Karen Spears Zacharias at Wordstock

I always love to hear from Karen Spears Zacharias when she’s out at the book festivals. This time, she’s hanging out at Portland, Oregon’s Wordstock

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DAY ONE: I could’ve used a sail today as I headed west through the Columbia River Gorge. It was the perfect windsurfer day. Frothy-white caps breaking and rolling to the earth’s pulse. I was tempted to pull off Interstate 84 to watch the Tidewater barge push upriver or maybe to take a hike to the top of a broken ridge. But I didn’t have time to dilly-dally around: Book TV was waiting.

My only stop was at Cousin’s Restaurant in The Dalles. I didn’t drop in for their colossal-sized cinnamon rolls, although that’s as good a reason as any. I had something else in mind. Every time a person walks through the door at Cousin’s a cow moos, making it impossible to carry out a discreet mission. But I quickly find a stall and leave a copy of After the Flag Has Been Folded on the back of a toilet, inscribed with these words: “The author has left this book for you. If you find it, please read it and then pass it along to another reader. Then drop me a line and let me know who you are, so we can follow the journey this book makes.” (I hope that journey doesn’t involve a sewer drain.)

C-Span’s Book TV bus was parked catawampus at Pioneer Square, across Broadway from Nordstrom’s, and the kindly book people reported that they had met all sorts of interesting characters throughout the day. There’s no better place for a character study than people-watching in Portland. The interview involved a few technical glitches, followed by some stammering around on my behalf. No matter how well-prepared I am, it never seems be enough.

Jennie Shortridge (Eating Heaven) met me at the nearby Starbucks, which was too crowded for a relaxing visit, so we found a quiet spot around the corner. Jennie, who’d driven down from her Seattle home, led a Wordstock workshop for teachers. It was well-attended and she even got paid for the gig, always a good thing.

Jennie and I first met at the Pulpwood Queens event in Jefferson, Texas. We both agreed that the best thing about the Pulpwood weekend was the friends we made, which is after all, how Kathy Patrick promotes it. Speaking of friends, ran into a couple in the lobby of the stately Benson Hotel. Cassandra King (The Same Sweet Girls) and Ron Rash (The World Made Straight). King has just returned from a trip to Africa, with her husband, Pat Conroy. She mentioned something about miserable heat. Rash and King were on a panel together Saturday, while I shared a stage with Debra Dean (The Madonnas of Leningrad).

Folks around these parts say the best thing about Oregon is that there’s something for everyone here—beaches, mountains, deserts; hiking, skiing, windsurfing. The line-up for Wordstock reflects some of that same diversity: Kathleen Dean Moore, Kim Stafford, John Rember, Yusef Komunyakaa, & Carole Radziwill. Talk about eating cake.

DAY TWO: I started off the morning with a song, delivered especially to me by two of Portland’s finest characters, who were sitting on a curb, smoking cigarettes.

“Hey lady!” one fellow called out. “You want me to sing you a song?” He had a firm grasp of the bottle in the paper sack between his thighs.

I could’ve kept walking, ignored two drunks. But the sun was sparkling, and it seemed fitting to start the morning with a song, so I walked over to where the men sat. The singer pulled out a pair of sunglasses, took a swig from his bottle and asked, “Do you want me to sing you a good song?”

“Yes,” I answered. “I’d like to hear a good song.”

“Well,” he laughed, “all my songs are good.” He took another swig from the bottle, ran his fingers through the gray locks that fell to his shoulder. His face was all cut-rock and stubble, his eyes the color of blue jay feathers. I wondered what his story was. Who had he been as a boy? Did he have any children of his own? Had he served in the military? Perhaps, been a college professor? Who loved this man?

“A couple of years ago, Eric Clapton wrote a song about the son who fell from a window,” he said. Then, he attempted a couple of false starts of “Tears of Heaven,” finally finishing with a rendition of “Paperback Writer” in my honor. A song is a good way to start a day, no matter what city you’re in.

Followed the song with an interview with author Ron Rash about his latest book, The World Made Straight (the title is adapted from the lyrics of Handel’s Messiah). Made haste from the Benson Hotel, across the Willamette River, to the convention center, in time to hear poets Taylor Mali and Kim Stafford perform. Taylor had the crowd laughing with a poem about making his mother a lanyard:

…She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.

Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

In a brief meeting in the green room, Kim Stafford had told me that he was about to get blown out of the water by “Taylor Mali, this amazing poet from New York.” Stafford also mentioned that he’d recently made a trek to the small Arkansas town where his father, William Stafford, had been incarcerated during World War II for being a conscientious objector. Kim said he was struck by the town’s poverty and powerlessness. (You can read about William Stafford’s incarceration in the compilation of his work, Every War Has Two Losers).

I had a brief but pleasant chat with Laila Lalami before we both had to present. Debra Dean and I were billed as biography and historical fiction, but we decided our real theme was war, and we stuck with that. I was reminded of the art museum blown up in Baghdad as Dean spoke about the precautions taken by the museum director in Leningrad to protect the art.

Dave Eggers presented to a standing room only crowd, and Portland’s faithful turned out by the dozens to swap jello recipes with Jennie Shortridge. I skipped the Joyce Carol Oates event to hear my friend Cassandra King speak. She suggested that the audience might need a translator to understand her LA accent (that’s “Lower Alabama”). Finished the evening back at the Benson over cracker and cheese with Ron Carlson, who introduced himself as a professor from Arizona State and a short story writer. “I’m sorry. I don’t know your work,” I said.

“That’s okay,” he replied. “You will.” We spent much of the hour talking about Vietnam, which he hopes to visit. I had lamely asked if his work was published in anthologies and he had answered yes. Sure enough, a quick search on Google revealed that Carlson is the author of eight books of fiction, including The Speed of Light and A Kind of Flying, and his short stories have appeared in Esquire, Harper’s, and The New Yorker. An old-school gentleman, Carlson forgave me my stupidity and even fetched me a drink.

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23 April 2006 | events, guest authors |