After celebrating thirty years of bringing high-caliber literary culture to Oregon, the Portland-based nonprofit Literary Arts is now gearing up to relaunch Wordstock, the ambitious book festival that was started in 2005 by Community of Writers, a workshop program for writing teachers, but stalled in 2013. With executive director Andrew Proctor at the helm, Literary Arts took over the struggling endeavor last year, bringing on Amanda Bullock (former director of public programming at Housing Works in New York City) to coordinate the event with a sharper focus in a new venue. This year’s festival will take place on November 7 at the Portland Art Museum, and will feature workshops, panels, readings, live music, a book fair, and pop-up events with more than eighty writers, including Jon Krakauer, Stacy Schiff, John Irving, and Tracy K. Smith. Proctor, who joined Literary Arts in 2009 after working for HarperCollins and PEN American Center, spoke about the newly revamped Wordstock, and the thriving Portland literary community it celebrates.
There seems to be a trend toward presenting literary events as discussions, as opposed to authors simply reading their work. How will Wordstock reflect this?
One of the reasons we wanted to do the festival is that we wanted another mode of presenting literature to our community. Literary Arts already has a big lecture series, and that’s great, but not everybody wants to go to a big concert hall, so this is a whole other thing. We want it to be more intimate. The tone of the festival is one of conversation. Conversations can bring things out that might not normally surface at a reading. We have a lot of outstanding interviewers this year, including radio hosts from Oregon Public Broadcasting.
What other Wordstock-related events are happening that weekend?
Friday night includes a welcome reception fund-raiser with James McBride’s Good Lord Bird Band playing. Later, at the Mission Theater, there’s a performance by Back Fence PDX, a storytelling show. On Saturday, after the book fair, there’s a LitCrawl in the inner Southeast neighborhood, as well as a Wordstock edition of the Live Wire radio show.
How do you think the literary scene is being affected by the accelerated growth of Portland?
I can only speak as someone who arrived six years ago, so I want to be thoughtful about that. I know there are people who miss the old Portland, but what I think is tremendously exciting about this moment is that there are a lot of new people arriving. It’s more diverse than it’s been, and that really feeds our cultural life and keeps it an exciting place. But I know there’s also a very serious social-justice issue facing us in terms of gentrification. This has hit communities of color hardest. Literary Arts has been working hard, especially lately, to be a better partner to these communities and to strive to serve them better. Recent examples are the fellowship for writers of color, and the work Writers in the Schools does day in and day out in all our high schools.
Where does Portland land in the grand scheme of our national literary landscape?
The culture per square foot here, from a literary perspective, is off the charts. For a city that’s a quarter of the size of Brooklyn, it seems impossible that this much is going on. And because of its density, it’s incredibly invigorating to be around. Last year we raised a million dollars for the Brian Booth Writers’ Fund, which is an endowment to support new work here in Oregon. It’d be easy just to say we’re great fund-raisers, but I’d rather say it’s the community that cares so much that they put in a million dollars we can give to writers. It’s tremendous.
Kevin Sampsell is the author of This Is Between Us (Tin House, 2013) and A Common Pornography (Harper Perennial, 2010). He is the editor of the anthology Portland Noir (Akashic Books, 2009), and runs the small press Future Tense Books. He lives in Portland, Oregon.