It's a rare occurrence to be able to hear the work of a dozen outstanding writers for free in one night. Smallpressapalooza, held Monday at Powell's City of Books in downtown Portland, kept a nice-sized crowd happy for four hours. Poets, memoirists and novelists traveled from as far as Kansas, Illinois and NYC to celebrate Small Press Month, a loosely promoted awareness campaign by the nation's tiny publishers.
Kevin Sampsell, the avowed "small press champion" at Powell's, organized the fifth annual event, to promote small presses and their talent. He works double time, no, make that triple time, by running his own small press, Future Tense Publishing, and by writing. His lineup of writers was noteworthy, at times hilariously odd and often, moving.
Although a champion for the little guy, Sampsell has earned success as a writer with a memoir published by Harper Perennial, A Common Pornography. He's working something else up while he juggles his duties at Powell's and Future Tense. He says Future Tense tries to put out about 3-4 works a year, and he is actually discouraging submissions right now. But, he does find good stuff in the slush still. (I recommend checking the website. It's cool even if you aren't submitting.)
The lineup of readers offered a lot of variety. It included several who began their publishing debuts in zines, including Elly Blue, who publishes palm-sized chapbooks and writes a blog about bicycling with a feminist twist. A little flushed, she read a section of one of her books about how women should care for their vulvas as cyclists. It left very little to the imagination. But, hey, where else can a female biker find guidance like that?
I'll mention three others who stood out for me during the evening. I attended with a friend and didn't know whether we'd stay all evening but ended up revved to the last reader. My friend had different favorites, but here are the ones I'm still thinking about four days out:
Diana Salier is a poet who just moved from San Fran to Portland two weeks ago. She read from a book of poetry called wikipedia says it will pass and a new one, which was delayed at the printer. I'll admit, I flipped through the royal-blue chapbook before she read and didn't get the same hit as when she spoke. She was very powerful. Blunt and chunky poetry. Her brief bio on her webpage gives the flavor: "diana salier is a musician // person who writes. she wrote wikipedia says it will pass and letters from robots. she is wearing striped pajamas."
The next author, Zach, published under the name Anonymous, read from his book called Love is Not Constantly Wondering If You're Not Making the Biggest Mistake of Your Life. It is a pick-your-own-adventure book, whereby the reader is offered choices at the end of each section to progress. Its subject matter is a relationship crumbling because of a girlfriend's alcoholism. I approached Zach after his reading because the work was so moving, I wanted to tell him. He didn't want his name on the book because he was afraid his mom (he's from NY) would find out and be disappointed in his own choices. But the work is good and nothing to be ashamed of (Zach's mom: If you ever find out, don't worry. Your son's got talent). He's sold 500 books so far and is working on something else. Don't let the cover of the book under-represent the contents.
Finally, Randy Blazak rounds out my top three, partly because his reading was pretty hilarious and he looked like he had probably been a hair-band groupie at one point. Needless to say, his novel, released last November, Mission to the Sacred Heart a Rock Novel, is about an obsession with ELO, Electric Light Orchestra, and the churnings of a young Portland sophisticate. ELO is cool, so I could relate. He was animated and disarming, as was his writing. Nothing like the dry persona his bio suggests, a PhD in sociology who teaches at Portland State.
I feel fortunate to live in a place that nurtures and celebrates talent in all corners. I'm looking forward to next year.