Wordstock 2015

I’m still earning my Portland literary street cred, y’all. Case in point: somehow, even though I’ve been in Portland for a handful of years now, this year was my first Wordstock.

For folks not in the know, Wordstock is Portland’s massive literary festival. Or, one of them, anyway: just last month, we had the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association fall trade show, and next month is the Holiday Cheer book event at the Oregon Historical Society, and in March there’s Smallpressapalooza at Powell’s, and in June this past year we had the bar-hopping LitHop PDX, which is different from Literary Arts’ Lit Crawl, which is different from Literary Arts’ Arts and Lecture series and the Oregon Book Awards . . . .

(This town spoils me, gang!)

But almost as soon as we moved to Portland, I began hearing about Wordstock as something special, and I was long past due for attending.

And in many respects, I wish I’d gone earlier, just to have a basis for comparison, because in years past, the event was its own, independent organization and was held at the massive Oregon Convention Center; but this year, for the first time, it was organized by Literary Arts and hosted in the Portland Art Museum. And those changes were the primary topic of discussion at the event: the changes from last year, good and bad, and all the suggestions for how to improve the experience for next year.

The Oregonian‘s recap later in the day does a fairly good job of summing up most people’s experiences — even the headline is a solid overview: “Wordstock 2015: big crowds, steady rain, great readings, mass confusion.” The only two things I might add to that recap, because they’re important, are problems with ADA-related accessibility, and the appearance of the event placing more emphasis this year on big-name celebrities from out of town and (slightly) less emphasis on our own local authors and publishers, big-name and emerging alike. Notice, for example, that the Oregonian article features actor-turned-author Jesse Eisenberg as their lead photo, rather than Ursula K. Le Guin or Cheryl Strayed or the powerhouse panel of Suzy Vitello, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Chelsea Cain (more on that later). One the other hand, looking at that list reminds me of one particular note of praise I heard from lots of people: this year’s Wordstock featured several panels that were entirely women, which was important to see! (Next year, Wordstock: more local writers of color, more LGTB writers, more diversity in general. You’re on the right track, but keep stepping it up!)

Otherwise, I have only my own limited experience at the event, which I showed up to later in the day (I wasn’t one of those poor folks fighting round-the-block lines in the rain first thing in the morning), and which I limited mostly to the bookfair since every headline event was crowded well beyond capacity.

In the bookfair, I felt like I was running into everyone: John Carr Walker, Mark Russell, James Bernard Frost, Liz Prato, Laura Stanfill (who was the hit of the bookfair; Mo Daviau has proposed founding a new literary event in Portland called “Laurastock,” just so we all can bask in Laura’s presence), Art Edwards, Stevan Allred, Suzy Vitello, Ross Robbins, Brian Tibbetts, Michael Heald, Domi Shoemaker, Natalie Serber, Jessica Standifird, Jason Arias, Emily Grosvenor . . . . I even tweeted about it (when I finally found a quiet space and moment in which to tweet):

Later, when I got home and started checking in with my social media feeds, I realized that I hadn’t actually bumped into everyone: I missed Mo Daviau, Ellen Urbani, Davis Slater, Kate Ristau, Cari Luna, Dan Berne, Olivia Olivia, Margaret Malone, A.M. O’Malley, Kevin Sampsell, Jenny Forrester, and a whole gaggle of other writers who were somewhere in the multiple spaces of the Art Museum but whose paths I never managed to cross.

20151107_132337I kept wanting to take photos of all the amazing booths and displays, which included not only books for sale and writing groups and conferences to plug, but also games and swag and opportunities to play with words (I especially loved a cut-out paper “magnet poetry” board with which to compose your six-word memoir), but my phone’s camera doesn’t do well in dim light and the bookfair was CROWDED, so I only managed to snap one photo of a very cool display at the Oregon Humanities booth, where they were asking writers to pin whence they had come to Wordstock and where they felt most at home. (It was telling that the greatest crowd of “feel at home” pins, by far, were in Portland, and yes, that’s where I stuck my pin, too.)

At the Forest Avenue Press table, I also discovered a promotional board with the press’s impressive line-up of books and, what do you know, a quote from me! Laura Stanfill, the amazing woman behind Forest Avenue Press, had contacted me a while back to ask about borrowing some lines from my blog post about Ellen Urbani’s Landfall release event at Powell’s, and sure enough, there were my words right in the center of the poster! That was pretty thrilling.

While I was standing there gawking at my name, Laura Stanfill was nearby with her ever-present camera, taking LOTS of photos of everyone, and she snapped a picture of me palling around with John Carr Walker.

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“We do hair and fiction,” John cleverly wrote on Facebook when Laura shared this photo there. “And literary-themed attire.”

I also managed to pick up a bit of swag, including pins, silly photos of myself, an Anne of Green Gables scarf from Storiarts for my wife, and, of course, books.

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That’s an ARC of Robert Hill‘s The Remnants, coming March 2016 from Forest Avenue Press; my friend Sean Davis‘s memoir The Wax Bullet War, from Ooligan Press; and a copy of Heart of Darkness illustrated by Matt Kish, from Tin House (longtime readers might recognize Kish’s brilliant work — I put one of the illustrations from this book on the cover of Jersey Devil Press back in March 2013).

I would have been happy to attend basically all the panels at Wordstock this year, but I’m glad I mostly stuck to the bookfair and skipped the long lines into the panel venues. Still, the end of the day was a taping of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s radio program State of Wonder, which I love — I’m a huge fan of host April Baer, actually; she’s a fantastic radio host and reporter — and the final taping included two panel discussions. The first was with Portland authors Suzy Vitello, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Chelsea Cain, and their relationship with their rockstar writing circle (which also includes Monica Drake, Chuck Palahniuk, and, when she’s not busy being superfamous, Cheryl Strayed). The second panel was with husband-wife team Colin Meloy (of The Decemberists) and Carson Ellis (author of Home), the pair behind the fabulous Wildwood Chronicles, as well as Colin Meloy’s sister, the powerhouse fiction writer Maile Meloy. And yeah, I geeked out the whole time, utterly starstruck even by writers I’ve met before and (public-radio nerd that I am) by getting to see April Baer live! To be fair, I think everyone was a little starstruck, even the stars: at one point, each of the three authors in the first panel spoke about how nervous and excited they were the first time they joined their writing group; Suzy Vitello let slip the word “shit” on what was supposed to be an FCC-friendly radio show, and Lidia Yuknavitch described hiding out in the road and spying on the workshop house before going inside because she wasn’t sure her invitation was even real. We can relate, Lidia!

I took photos, but I was pretty far back in the packed room, so they’re a bit fuzzy:

Some observations from my first-ever Wordstock: According to friends and to conversations I overheard, apparently Wordstock used to be so much better/worse when it was at the Convention Center, and Literary Arts definitely needs to stay at the Art Museum/return the Convention Center/find a new venue altogether. And people universally loved/hated limiting Wordstock to a single day this year. The massive crowds, which consisted almost exclusively of Portland literati — I mean avid readers — I mean curious onlookers — I mean out-of-towners — were a sign of how much we love books here/were a total pain in the ass. Also, it was wonderful to see so many big names join Wordstock this year, which helped elevate our recognition outside of Oregon — except when all those big-name non-Portlanders detracted from the emphasis on local Oregon writers and publishers. And it sure was nice that the conference attendees had access to the museum exhibits during Wordstock/it sure was confusing to track down all the pop-up events inside the museum!

In other words, there are large camps of people in total agreement on the new Wordstock, but there are many of those large camps, and each camp seem to disagree with the others on just about everything.

There was one genuinely universal sentiment, though: the volunteers were bonafide heroes. Everyone I spoke to or read later agreed that the volunteers displayed a superhuman ability to keep calm and friendly in the face of the many wet, claustrophobic, cranky attendees and presenters and bookfair vendors (to say nothing of the Portland citizens and tourists who had just come to see the museum and were utterly overwhelmed by the Wordstock crowd). So, many thousands of kudos to the fabulous volunteers who made Wordstock possible!

For myself, having no basis for comparison, I think the venue in the Art Museum is lovely, and while moving from building to building and floor to floor was confusing and, in the rain, sometimes frustrating, the actual spaces Wordstock occupied were beautiful. And it felt nice to bring together the visual and literary arts that way. Of course, those media might have been TOO brought together, as many of the museum-goers grumbled that they’d have preferred a separate ticket line, which would have sped things up for both the museum attendees and the Wordstock attendees. And the space was cramped, so perhaps extending the festival to a second day (as it has been sometimes in the past) would be a good idea in future years.

But whatever Literary Arts and Wordstock plans for next year, I know one thing for certain: I’ll be back. Year after year.

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7 thoughts on “Wordstock 2015

  1. The Convention Center was cold cold cold as a venue, but that trumped not getting in to see a single author I wanted to see. Okay, not entirely true. I made it to the one OPB panel, but only because I had someone on the inside who scouted out seats for me. The best part of Wordstock was seeing people I haven’t run into in years. I even met an editor I worked for remotely for FIVE YEARS and never personally had met before. Amazing!

    1. It must be hard for Literary Arts. In some respects, they needed only take over and keep on keeping on, but they took the brave (and arguably necessary) step of starting over with a clean slate. The result is that, effectively, they launched an entirely new festival, with all the bugs and wrinkles one would expect, but they had an existing — and EAGER! — audience for that “new” venture. So of course they were overwhelmed.

      But I love Literary Arts and all they do, and I trust them to make a lot of the right adjustments next year. I’m excited about the future.

      1. I think it was ambitious to have it at the museum and logistically perhaps ill-advised, but I’m sure much was learned at the first time out of the gate for them. Also, I think most visitors were more happy to have it back then annoyed at any programming snafus.

  2. I’m sorry I missed you, Sam! I hit Peak Extroversion around 3:30 and had to go. Great recap, though. I’ll see you at Laurastock?

  3. I didn’t make it to this Wordstock, but I’ll say that the convention center version declined every year I attended from (I think) ’09 thru ’13 or so. That ’09 w’stock was flipping awesome, tho and a gold standard. I hope that Lit Arts is able to continue expanding and refining the festival in the years to come. They better, as I’ll be polishing this world-wide best seller in a few months.

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