Suzette Smith

Last night was perfect weather for a LitCrawl, just cold enough to justify a thermos of tea, but not so cold that literary revelers minded waiting outside a Lit Crawl venue that went over their scheduled 45 minute window. The Portland Book Festival Lit Crawl is a fun pre-PBF tradition that places readings by local and visiting authors within walkable distance of one another and encourages fans to hoof it to more than one location to enjoy free readings, snacks, and drinks. It's a fun time and last night's crawl was well-attended without feeling overwhelming. (At least for me!)

I had a nasty cold so I wrapped myself up in a scarf and tried to avoid hugs/cheek kisses. Since I am but one person, I sought out the help of two members of the The Mercury’s Extremely Literate Strike Force™ who also helped write picks for this year's festival. Together we covered EIGHT READINGS! Our impressions are as follows:

Samiya Bashir reads
Samiya Bashir reads Suzette Smith

The first reading I attended was the Land Acknowledgement at Corporeal Writing, Lidia Yuknavitch's workshop space on SW 3rd. The space had a living room feel and quickly filled with bundled attendees. Yuknavitch herself squeezed in and sat on the floor.

This is the first year Lit Crawl Portland or Portland Book Festival have included a land acknowledgement. It was great to see one easily incorporated into the programing with an organized reading by First Nations poets. Ed Edmo of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe opened the reading. His demeanor was such that it was difficult to tell when he was speaking casually or when he was reading one of his poems. And I mean that as high praise. He had a charming, troublemaker stage presence and commanded the audience to recite lines with him and make a rowing motion with our hands, carving out the riverbed of the Columbia as the Coyote in Edmo’s story did.

Laura 'Da of the Eastern Shawnee (whose book Tributaries won a 2016 American Book Award) read next and captivated with a poem comparing a billboard questioning if “You Have God-Shaped Hole' in Your Heart” to 'Da’s assertion that a “sleek hole inside me moves in the shape of a blackfish.” Trevino L. Brings Plenty of the Lakota closed the reading with humor and human poems, descriptions of things some might see as garbage, but which he saw as the decorations of his life. “Those are my kind of ceremonies,” he said, after a poem about paper plates and pizza grease. “Nothing as indigenous as a mullet.”

At Literary Arts for Unchartable: An Evening of Environmental Unknowns, I remembered a wisdom from previous years. Poets know how to read their writing. Prose writers are more of a gamble. While I thought that I would like Janice Lee and Anne-Marie Kinney’s writing if I saw it on a page, their reading styles mirrored the lines-of-text experience (to be fair, this reading style is the norm in academia) and reminded me of church homily. M. Allen Cunningham’s reading consisted of a pair of letters, which, though they had an interesting premise, were written in a Civil War-era vernacular and thus I hated them. Samiya Bashir, the lone poet, stood out due to her comfort with her work and her willingness to move around the stage, interacting with the crowd and with her own pieces. Listening to her poems felt like overhearing conversations and Bashir made sure we knew who was speaking which lines. SUZETTE SMITH

Robert Ham cleverly installed himself at the Kimpton Hotel Vintage, which is definitely a wise approach from a seasoned LitCrawl attendee:

The small conference room at the Kimpton Hotel Vintage was surely great option on paper. At the outset, it seemed like a great fit. The first reading was fun, low-key and interactive, with each YA author opening up their individual segment asking trivia questions about their chosen literary genre. And the excerpts of their books were wonderful. I was particularly charmed by Debby Dodds’ small snippet of Amish Guys Don’t Call, a quaint cross-cultural romance and the little bit I heard from The Raven’s Tale, a new historical novel about a teenaged Edgar Allen Poe.

From there, though, things got pretty awkward. As more people tried to pile into the room for the small press reading, the hotel attempted to make room by opening up the metal garage door that separated the conference room from the rest of the second floor lounge area. Unfortunately, that also meant bringing in all the ambient noise from the bar downstairs, including the music of a lounge act who played spirited versions of “I Want You To Want Me” and “Just A Gigolo.”

The poets did their level best to get heard above the din, but even without the distractions, most of their work wouldn’t have left much of an impression. Amie Zimmerman and Michael Wasson both offered up slippery metaphors and roughly sketched out political commentary that felt far too frothy and quaint. After a positively eye-rolling introduction from one of the publishers at Copper Canyon Press, Kansas poet Ed Skoog proceeded to read an ode to his grandfather that sounded like a cut rate version of Howl, but did reveal a potential future as a writer of Norman Mailer-like poetic nonfiction through his piece on domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh.

It was a translator who struck the right tone. Caroline Wilcox Reul was on hand to read segments of Who Lives, a crushing work by German poet Elisabeth Borchers that stunningly connected the separation between the Eastern and Western parts of her home country with the agonies of her personal life. Even amid the clatter of the Friday night Portland crowd, the words cut through clearly and with appreciable warmth.

The last event of the night at the Hotel Vintage was the one best suited to survive the mutterings of the hotel bar revelers as it brought out the members of the Kickstand Comedy improv team, a group well-versed in helping focus an otherwise distracted audience. The comics were served well by Rebecca Schiff, who plucked out three great short stories from her collection The Bed Moved. Her tart tales of women navigating the modern age were rife with little details that were blown perfectly out of proportion. The passing reference of an older woman showing strange pride in her son’s online porn performances became a bridge team frustrated that one of its members keeps bragging about grandson’s predilections. And a comment on head lice in a wickedly postmodern story about the Clinton presidency evolved into an excitable conversation between two bugs recounting their survival techniques. Just like Schiff’s writing, the Kickstand kids created off-the-cuff art that was suffused with modern malaise and a strain of tenderness beneath the barbs and quips. ROBERT HAM

Sophie Ouellette-Howitz covered the most ground of any of us, springing between three locations to bring us a wealth of impressions:

The Pen America event, catchily titled “Sample Me,” promised that the readers would share “the worst thing they have ever done to or put on their skin.” Fitting, given that it took place in Aesop West End. I arrived midway through the series of poems Julayne Elle Lee read from her book, Not My White Savior, which brimmed with wry anger centered on her experience as an inter-country adoptee. Next, Janet W. Hardy, who co-authored The Ethical Slut, tackled the reading's theme head-on with a tender selection about needle play and ritualized cutting. Poet Brandon Jordan Brown closed the event by reading a few poems united by their exploration of the sensory nature of memory, as video clips (a snake in the grass, a chain link fence) danced above him on the fabric panels installed on the ceiling.

Sally Tisdale, whose most recent book is Advice for Future Corpses (And Those Who Love Them), opened the ZYZZVA Northwest All-Stars showcase at Cassidy’s Restaurant by reading a stark essay about detachment and Manitoba. Next, Amy Miller read three poems. My favorite was the first, a precise, vivid examination of what her life would have looked like if she stayed in her hometown of Westfield, Massachusetts. John Sibley Williams, who sat on the floor to the side of the stage throughout the event, eschewed the microphone. “I have a big voice,” he promised. His poems featured images that kept turning in surprising and delightful ways. Jennifer Moss closed the night with two poems, both of which were completely bizarre and completely brilliant.

To Gay or Not Too Gay panelists Mark David Gerson, Karelia Stetz-Waters, Tammy Lynne Stoner, and Gillian Herbert, plus moderators/panelists Kate Gray and Kate Carroll de Gutes gathered in the lobby of the Ace Hotel beneath a flamboyant chandelier to speak about their experiences finding solace in queer literature as well as the difference between writing literature with queer characters and writing queer literature. Each brought a perspective informed by when and where they came of age and came out. There was a clear camaraderie amongst the participants, which they generously extended to the audience. Toward the end, Gillian Herbert pushed back against the idea that when it comes to queer literature, and queerness in general, we’re steadily progressing toward more freedom and acceptance.
A thoughtful conversation ensued about progress and backlash. “I’ve lived long enough to know what a bad time feels like, and this is a bad time,” cautioned Herbert. Gray found a way to end optimistically, noting that despite the frightening state of current affairs, we were all out together. SOPHIE OUELLETTE-HOWITZ