Literary readings can be sad affairs. At their worst, they’re either quiet and bleached, the audience members every so often making an “Mmmm” sound at appropriate times when an image or phrase brings a slight tremor to their soul. Or, they too often exist at the other end of the literary reading spectrum where audience members yell Amen! and dance in the aisle like they’re at a Baptist Revival while a writer spouts aggressive pejoratives and abstract garble. Both scenarios make me bristle. Both scenarios don’t speak to my understanding of what good public literary events can be.
Can’t we find a balance? A public sphere where stories, images, and metaphors move us without stuffy pretension or a sloppy litany of ‘fuck yous’ and angst?
In Portland, the answer now is a definitive Yes.
Word Portland is a reading series that takes place the first Monday of every month at LFK in Longfellow Square. It was started late last year by Danielle Leblanc and Emily Jane Young–both fine writers in their own right–and it is already one of the best reading series I’ve attended in this city.
First off, the readers are no-joke, real-deal writers who, for the most part, craft their lines right here in Portland. Often, a reading series suffers from bringing in authors who don’t have talent with language, but Danielle and Emily are connected enough in the Portland literary scene to book writers who are not only at the top of their game, but also charismatic readers. I’ve been to two Word Portland events, and both times I’ve left with a head and a heart brimming with crisp, original images and stories. I’m going to list off some writers who have read or are scheduled to read, and if you aren’t familiar with their work, well, then become familiar with it. (Click on the link to the Word Portland Readers page.) Here goes: Jessica Anthony, Elizabeth Hand, James Patrick Kelly, Jaed Coffin, and Sarah Braunstein. You may not know it, but you just read a list of literary powerhouses.
In addition to the talent that abounds at Word Portland events, you have LFK itself. As soon as the doors to this bar were pushed open, it was teeming with Portlanders. I was equal parts intrigued and fearful when I saw the hipsters clad in skinny jeans and ironic mustaches that filled the place when it first opened. I’m glad I got over the fear and embraced the intrigue. This is the kind of place where literary readings should take place. There are books tucked into numerous nooks and crannies. Working typewriters are strewn throughout. The bar has built-in typewriter keys. Black-rimmed glasses abound. And the last business to lease the space was an independent book store where I bought my first copy of Strunk and White. It’s the kind of place where you can’t turn around without bumping into someone who could tell you the fiction books nominated for this year’s National Book Award. In my two visits, the audiences at LFK cared enough to listen, but were loose enough from drink to hoot every so often.
Between brilliant lines of verse are the clanging of glasses and the hiss of the bartender topping off a rum and coke. When the California based writer (that’s right, these girls garner literary talent from around the country) Alex Giardino read from her translation of My Life with Pablo Neruda, she looked around and explained that the bar atmosphere of the Word Portland setting would have been exactly the kind of place where the Nobel Laureate Neruda would have read his poems. Need I say more?
Word Portland is everything good about literary readings. Whether you have an active desire to seek out literary events or simply want to drink great beer in a great setting, Word Portland is for you. I’ll see you there the first Monday of the month.