Word Portland: Come for a Pint, Stay for the Words

LongfellowLiterary 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.

LFKBetween 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.

Cheers.

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Steve Almond and the Art of Reading Literary Smut in Public

Here’s how you get away with reading sex scenes in public: make the experience really human.  That’s what I learned from attending Steve Almond’s reading at Space Gallery in Portland last Saturday (1.26.13).  Being raised in the Catholic tradition, where sex is often had but seldom talked about, I still squirm when hearing someone openly discuss such matters as learning how to properly perform oral sex on a woman.  But there is something about the way Steve Almond gives a public reading that made even his riskiest scene about anal sex comfortable and, dare I say, moving.

Almond is on the road promoting his latest self-published collection of adult-themed micro-books, Writs of Passion for V-Day.  There are six micro-books in all, and they were stacked one atop the other and tied with a ribbon on the book table.  My wife had read that when all the books are laid out, they make a risque photograph.  Holding the stack, she mentioned this aloud, at which point a lanky man in his forties affirmed that they did indeed make an image, and would we like to see it.  Of course, she responded.  The man arranged the books, completing the bawdy puzzle, and the image did not disappoint.  I might have been more uncomfortable with the entire scene, recovering Catholic as I am, but the tall guy with the five o’clock shadow and ripped jeans who’d laid the books out laughed at the provocative image and made a comment on how great the photo turned out, though it may have been a bit over-the-top.  We all laughed.

Five minutes later, that man walked on stage.

The levity Almond brought to the moment we’d shared as we gazed at the smutty book puzzle extended to the stage-self he presented to the crowd for the next forty-five minutes.  Immediately, it was clear that what Almond was interested in wasn’t the description of perfectly executed sex between two air-brushed bodies.  No, what he was after was a raw look at the human animal trying to make connections in the confusing, sometimes embarrassing act of physical intimacy.

Almond was hyper-present in the room as he read, listening carefully for the crowd reaction, stopping when someone in the crowd laughed or groaned, and saying, “I know” or “But it’s true, right?”  This guy knows how to give readings about sex.  He was aware that we were all taking a chance by being there, that just by listening we were making ourselves vulnerable, and he was attuned to our reactions.  There’s the first lesson for reading smut in public, listen ferociously to the crowd and help them know how to be in that room with you.

Lesson two: get over yourself so you can be yourself.  It’s a paradox, but that’s what Almond did as he read and interjected commentary.  He didn’t stand above us on the stage as the expert on having sex or writing about sex.  He was a man at home with his awkward self.  (Maybe that’s true enlightenment.)  His stories were more interested in exposing us as the aching desire-machines we are than being how-to manuals.  This lack of bravado put the room at ease.  We were all in the stories together — Almond included — trying to discover what it is about sex and the baggage we bring to it that makes the act, and writing about it, so loaded.

Lesson three: if you’re going to read smut in public, be brave enough to leave time for questions.  After reading his four or so sex scenes, Almond opened up the room to us.  At this point in my writing career, I’m willing to let my characters have sex, and I’m even willing to read the work in public, but I do not yet have the balls, as one might say, to answer audience questions.  But this is where Almond showed his prowess as a teacher of writing.  When asked why he mostly writes about the female orgasm and not the male orgasm, for example, he responded, “Because the female orgasm is more fragile and mysterious, and therefore more fascinating to me.  In my experience, the male orgasm is pretty sturdy.”  To the question of what makes his writing different from the Fifty Shades series, Almond stated that what he felt separated sex in literary fiction from sex in erotica is that the former is more about the emotions of sex than the act of sex.  He didn’t shy away from a question, nor did he stand up there with an agenda.  He was present, honest, funny, and humble.  All good things to be in any moment of one’s life.

Here’s the final lesson in how to successfully read about sex in public: your writing needs to be damn good.  Air tight.  No weak descriptors.  No clinical terminology for genitalia.  Ego free.  Unflinching.  Unafraid.  And that’s what Almond brought to the table.  One can’t simply get by on his charisma.  The words on the page need to deliver, and they certainly did.

Steve Almond is a writer in complete control of his craft.  Add that to his ability to control an audience with presence and honesty, and you have the perfect soup for successfully reading literary smut in public.  Good luck with your own smutty endeavors.