Wordstock: A Primer

Wordstock 2011 played up the theme “America is a story that never ends.” And it was true that stories were in never-ending supply at the Portland literary festival (October 8–9).Wordstock, public art Portland, Convention Center

Tie for best quote

“My process is something I have never been in charge of.”

—Ursula K. Le Guin

“We are now in a time in which the arts will emerge in a way that they never have before”: they will create a political structure that will make Democrats and Republicans irrelevant.

—Barry Lopez

Advice for Wordstockers

Don’t go to a bunch of readings in a row. I had really wanted to hear Michael Ondaatje speak, but when I showed up for his standing-room-only interview, the combination of my being brain-dead from the two previous readings and his being an uninspired speaker was mind-numbing.

I wish I could have gone to the Text Ball, to which attendees are encouraged to wear text. It was held a week before the festival. You should go if you can.

The Readers

Between the Wordstock at the Library reading a few days before the fest and the weekend itself, I listened to 11 writers, which barely scratched the surface:

  • Kerry Cohen, author of Loose Girl as well as a book about her autistic son (Portland);
  • David Biespiel, founder of the Attic Institute and reader of “O’Bryant Square,” a lovely “meditation that loses its way” (“We slumped off and descended into our lives”) (Portland);
  • Kilong Ung, author of Golden Leaf: A Khmer Rouge Genocide Survivor and both funny and touching (Portland);
  • Zach Schomberg, an excellent reader of poems about such subjects as gestures and service dogs that can sense seizures (I recommend him);
  • Jennifer Richter, who needs to learn to pause between poems (Portland);
  • Bharati Mukherjee, who spoke movingly of her arrival at the Iowa Writers Workshop and her marriage a few weeks later to fellow student Clark Blaise, to whom she is still married and who also presented at Wordstock (“unhousement and rehousement” were the keywords of her talk);
  • Ismet Prcic, who read his memoir about arriving in America as a refugee from Bosnia—he went on too long and cut into Mukherjee’s time, but Shards sounded like a good story;
  • Michael Ondaatje, who had such a quiet, hoarse voice that I finally had to leave because I was falling asleep on my feet, despite my desire to listen to the author of The English Patient;
  • Barry Lopez, who, thankfully, was a much more engaging speaker than Ondaatje and got me feeling enthusiastic again after 4 talks/readings in a row (western Oregon);
  • Emily Warn, author of the Book of Esther, whose very first poem, about secretaries, was wonderful; and
  • Ursula K. Le Guin, who signed my new copy of A Wizard of Earthsea. Wizard of Earthsea signedI first got that trilogy when I worked at B. Dalton’s in the 1970s; I got it for free because it had been remaindered. So I had a nice little boxed set to hold my three books with their covers torn off.

It was so great to spend a couple of days in the presence of all these writers. I loved it. Wordstock is a festival worth crossing some distance.