The 2019 Portland Book Festival—Literary Arts' annual one-day book and author extravaganza—popped off pretty-damn-seamlessly this year. Portland's rain showed up in traditional damp, mono-cloud fashion, but the locality of the readings and book fair (in and around the Portland Art Museum) meant attendees didn't have to endure much gentle sky mist. Mercury News Reporter Blair Stenvick and Copy Chief Robert Ham attended the festival this year. Their reports on the day are as follows:
POETRY PANEL REPORT: Starting off with a gentle discussion of poetry seemed the perfect way to ease into the maelstrom of the Portland Book Festival. And the three poets on the "Look Closer: Poetry & Myth Remaking" panel at the Winningstad Theatre—Paisley Rekdal, Jake Skeets, and Sally Wen Mao—were the perfect pool of warm water to help acclimate to a day of literary chatter and readings.
That may be a strange thing to say about poets whose most recent collections aren’t about gentle things. Rekdal took on the monumental task of updating Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Skeets explored the ways in which the Navajo people have suffered under colonization—their wares and bodies placed under glass like exotic pets. Mao unpacked, as she put it, the “myth of Manifest Destiny and the American Dream as a precursor to violence.” Their collective reckoning with these persistent grotesqueries of the Western world and their ability to find some kind of beauty and strength through their poetry sparked a healthy, warming flame that provided some nice fuel for the rest of the drizzly day downtown. ROBERT HAM
REMEMBER TIM O’BRIEN? REPORT!:
Like every other person achieving teenagerhood after the Vietnam War, I read The Things They Carried in high school. I enjoyed the book—it was refreshing to feel like an adult was actually telling the truth about life—but, I must admit, I never thought much about Tim O’Brien beyond my high school lit class.
But now, after watching him be interviewed by OPB’s Think Out Loud host Dave Miller, I want to give his work a closer look. His new memoir, Dad’s Maybe Book, is a collection of letters and advice for his two teenage sons, so family dynamics and death made up the bulk of their discussion. O’Brien moved himself and audience members to tears several times, particularly when talking about the day his mother died ten years ago:
“Are you thinking about grandma?” he asked his son.
“No, I was thinking about you thinking about grandma,” his son answered.
“You can’t say exactly, intellectually what,” makes a story like that pack an emotional punch, O’Brien told the audience. But, he said, he always trusts a story to answer a question, when his own thoughts and words fail him. BLAIR STENVICK
HEARTBREAK PANEL REPORT:
My biggest regret from Portland Book Festival 2019 is that I only attended one panel! I love panels because they’re typically much more relaxed than formal author talks, and seeing writers talk shop with one another gives you a wonderful fly-on-the-wall feeling. Definitely should’ve gone to more panels.
That said, the panel I did attend was *chef’s kiss*: novelist Kristen Arnett (author of Mostly Dead Things), poet and YA author Morgan Parker (There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce and Who Put This Song On?, among others), and short-fiction author Kimberly King Parsons (Black Light). Moderated by Kirkus Reviews editor-at-large Megan Labrise, the panel was titled “Live Through This: Heartbreak, Hope, and Humor”—in other words, as Labrise put it “Live, Laugh, Love.”
The whole panel was full of good, pithy quips, but here are a few of my favorites:
Parsons: A short story of hers is about “how beautiful wanting is—it’s so much better than getting.”
Parker: “I often say I got into poetry for the jokes.”
Arnett: “The idea that you can control anything in your life, much less other people, is fucking ridiculous.”
Parsons: When starting a new creative project, “you’re always dumb all over again, and it’s beautiful.”
What everyone talked about was how much they enjoyed the collaborative nature of comics creation. The best detail to that point came from DeConnick, who told a great anecdote where she quizzed Brian K. Vaughn on the supposedly hyper-detailed outlines he creates for his comics.
His response: “Ehhhhh?”
So why does he allow that rumor to persist? According to DeConnick, quoting Vaughn, “Because nobody likes a nervous pilot.” ROBERT HAM
And, finally, the moment you've all been waiting for, MALCOLM GLADWELL REPORT:
To me, Malcolm Gladwell is one of those writers who always teeters on the edge between brilliantly insightful and insufferably simplistic. His author talk with Andrew Proctor at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall occasionally dipped into each camp, but I came away from it feeling appreciative. In 2019, it’s hard to find a public thinker who will so vociferously go out on a theoretical limb, while never veering into contrarian-for-its-own-sake.
Here are a couple Gladwell quotes I liked enough to jot down:
On morality: “What role does your imagination play in your ability to be a moral person?”
On what makes a good memoir: “Everyone thinks about interesting, but they don’t think about unconstrained.”
On podcasting: “Audio is about emotion in a way print is not.”
On Mayor Ted Wheeler, who introduced Gladwell: “I met the mayor. Very nice mayor.”
(Editor's note: This report previously included a write-up of the “Reckoning: Memoir of Trauma and Resilience” panel. After further consideration and reader input, we understand how and why our review of this panel was interpreted as insensitive. We apologize for the oversight, and have removed the review and changed the headline.)