This month’s literary arts profile spotlight Alexis M. Smith. We talk to the Portland author about her new novel “Marrow Island,” the beauty of Puget Sound and the importance of small presses.
Portland is a great place for people to come into their own. The urban skyline, with a backdrop of Mt. Hood painted in a vast array of pinks and oranges on a mild summer evening, is an open invitation to the world. What many people don’t expect when they move here is to open up parts of themselves which had been lost. Childhood dreams of becoming writers, painters, and musicians come alive in all corners of this urban hub. Something many have discovered is the power of the spoken word. The poetry scene here has always been something awe-inspiring and remarkable. Poets, such as Amanda Cochran Helstrom-White and her husband Curtis B. Whitecarroll, who both moved here in the early 2000’s. They were able to find something inspiring in themselves through the poetry scene. Now their current mission is to impact the poetry scene from the ground up in a unique way. The dynamic duo strive together to help the unheard voices find the beauty of the spoken word by encouraging newbies to read for the very first time. They host two poetry reading series: New Poet Challenge and Word Warriors. Both provide a chance to experience people doing what they love: exposing themselves in the most profound ways. »
– Erin Mastoras
ELEVEN: What’s your story, so we have it?
Curtis: Well I got into town about 14 years ago, and starting writing, and hitting open mics as soon as I started writing. Amanda sort of has a more comical story of how she got into reading and writing. Her first reading was part of the buzz poems thing that happened in Glyph. It was when we were recording poetry bumpers for XRAY.fm. Basically Amanda was a last minute addition because we had three cancellations.
Amanda: Yeah, I think everybody writes when they’re teenagers, but up until that point I had never really considered myself a writer. When Curtis and I started dating, he was doing Ink Noise. I would go with him to the shows. After hanging out at the shows it just happened after being bombarded with everyone’s talent. The next thing I know I’m writing again.
11: Could you tell me more about the two shows?
CW: Ink Noise was a spin off of Stone Soup Reading Series, which is something I started in mid- 2011. You invite a poet and they bring two invitees with them. With Stone Soup I made it so you could have 2 to 5 invites. With a particular focus to have poets find people who are fairly new, haven’t been featured, and are underrated. The features would start inviting people who had never been featured before, and then we would have people who’d never read live before. That started happening at the very first show. I didn’t notice it then, but at about six months in I started to see it more and more frequently. By the end of Ink Noise, which ended September of last year, I’d ask the features and they would start asking their friends to start writing poetry to come read.
AW: I started doing New Poets Challenge because I was once a new writer/reader person. I liked that experience and I wanted to see what other people could do. I felt if we could take established poets and convince them to bring their friends with us to a safe space to read in front of other people, and if they liked to do it then we could help them do it.
CW: The way New Poet Challenge works, we usually invite 3 to 5 people who already have a place in the poetry scene, those are our challenger poets. They’re responsible to find people who have either people who had written poetry but have never read live, or people who haven’t done anything and are being asked to write, and read it live. They are the new poets.
11: So people who never wrote any poetry at all?
AW: It depends, we’ve had anyone come to read. Of course, we ask our friends if they know musicians, since it would be easier to transition their lyrics into poetry. With New Poets Challenge, if they like it, they can go onto Word Warriors, which has multiple sections.
11: It’s a little above an open mic?
AW: Yes, Word Warriors is above an open mic. The poets are assigned and they’re announced in advanced. The new poets read first, then we have our established poets featured.
CW: Another aspect of the feature invite, we get people who have some standing. Then we ask them if they want to be challenger poets for New Poets Challenge. It feeds into each other.
11: How do you think the Word Warriors is progressing?
AW: It’s progressed a lot. At the beginning it was a little shaky.
CW: We changed the format a lot. Originally, I wanted to experiment having 4 to 6 poets, like other people were doing, but it wasn’t something we were comfortable doing. So we formatted it into sections.
11: What type of poetry styles are you looking for?
CW: They can have anything from refrigerator magnet poetry to a haiku. We just want them to write something.
AW: Our last show in July we had a man who read a story about how he met his husband when he was an assigned female. It was a funny and fantastic story. He had never read live.
11: So you’re trying to take the raw element of someone’s thoughts out there?
AW: Yeah, we want somebody who isn’t published. We want new poets. What I wanted of this reading series is to introduce new blood into poetry because I wasn’t seeing it at any other series. I go to other readings in Portland and I see the same faces over, and over again. What I want to do is to introduce new poets to the world because I may not be the world’s greatest poet, but some of these new poets are. Another things we are doing, if people want help publishing a chapbook, it’s pretty easy to do it yourself, but some of them don’t have the knowledge to do it. We’re also starting a press series to help these poets. We’ve made four chapbooks so far.
11: What’s that called?
AW: Ink Noise Press.
CW: It’s a way to introduce people to publishing. I think people always feel better when someone offers to make a book of their work. I think it feels more validating than self publishing. I think people just feel better when we ask them if they want help putting out their chapbook. It gives a people a start. Instead of the rat race, where people swim upstream like salmon to get attention, if you give people a chance at the beginning, they start to grow really fast.
11: What’s important to you as a poet, and a host?
CW: The things that benefit you are always going to stay in your motivations. When I first moved to Portland, poetry was one of the things I was able to do through open mic which, by the way, I have mixed feelings about, but I’ve personally never had a problem. Most don’t with having to earning their potential. The problem with open mics is you might have 15 spots, and 12 regulars. Those 12 are going to ignore the 3 they don’t know. I wanted something more systematic, where people have a chance to grow. A sillier way to look at it reminds me of my childhood on the farm where I used to raise birds. It was my favorite thing. It’s the same feeling from watching a new poet grow as watching quail eggs hatching.
AW: It’s great to find people, like myself, who once you discover reading and you want to do it again. I want people to find their voice, and be able to show it, and express themselves. »
– Scott McHale