This past Sunday, November 10th, local poets John Beer and Zachary Schomburg came together for a reading and conversation at the Literary Arts event space here in downtown Portland. They brought Joshua Beckman along for the ride, another accomplished poet who splits his time between Seattle and New York.
The event was well-attended with the seats filled to capacity and many more content to stand and listen in what is an intimate, but not crowded, space. Encouragingly, much of the crowd was a younger set drawn in by good poetry (as well as the free food and drinks that were offered). Many of the events at the space are free and open to public, offering constant opportunities for anyone to walk in off the street and experience something special and inviting right in the middle of the city.
Zachary Schomburg, the first to read, is the author of three volumes of poetry: The Man Suit (2007), Scary No Scary (2009), and Fjords Vol. 1 (2012), which won the 2013 Oregon Book Award for poetry. He publishes through Black Ocean Press, distributed through Small Press Distribution, and coedits Octopus Books here in Portland. His work is often called surrealist or absurdist, but it contains a good deal of self-effacement and humor. The up-and-coming work from which he read didn’t disappoint in this regard. His reading style is laid back and easy, which fit the relaxed atmosphere of the space and set the conversational tone for the rest of the reading. He takes his poetry seriously, though. Schomburg, by his own admission, is well aware of the surrealist traditions he comes from, and he is responding to them and forging new ground for poets like him.
Humor and a comfortable place within tradition are the things that seemed to relate these poets to one another artistically. John Beer, a faculty member in the MFA program at Portland State, gave a reading of his own that elicited plenty of laughter from the crowd. Beer has published The Wasteland and Other Poems (Canarium, 2010) and is now an author for Wave Books. He also has a background in theatre criticism and nonfiction writing. His new work is centered on subject matter that sounds highbrow at first glance: a Duchamp art exhibition or translation of an eighteenth-century German philosopher. The poems themselves, however, are humorous. The poetry about translation is really a long joke about his inadequacy as a translator and all of the tangents and funny conversations he has with other people, and himself, about the failure of his work. His poetry centered on Duchamp, while lyrical and well-rendered, uses repetition of phrases and imagery to assert the absurdity of both the art and his response to it. In listening to Beer and watching his constant smile as he read, I got the sense he takes his poetic craft seriously but definitely doesn’t take himself too seriously.
The same goes for Joshua Beckman, also a writer with Wave Books. He is the author of nine books of poetry and several translations. Beckman chose mostly to read from his newest collection of poetry, entitled The Inside of an Apple, which was published just this past September. His quiet voice drew the room into his spare poetry that was markedly different in rhythm from Beer’s and Schomburg’s. The new book catalogs his mental and emotional responses to everyday events around him in an immediate and visceral way. Beckman’s poetry rolls out in long, convoluted sentences with sound echoes so dense it can be hard to keep track of them all. This made it an interesting listening experience and seemed to keep the audience engaged—even after an hour of reading and a couple breaks for food and drinks.
The evening closed with Beckman and Beer alternating readings of poetry by a poet whom they both like and admire, Robert Lax. John Beer, while living on the island of Patmos in the Greek Isles, actually served as literary assistant to Lax. While Lax’s poetry, repetitive and experimental, didn’t really fit into the style of the rest of the evening, it was good to close the night with Beer and Beckman sharing their love for this particular poet with the audience.
The event accomplished what it set out to do: creating a feeling of having a few beers and good food while listening to friends read the fruits of their passionate labor. As a bonus, it showcased not just some of the Northwest’s best poetry but also the kind of great poetry that’s coming from the small presses here in Portland and elsewhere. With poets like these around, and places like the Literary Arts events space for them to reach the community, literature and poetry will continue to grow and thrive in the city Ooligan Press calls home.