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Pop-up Readings at Wordstock: The Pairing of Painting and Prose


by Paul Lask, Adjunct English Professor, Portland State University

Pop-ups are like the house shows of Wordstock. They are intimate and freewheeling, without a stage or PA, without a barrier between readers and crowds. At times the author might have to speak louder to compete with people unknowingly chatting a room over. But this enhances the focus for listeners, huddling closer as we’re drawn deeper into the stories, a rare energy that’s hard to achieve in more formal settings.

Bright and early my Portland State colleague Matt Robinson read from The Horse Latitudes, his debut novel. Robinson’s images stuck with me: American soldiers handing out soccer balls with propaganda on them to Iraqi kids; wanting to run hands through something green; pointing a rifle at a rusty tank; shedding seven pounds a month; tossing an inert bomb against a fellow soldier’s chest.

Matt stood aside Jamie Wyeth’s Patriot Barn, painted shortly after 9/11. Like other pop-up pairings, this was provocative, this image of a huge white barn whose side is painted with an American flag. Dark green fields run to the horizon in the background. The barn is at the top of a hill, and a pond reflects the scene upside down, with bursts of light through the overcast.

During the Q and A afterwards, Matt noted the large number of veterans from the current wars living in Oregon. They are here, but like the wars themselves, they are too often forgotten or ignored. Someone asked what people should say after thanking a veteran for his or her service. Matt, whose work describes in vivid detail one’s experience of serving, suggested we respond by simply asking how the veteran’s day is going.

Later on I caught Valerie Geary read from her most recent novel, Everything We Lost. I was transported to a nighttime meadow in the woods, where a boy named Nolan has wandered off from a camping trip. Nolan looked up and wondered if bears used stars to navigate. He’s soon found in a creek, stripped of clothes, the novel’s mystery presented. See— Nolan believed he’d been abducted by aliens, that a moving star stopped over him. He searched the field for scorch marks, his body for scars, some sort of proof…”What they had done to him?”

Valerie was paired with N.C. Wyeth’s The Astrologer emptied the whole of the bowl into the bottle, a 1916 painting of a wizard funneling a large white bowl of blood-red liquid into a glass bottle. His robe matches his hat, blue with yellow stars, his long white hair and beard giving him a godly appearance, with hawk-eyed focus on his project. Those around him look on in astonishment, fear, surprise. Is the writer a kind of wizard? A commander of the universe, mixing strange potions while us readers gasp in amazement?

One of the last pop-ups I caught was Kate Carroll de Gutes, reading from her nonfiction collection The Authenticity Experiment.

“Death is like this,” Kate started, relaying the story of losing a mother, with Didion-ish details like having coffee at 6:30 the morning it happened. It seemed there was a tension in the essay between cynicism and care, the former perhaps being a defense mechanism we employ when faced with loss. For example, the sister with the mom at the “adult foster home” felt bad for missing the moment it happened, only being “asleep for a minute.” Death is like this, Kate repeated. Before they took the body away, she placed her hand on her mother’s stomach, the body a “vessel” leaving soon.

Many of us at this pop-up sat. The vibe was comfortable and warm, and Kate’s second reading about gratefulness, about trying to change the energy in one’s life, made me tingle. Kate noted the power of kindness. Gratitude and kindness soften us, she said. She reminded us how good it is to mention the little things we notice about someone but forget to mention. She noted how online life increasingly takes away from the subtleties of life: “we’ve lost nuance.” There’s not enough to notice online, she said, but plenty to be angry about.

Hold what lightens your life, Kate suggested. Examples she gave were a good friend; a song that makes you cry; the beauty of the rain.

She stood by Theodoros Stamos’s 1962 abstract painting, Door 5. Without a realist image of a door, you can interpret the swishing navy in the upper righthand corner however you’d like. In the way abstracts can seem experimental and raw, like how it feels when kindness or death enter our lives, this was another apt pairing of painting and prose.


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