Inspiration: Portland, OR
…in spite of AWP
I spent last week in Portland, OR as a participant at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, a ginormous ant hill of workshops, readings, panels, and my favorite aspect—the book fair.
Why I went
It is the first time I’ve been to an AWP since 2009. In ten years’ time, I can vouch for the old saying: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Things I loved about AWP, or which changed for the better
- all the new small independent presses, multiple panels and readings focused on the challenges and works of people with disability or chronic or invisible illness (#NothingAboutUsWithoutUs)
- seeing so many old friends and making new ones
- hearing fresh work from younger voices
- reading fresh new sections from my hybrid collection before a packed house at Liberty Glass (with thanks to Crab Creek Review for the invite to do so!)
Things that unfortunately stayed the same
- the stink of despair among all the folks so needy of the validation of publishers
- a little bit (not a lot) of the same weird hero worship and caste system inclusivity that emerges when large groups of writers gather anywhere, because #Envy
- the exhaustion that comes with trying to make the most of such a huge event, because #FOMO
(Psst… Why I really went)
Until last week, I’d forgotten just how much I love Portland. Or maybe I went to be reminded, to reconnect with the part of my soul that I left there over 30 years ago.
In childhood, I lived in Portland’s suburbs (Hillsboro, Aloha, Milwaukie) and its Washington-side bedroom community, Vancouver, north of the Columbia River.
I went to Portland State University for my junior year— as a psych major— before getting married and moving to Chicago. I still miss the good coffee and bagels that are still a trademark of the city. (In fact, they had free coffee at the Portland State University booth at the AWP book fair, and it was frickin’ delish.)
Portland has always been good to me: friendly and authentic people, unpretentious art scene, diverse foodie community, natural beauty, walkable streets, a liveable scale (as cities go), a sense of groundedness that I don’t feel when I set foot in Seattle.
Portland has wonderful Victorian houses; a social justice ethos that makes practical sense to me; killer brekkies (Kornblatt’s, La Luna Café, Slappy Cakes); the holy and sacred Mt. Olympus of all independent bookstores (Powell’s City of Books); Portland’s rooftop garden on the mountain top, Council Crest (with its magnificent view of Mt. Hood and the valley*); food trucks!; and all those beautiful bridges.
The weather was hit or miss, but mostly a hit for me when I was intentionally out of doors.
Unfortunately, much of my time was spent inside the less-than-accommodating Oregon Convention Center (but where else in Portland can you house 15,000 people, over 500 events and a book fair without needing shuttle service?).
Back at the Inn at Northrup Station, my accommodations were, by comparison, cheery and comfortable. It’s a great place to render oneself horizontal with the ol’ MS acting up (or the flu, or both, which was my luck). Were I more adventurous and healthy while I was there, I would’ve picked up the trolley right outside and toured the city on free passes provided by the inn.
Also generously stockpiled: blends from my new favorite tea purveyor, Steven Smith Teamaker (try the White Petal!). On one clear night, I drank a large mug of this delicious tea sitting on the not-ready-for-spring rooftop patio and watched for satellites. When I talk about brain rest, this is what I mean.
When I did venture outside, I drove across all the bridges, or hopped over the state bridge to catch up with my high school best bud Sandy, or walked the tight grid of Portland, through quirky neighborhoods, under the star-like blossoms of Magnolia and her ostentatious pal, Camellia, rediscovering the charm of the city I haven’t spent any real time in since I left in 1987.
Eateries that took good care of me included the thoroughly Portlandic (with its quirky origin story) Anna Bannana’s (NW Portland’s oldest café); Indian soul food from Bhuna; Voodoo Donuts rival Blue Star Donuts (the orange olive oil cake donut is sublime, and don’t overlook the passion fruit cocoa nib brioche option); the previously mentioned Kornblatt’s Delicatessan, which serves a jar of pickles tableside with your lox and bagels; and Paley’s Place (disclaimer: though the hostess was a tad bit of a snob by Portland’s standards, I still recommend the ushki becha and the kumquat shrub).
Perhaps the best way to cap the entire adventure came for me via nights paging through Portland author Monica Drake‘s novel-in-stories, The Folly of Loving Life. This book is both a cautionary tale of change to come and a plaintive love letter to the city, a compelling tribute to the beauty we can find inside instability and vulnerability.
As I read Folly, I felt like I was peering into a sun-faded 80s Polaroid of a familiar, if fictitious place: the Territorium. Drake’s narrative reveals in exquisite, hard-edged ways, how people pushed together by circumstance can break through walls to, quite literally, find roots to grab onto.
Which may be what AWP should also be about, but was (and is) not.
I won’t take so long to return to the Rose City this time. Case in point: we have plans for July and they can’t come soon enough!
*Image by Robert D. West