When the world gets crazy, the spoken and written word counts


This started off a few weeks ago as an article on an upcoming — now canceled, thanks to Covid-19 — fundraiser for our own community radio station, KYAQ.

It was a fairly simple assignment – get under the surface of some of the participants’ lives as writers.

Weeks ago, I asked those participants some simple questions, and I received a few responses back and a few persnickety and curmudgeon-like retorts. My first set of questions, I thought, were pretty straightforward:

In one word, associative, the power of literature.

One sentence: what was the impetus that propelled you to become a writer?

Is literature being threatened by all those colluding forces — from no common canon, to the internet, to a distracted society?

Here is a pugnacious and straightforward set of responses from Carol Van Strum, who is pretty well known in the area for her fight against aerial spraying of clear cuts. I featured her in a column for Oregon Coast Today, “A Real-Life Toxic Avenger.”

She believes literature conjures up the word, “hunger.” Her own life is a series of reading opportunities, “learning to read everything from cereal boxes to Chaucer at age two and never stopping to this day.”

Van Strum — who wrote the work of fiction “The Oreo File,” and her real-life fight against herbicides, “A Bitter Fog: Herbicides and Human Rights” — like several other authors, believes literature, or the word, is not threatened by our modern digital distracted world.

The same goes for Marianne Klekacz, author of “When Words Fail.”

“Literature is not being threatened by outside forces, other than those that conspire to produce an illiterate, easily manipulated society,” Klekacz said. “As long as people can read and write and apply human brains to ideas, literature will remain a driving force in the evolution of human society.”

Andrea Scharf, who published “Saving Big Creek” with Dancing Moon Press in 2018, sees positive forces at work in our 21st century, online world.

“People still read, some even read literature via new media, new forms of literature attract new audiences,” she said. “There’s never been a time when everyone read what we’d call literature—in fact, it’s possible that more people read now . . . have the leisure to do so.”

In the end, though, Van Strum sums up her response in a universally relevant way: “Storytelling and songs and poetry are what make us human.”

Beach and Forest Blitz

Peter Sears, who served as Oregon’s Poet Laureate from 2014 to 2016, said in an interview with OPB that, “Of all the human values we hear about that are wonderful — drive, resolve, insight, charm, empathy, whatever — we don’t hear much about imagination, and it’s really, really critical. We live there a lot more than we know. Whether there are any results, that’s another matter. But if a person has an opportunity to engage that imagination, as they do in writing, things can happen that they never saw coming.”

I was on my way back from Spokane, plugging my new literary work, a short story collection, “Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam,” when I heard an interview with Sears’s poetry featured. In fact, the story produced by OPB was about fusing Sears’s poetry with classical music.

Teddy Abrams is one of classical music’s “biggest proponents of collaboration and breaking artistic barriers.” He is the music director of the Britt Music and Arts Festival in Jacksonville. In 2014, Aoife O’Donovan, a well-known songwriter, was asked to help him write a suite of music based on the work of this now-deceased Oregon poet.

My gigs, as an author of a new work of fiction, have also been cancelled due to edicts around public gatherings. While I do not agree with this stunting of small gatherings based on a viral outbreak, the bottom line is that my four library appearances in Toledo, Waldport, Siletz and Newport are on the back burner. Most notably is the cancellation of Get Lit! — one of the biggest literary festivals in the West held each April in Spokane, Wash., my old stomping grounds. I was to read/perform there April 16-18.

My bookstore gigs in Portland have been canceled, as well as those in Seattle.

There is life outside of public readings. I also work on anti-poverty programs; I was both a community college and university writing teacher in several states. Most recently, I have been a social worker for homeless veterans in one program, for at risk foster teens in another, and for recovering addicts in yet another.

With this pedigree, I am now being tasked to work with “Street Roots,” an award-winning, Portland, free weekly distributed by homeless adults who gain part of the sales to survive. The newspaper’s big push, called “The Next Generation,” focuses on youth born in 2000 who are coming of age and face housing insecurity.

Writing in a Time of Plague

As the old adage states, a rolling stone collects no moss. Now that the stones of society and gear work have come to a halt, and all public gatherings in many states across the U.S. have been “banned,” we have a crisis of more atomization in our society, more social dislocation and more isolation.

Therefore, I came up with a new set of questions I posed to the participants of the now-cancelled KYAQ-FM Live Scribe benefit:

What are your thoughts in this time of chaos, plague, crisis?

The word is powerful in times of upheaval and collective angst. Discuss what you will be doing reading and writing wise during this “lock-down.”

Define “community” from your perspective -- could be any sort of “community,” not just a writing community.

One KYAQ-invited writer — former Stockton, Calif., resident and a current Portland native since 1975 — Leanne Grabel sees these lock-downs and cancellations, due to a virus, as more than just an inconvenience:

“Let’s face it; there is a thrill in crises, and I feel it,” Grabel said. “It’s an abandonment of routine, which has an excitement to it. Is there fear? Yes. We are over 60, and my husband has lung issues. But staying home, watching movies, working on projects, and now having a snowstorm, it has its sweetness. Now, if we get sick, it won’t be so fun. And, of course, there is huge concern and disgust over the current administration’s handling of it all since their first priority is not people but money. It just piles up the disgust that was already up to the sky. But local communities — schools, restaurants, stores — are being generous and people-focused.”

Her pedigree is long and varied, but most interesting to me is that she’s worked in the Portland public schools focusing on language arts and special education. Much of her time concentrated on teenage girls in a lockdown residential treatment center: Rosemont.

“As a writer and a victim of trauma myself,” she said, “I knew the act of writing one’s ugly story could help — just help.”

From that work, she published “badgirls,” a chapbook based on her experiences with the girls.

“badgirls” was transformed into a multimedia performance directed by Susan Banyas. Grabel has been working on a collection of flash memoirs called “Husband,” collaborating with dancer Gregg Bielemeier.

Deborah Trusty is the librarian in Toledo. I just finished her book on Newport’s first city manager, Don Davis, “The Kid From Valsetz.” She, too, was on the South Beach venue. However, Trusty and I have talked about the role of libraries in a community outside the purview of a radio benefit. She has seen, over time, a lowering of interest in reading.

She was an English teacher in California for two decades, and here in Toledo, she pointed out how the library’s DVD section gets bigger and attracts most of the interest of many patrons.

My conversations with dozens of librarians, from big universities where I taught, to small towns where I lived, have been the bright line in a “world of words.” These professionals support writers and books. Community libraries function as computer-based assistance, warming places for the houseless and clearing houses for local information and bulletins.

As a bookend here, I want to chisel in the words of one of the invited participants, Wallace Kaufman. His bio is varied and diverse, the fuel of a myriad of written forms. He has been a wrestling coach, museum curator, high school biology teacher, college professor, land developer, property appraiser, licensed construction contractor, conflict mediator, journalist, land use consultant, adviser on housing and land reform to the government of Kazakhstan, Spanish translator, president of three statewide environmental groups and economics researcher for World Bank and USAID projects.

He lives in Newport and is the author of seven books, which span science fiction, nonfiction, memoir and poetry. For him, the power of the word and why he writes are intertwined.

“One word? Surprise! As a shy kid who could not sing or play an instrument and wondered what life was worth, I was seduced by the music of words that could also bring into focus the wonders of the world and engrave in memory important facts and enduring mysteries,” he said.

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