anxiety.]—but a few times a week I sprint to catch a bus, so I know I can run if I need to and I don't particularly mind it. So if I ran around Lit Crawl I could see more than the average Lit Crawl goer, thereby making for theoretically good coverage.
But then I reminded myself what Lit Crawls are like—fun but packed and often not easy to get into or, once inside, leave—and instead invited some local writer friends to join me, opting to more-or-less let group action decide the Mercury's Lit Crawl coverage. Of course, this is just an indirect way of saying I failed. Or, if I'm to be kinder to myself, that I admitted defeat ahead of time. There's no good way to report on an event like Lit Crawl because—even more so than a music festival, which generally only has a few stages—there are so many possible Lit Crawl experiences, all of which are interesting and completely dissimilar in a way that can't possible be generalized.
Here are are some (but not even half) of the experiences we could have had but didn't: We could have seen poems being written on 16mm film, a reading with ballet exercises, or improvised jazz storytelling with illustrations. We also could have done literary karaoke, made a zine about our lit crushes, considered race and gender and intersectionality in a variety of different ways, tasted beer with a guy who wrote a book about beer, participated in a depressing-facts-about-animals game show, helped perform a sci-fi story, been part of a literary masquerade ball, or gotten our quiet on with a Silent Reading Party.
The experiences we did have: We saw part of the all-queer edition of Portland's anxiety and depression-based reading series Get Nervous. We saw a circus-themed literary reading with a well-thought-out aesthetic and seemingly little actual content. We caught the last moments of a panel on mushrooms and heard about mushroom research in Latvia and Poland. We watched a few minutes of the collaboration between poetry-meets-movement monthly Pure Surface and Youthhood where dancers wrapped themselves together in knots. We stood on a street corner and waited while talking to a reader about how her reading went. We caught a few minutes of the Bushwick Book Club, which makes up songs about the books they read (though we didn't know that at the time so wondered if we were in the wrong venue and stood on the sidelines, staring at our schedules awkwardly.) And the only thing we saw the entirety of was a panel on sex and death, which was excellent.
The Tin House Awkward After-Party (actual name of party) was adorable, and it perhaps overcame some of the usual awkwardness of literary after-parties by announcing it would be awkward ahead of time. Despite their success in transcending this typically built-in part of the culture—and despite the fact that I sincerely want to party with my fellow writers and book nerds—dance parties at literary events aren't my preferred variety of dance party. I'm a fan of unlikely DJ sets with only the occasional obvious-but-crucial dance-floor singalong number, but other writers seem to require the most likely and obvious songs imaginable. If it wouldn't be on a “Best of [insert decade or genre]” Pandora playlist, they don't want to hear it. Play a Madonna album cut and they hit the bar. So it was entirely songs we'd all heard a million times, but it was hard not to be charmed by everyone's excitement. We danced.
The party started winding down around midnight. Before everyone from my group went home, and I went back for one last beer. While at the bar, a guy said, "Treat yourself.” I thanked him and told him I would. Then he locked eyes with me, his face as serious as if we'd just survived a potentially life-threatening event, and said, “Treat yourSELF.” I could tell it was one of those this-means-more-in-my-head-than-it-could-possibly-mean-to-the-rest-of-the-world-but-I-can't-see-that-because-I'm-tanked moments, and I walked away quickly. I soon began to wonder why I was so wet and realized that my keg cup had a hole in the bottom.
The lights came on soon after. I took the bus home smelling like beer and spent the next day at Wordstock nursing a hangover while watching perspective-altering writers on panels that I probably wasn't in a place to fully wrap my mind around. I told several of my favorite Portland writers that I'd never again agree to cover a festival event for the blog, which was perhaps a way of saying, “I'm going to write an article about this really incredible event we both experienced—an event we shared and didn't share—but the article will fail at capturing it, so I apologize in advance.”
So that was Lit Crawl. Or, rather, a Lit Crawl among the many Lit Crawls that were experienced in the course of a few hours in Southwest Portland. We need them now more than ever.