Portland just feels different. That can seem like an unfortunate statement to anyone already living here, because the rent spikes another forty bucks every time it’s uttered, but that doesn’t make those four words any less true. They seem especially true now to those of us in the local literary community, because everything that has made Portland a Mecca for musicians and visual artists for the last decade or so is here in earnest for the poets, too.
“Community” is an important word. While it feels like there have been small pockets scattered around the city of close friends, or trusted confidants, who write together, offer feedback, and support each other’s efforts, bringing those groups together into a larger, more diverse local presence never seemed quite possible until recently. There have been some touchstone figures and organizations working in the literary spectrum this whole time, to be sure—Kevin Sampsell, small press guru of Burnside Powell’s and seemingly tireless driving force behind Future Tense press immediately comes to mind as a kind of figurehead for the local indie press movement, along with the Independent Press Resource Center (IPRC), helmed by Justin Hocking. There’s also Literary Arts, which brings in figures from all over the upper stratosphere of the literary world, while constantly working to support local writers, publishers, and journals. There has also been a guardianship of Oregon’s literary tradition maintained largely by organizations like the Friends of William Stafford (the board of trustees includes Paulanne Petersen, Oregon’s sixth poet laureate and reads like a who’s who of the national poetry scene spanning the last few decades).
It’s not like Portland woke up one morning and joined the larger contemporary poetry world in progress. Considering how much of the year we spend covered by thick, flat-gray clouds and perpetually soaked by the fine mist that hangs in the air everywhere all fall, winter, and spring, Portlanders have a lot of time to engage in their “indoor” hobbies and pride themselves on being a well-read crowd. You are equally likely to get turned on to a new author while mixing concrete on a construction site as you would while wandering around one of the many libraries and bookstores. Portland is a well-read city in the midst of a well-read state and has more than its fair share of writers, which has been made patently clear over the years.
At the height of the popularity of slam poetry during the nineties, Portland made waves in the national scene for having the lowest-scoring audiences in the nation. It seemed like this city was an excellent place for performance poets to get their egos raked across the coals any time their material favored pure performance over literary merit, or substantiality.
As slam fizzled out locally (not to effectively reappear until very recently), about a thousand open mics seemed to pop up around the city. These ranged from quiet bookstore or library affairs to rowdier barroom readings sometimes accompanied by musicians and DJ’s. I hosted on of the latter type for a year-and-a-half, learning a lot about that particular scene from several sides of the picture.
Those open mics were a great thing for a lot of budding poets. Even now, they can create a space to work on reading voices, make friends with people who are also into what can feel like one of the more despised art forms in America (especially for those of us who have friends that like to bitch about how much they hate poetry), figure out their craft, and occasionally (very occasionally) meet someone to date. But, as much as open mics are a great way for new poets to start figuring things out, they have problems, too.
After visiting a number of these around town, and running one, I started to notice that the same group of people would migrate around and read the same set at every single open mic that fit their schedule. Since most of these were weeklies, the homogeneity was palpable. This group of regulars made up the bulk of the readers at each open mic, and seldom—if ever—played the audience role well. If a new person (especially a woman, the bulk of the regulars all seem to be men) wandered in to the open mic, all the regulars would break out their “big guns”—whatever got a good response from that particular crowd in the past—which would be fine, excepting that the same set might be repeated over and over every week depending on how many strangers showed up.
The close quarters also seemed to lend it to deep, jealous rivalries. Little, sometimes one-sided, wars would break out among regular readers. Keeping track of who hated whom could drive a person to drinking heavily, especially since so much effort on the part of whoever had a grudge went into trying to recruit supporters. Since the same general group would be at each reading, there might be no escape from the machinations of angry regulars.
Granted, this behavior was only really common among the divas in the group—primarily male, prone to redlining microphones by screaming “fuck” a lot, and frequently given to rambling “off the cuff” medleys of their memorized work. Since the bigger personalities were often at odds with one another, it could sometimes be hard to see past them and find the distinct value in the open mics, especially if the goal was to check out some poetry. Of course, the value is there and its discovery can keep someone (like me) coming back week after week for the flashes of surprise that can make the open mic so worthwhile.
Despite the problems, fresh art can be found frequently at open mics, along with amazing feats of performance. I remember standing in amazement one time while a guy recited “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” from memory, and again while Tom Blood (who would later win the Oregon Book Award) “read” in his strange, lilting tone from blank sheets of paper. The surprises are what makes the open mics worth visiting—which is probably true everywhere—especially when there’s an energy to specific venues. The energy is more likely to attract diversity, and simple high school biology tells us that a diverse ecosystem is less likely to collapse. In fact, that surprise and that energy are probably the key reasons why Slam took off so hard in the nineties.
While some of the open mics struggled with inbreeding, and seemed to be providing fewer surprises, many of the smaller curated readings didn’t fare as well as one would like. Attendance could be abyssmal for numerous reasons: popular open mic regulars noticably absent anywhere but the open mics at which they read (often citing issues of authenticity), no reliable list of events to be found anywhere, only a handful running on a regular enough schedule (usually monthly) to predict.
Unfortunately, some curated readings would be followed by an open mic, as a strategy to build or keep audience, a practice that deeply violates my old punk rock ethos—whoever tours headlines!—but also creates an environment in which the open mic crowd starts noisily arriving somewhere in the middle of the last “featured” poet’s set. The host might then transition from the curated portion to the open part by saying something like, “we listened to you, now you listen to us,” which can seem hypocritical since the “us” in question often has just walked in the front door, or spent the last twenty minutes shuffling papers, not listening to anyone at all.
Many of the other curated events suffered from lack of publicity to a point where I might catch sight of some local poet walking into a café or gallery while I was out getting groceries and, if I dropped what I was doing and followed him or her, I’d wander into a reading that featured some touring poet whom I’d never heard. Sometimes the reading would actually be kind of a big deal, but news of its existence wouldn’t seem to make it into the light of day until after the fact.
The newspapers didn’t help. If anything the local weeklies and the Oregonian appeared to be pointedly ignoring the local literary scene. I remember sitting in an editorial meeting while working as an intern for Willamette Week right as there seemed to be a small, sudden influx of new energy in local poetry, mentioning an upcoming event as possibly being worth a blurb and getting “slam poetry is dead” for the trouble. Yes. Slam was (at least temporarily) dead in Portland. Of course, that’s not at all what I was talking about.
Then something changed. Just as more Portland writers started getting national recognition, an influx of highly active, extraordinarily community-oriented people showed up on the local scene, injecting the city with a new vitality. I don’t know who came first. It was like an explosion. Now the city is filled with people who really give a shit. Not just about the art, but about fostering relationships between everyone with a shared interest in the art. Willamette Week lists the slam almost every week (along with all the amazing stuff happening around the city), Oregonian has a poetry column that only occasionally is bumped, Portland Mercury thankfully lost or fired all their lit-crit Reed alumni and replaced them with people who only occasionally rip on poetry.
It is fucking awesome, and as far as I can tell, directly linked to a few key events.
I remember walking into my first (their third) If Not for Kidnap, held in the living room of a large shared house off of César E. Chavez Blvd. (it was 39th Ave, then). I was nervous as hell because the thing I can handle the least is being around a crowd of people. Plus, I wasn’t experienced with the kind of energy this group put out. It was a semi-BYOB event, with a couple of half-racks of Pabst parked on the table to fortify all the wine everyone brought. I was there with my girlfriend who’s also nervous in a crowd, carrying a bottle of red wine and wishing there was someplace nearby to get a whiskey shot. We were, of course, a little early.
Although I don’t like crowds, I do like readings, and I wanted to try to be as close to the readers as possible. The hosts, Donald Dunbar and Jamalieh Haley, were still busy putting the living room together. I’d met Donald Dunbar before, but tonight he was radiating waves of calm energy. It felt good. In fact, I’d never felt so completely welcomed into a space in my life. Kate Bucko, a friend and classmate from PSU, was a roommate in the house and provided shots pilfered from a secret stash. We went out to the back porch, to get out of the way, and met Marshal Walker Lee and Drew Scott Swenhaugen (who we’d later learn are the engine behind Poor Claudia, one of the prettiest journals I’ve seen). By the time the reading started, it was packed. People were all over the floor, directly in front of the microphone to watch Emily Kendal Frey and Lisa Ciccarello. The excitement in the room hung on everything like humidity.
I’d never seen a reading like it in Portland. In the last twelve years, I’ve been to bookstore readings, library events, slams, literary variety shows, readings by extremely famous poets in massive venues, and countless poetry open mics. I’d talked with people about what a “good” reading looked like and heard a gamut of ideal events ranging from boozy rowdiness to church-like silence. This reading got silent, but it didn’t have the stuffy feeling of being at a strict protestant service. People were drinking, but nobody in the audience reached the point where they had to heckle or shout or otherwise make themselves more important than the readers. It was rapt attention. Everyone in the room was really into the poetry. And the poetry was good. It was funny, strange, and sometimes sad. It felt great.
Matty Byloos and Carrie Seitzinger kicked off the Smalldoggies reading series (named after their press and magazine) a little over a year ago at a bar off of Hawthorne that boasted impossibly cheap pints of Ninkasi IPA. The bar closed and they’ve moved it to the basement stage at Blue Monk, a venue that has historically shown solid support for the literary crowd in Portland. It’s a remarkable event, and has been touted by some as one of the more important regular readings in Portland. Part of what makes it incredible for an audience member is that Carrie or Matty are right there at the door, despite having a show to put on, to say hi and take donations. Their presence is thread throughout the whole evening, as they swap emcee duties and prepare the audience for each new segment. The format is great, too. Since the beginning, they’ve had a band or musician open the show, followed by the readers—almost the reverse of any event I’ve ever seen. The music is often unexpected, sometimes raucous, and always contemporary—I think I’ve seen more indie-rock open for poets and writers at Smalldoggies than anything else, the most recent show featuring Curious Hands, one of my favorite local bands to see live.
Again, what marks Smalldoggies as being so great is that it has the same kind of intense energy as INFK; the audience’s attention is undivided. The venue helps. People who are more interested in socializing can hang out upstairs, leaving the fans to the work of watching, but it’s hard to think there are too many people bailing on the reading, the seats are almost always completely full and the entire back end of the room is regularly filled with people standing near the bar without ordering drinks.
Bad Blood shares this feeling. Drew Swenhaugen, Joseph Mains, and Zachary Schomburg originally put these readings together at the Work / Sound gallery right off of Morrison, moving them to ADX after a while. Bad Blood comes out of nowhere, sometimes, and can happen any night of the week. The news of a new show releases anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months in advance, depending on what’s being booked, giving the events the feeling of being like a party the hosts threw together to break up the wet, gray doldrums of Portland weather. This is a group that’s also not afraid to mix it up, often inviting filmmakers to show off work. The readings feel cathartic, making Carolyn and I crazy about running off somewhere to talk about every little moment, the way we do after watching a movie.
I’m not sure what started this, exactly, but I’m glad it’s happening. Portland is changing by strides, so much so that the poetry produced from this city is significantly different than what has come before. Categorizing it is the job of more critical minds, but there is a real shift away from quiet meditations on the Pacific Northwest landscape and a move toward touching, dreamlike visions, absurdity, and dry humor. There are well put together readings several times a month that have all the energy, excitement, and audience I’ve ever dreamed of seeing at any of the smaller, independent events I’ve visited over the last decade or so and there are really good poets just hanging out everywhere.
It’s a renaissance. Maybe that’s too big a word. Nobody is inventing the new physics here (that I know of), but there’s a clear change in the fabric of Portland and it’s making the city love poetry again.