Saturday, February 9, 2013

Louder Than a Bomb

"It's not the points, it's the poetry" spins in my head as I ride through Rowena, ride through The Dalles, and head up Sevenmile Hill Road, the back way. The line comes from Louder Than a Bomb, the video about the annual high school slam competition in Chicago. I've never heard/seen anything like those poets, those teachers, those metaphors. And at the end of the documentary, the team, that [spoiler alert] didn't continue in the competition  due to .1 point, realizes that indeed, the poetry matters most of all. Their poetry is crazy loud, crazy good.

So often on a bike ride, my obsession with numbers, the miles traveled, the speed, the time, keep my eyes on my monitor. Today was one of those days when folly is a mirror. Today was the first big ride for me, and my route was ambitious. Over 2,000 ft elevation gain in the last 2 miles. I checked the wind, and I knew there would be plenty.

Didn't figure 17mph headwind, and gusts over 27mph. Didn't figure 38 degrees. The force of the wind was too much for my speed of 3.7mph up the steepest parts of the hill. Physics ruled, and my bike stopped. Around a switchback, on my one earbud I heard Destiny's Child sing, "I'm a survivor." It cheered me up, and I was gaining speed until I switched back, perpendicular to the wind, and the wind almost knocked me off the pavement. Without guard rails, the wind might have knocked me off the mountain. So, I walked and rode and cursed and made it to the summit.

What triumph I had today over numbers and numbness is folly compared with what the young people in the video accomplished every day. In their teenage years, they are better poets than I ever will be. Their metaphors punch. Their grasp of history and popular culture and their family layers their performances with truth; they turn truth into minor chords. The audience feels the truth in the chest.

Once I had the good fortune of interviewing David Wagoner, a poet-god whose poems turn birds into  songs. We talked about the new medium of slam, and he acknowledge that slam poetry gave rise to underrepresented voices. But he feared that the poems were not lasting because of the reliance on sound alone. The interview was twenty years ago, and he hadn't heard:

Adam Gottleib, Breathe Now or Maxwell Street
Nova Venerable, Cody
Lamar Jorden, Shooter

Their poems have pitch perfect sound, depth, the staying power of words that cut, that open up holes in the listener. What I'm saying is that there are tests worth taking, on stage, on paper, on a bike. Writing has an edge, and the edge is what helps move experience, move culture, make judgments like Wagoner's moot. Louder than a Bomb is a movement.

Do we have the movement in Portland? We have Verselandia, in its second year. Want to hear what's raw and sweet and so loud it breaks? Let's all go, and then, we'll know to forget numbers, to look up at a summit, to honor poetry more than points.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

the love of a writing community

This morning, the sheen on the street is shiny gray, and the clouds are as thin as veils. What moves through me like those clouds is news of a friend with lymphoma. He's an athlete, a writer, someone who waits at the end of a reading and approaches you and says the thing you hoped someone would hear and say out loud.

In the Q & A portion of the Brave on the Page reading at Powell's in early January, someone asked if a writer should join a group. One audience member felt writing groups were a waist of time. Some are. Some break poems over their knees for the sheer pleasure of breaking. Some whitewash the pain out of stories. But then, there's the one or two that fit, like cashmere sweaters just the right size. They're hard to find. They're hard to create.

Here's a profile of one of the groups that tastes like sweet corn soup on a February day:

--the Dangerous Writers in Portland began with a few charismatic leaders, bent on bending rules, indoctrinating eager, vulnerable writers with a new vocabulary and new rules.

--the members were ferociously dedicated, meeting each week, and making sacrifices to be there (some folks spent so much time writing to make the weekly page count that they didn't eat enough, didn't meet daily obligations.)

--the responses in the group to writing were stars drawn over words doing their work, spicy and seductive, with discussion of the "bumps," so gently put and so honest that the writer felt powerful enough to gather feedback, to ignore feedback, and to keep rolling down the lane with feedback as a bumper.

--the group socialized outside of writing time, with invitations sent to everyone in the group.

--to change things up, there were annual parties and annual writing challenges.

--sporadically, news of publications and honors went out, with each person published willing to share his/her connections or queries or websites or process.

--people showed up, for each other, for readings and weddings and hospital visits.

--resources like agents and web skills and toboggans were shared.

--rules about how to write fiction (first person, personal, etc.) that the group started with changed as the group opened up and changed tables and grew, and the writing opened up and grew.

And what's grown is a community, one connected by email and Evite and fireworks in Estacada. We don't all write together around the same tables. We don't write the same things. We don't live in the same place. Even someone who has moved to San Francisco, who has just received news that he has lymphoma, can reach out and ask the dangerous writing community for book recommendations, can ask for laughter and for a 57-word flash fiction piece that includes a word from his chemo regimen. And he will get books and writing and love. It's that kind of group. It's that kind of love.

Friday, February 1, 2013


Middle English retret, from Anglo-French retrait, from past participle of retraire to withdraw, from Latin retrahere, from re- + trahere to draw. First Known Use: 14th century.
1 a (1) : an act or process of withdrawing especially from what is difficult, dangerous, or disagreeable (2) : the process of receding from a position or state attained retreat
of a glacier>
b (1) : the usually forced withdrawal of troops from an enemy or from an advanced position (2) : a signal for retreating
c (1) : a signal given by bugle at the beginning of a military flag-lowering ceremony (2) : a military flag-lowering ceremony
2: a place of privacy or safety : refuge
3: a period of group withdrawal for prayer, meditation, study, or instruction under a director

January was a l-o-n-g month, but there were moments of retreat. There is so much "treat" in retreat. What great pleasure. While the root is in "draw" as in "move away," I'd like to think of it as the artistic kind, to draw an image of what's core, what's in your heart. There's also the time and space to draw out creativity, to conjure the demons and the dreams. A retreat is whatever you need it to be.
Cecily & J in cool hats
One weekend Cecily Portman and Joanna Rose spent the weekend with me in Mosier. Good wine and cheese and cupcakes were as much part of the retreat as writing in the corner of the house we claimed, as walking in the crisp air, as spinning circles under the constellations, pointing and pretending to know their names. 
Linda and me
And the next weekend I spent with Linda Vogt, my pal from CCC, the woundrous Journalism instructor emeritus. She's working on a mystery novel, which she's generously sharing with her pals. While the meals were not gourmet without Ms. Cecily and Ms. J around, we had enough coffee and chocolate to get us through. While we were there, we were totally withdrawn from the world, in a frozen fog, for day after day. We barely saw the Columbia River Valley, and didn't even hope to see the icicles of Mt. Adams and Hood. Rafi had a great time, too. 
Whoever you are, I wish you the ability to find a retreat, a place to breathe, create, do whatever you need to do.