Wordstock: What We Thought

We came, we queued, we loathed it, we loved it: Portland Monthly's arts team—and some festival attendees—give their verdict on this year’s festival.

By Fiona McCann and Ramona DeNies November 10, 2015

Wordstock event image fvsd5l

In case you were in any doubt, the thousands who showed up at the Portland Art Museum on Saturday for Wordstock made it clear: Portland really, really loves books. And, more specifically, the people who write them. Why else (OK, brunch aside) would so many of us line up for hours in the rain during our weekend downtime?

 Maybe that’s the event’s true takeaway: despite the logistical issues and general chaos, those long, long lines were all testimony to the city’s enthusiasm about this festival and all it represents. All of it, even the pounding rain, came second to the love of all things literary.

Literary Arts Executive Director Andrew Proctor told us ahead of the event that, for the nonprofit’s first year of running Wordstock, organizers would call it a success if the turnout reached 2,500. Mission accomplished, and then some. In fact, for many wristband-wearers, the rebranded, relaunched, reimagined Wordstock was a victim of its success: so many came to enjoy the packed program that there simply weren’t enough seats. All day, there were huddled, winding, and thoroughly damp lines outside almost every event, with people regularly turned away from the program’s many oversubscribed panels and talks.

Why? In part because the event, formerly a two-day affair, was condensed into one jam-packed day. In part because people had trouble getting quickly enough between venues—the Portland Art Museum’s main building, their adjacent Mark Building, and the First Congregational United Church of Christ across the road. And in part because Wordstock redux offered such a strong program, with names like John Irving, Sandra Cisneros, Jesse Eisenberg, Ursula Le Guin, and Jon Krakauer.

For those who gained admittance, the rewards were keen: a brilliant, warm-hearted exchange between Krakauer and Barry Lopez; rapid-fire banter between Eisenberg and Portland screenwriter Jon Raymond; the dry wit of Believer editor Heidi Julavits, on balancing motherhood and novel-writing. For those who didn't, the disappointment was just as keen. Then again, the joy of happening upon Eisenberg wandering between the paintings might have made up for it. 

In short, Portland has spoken: We love Wordstock, and we’re happy it’s back. With a few tweaks and some better access to the festival’s individual elements, Literary Arts’ reboot has the makings of a great addition to the national literary calendar, not to mention Portland’s arts scene. Roll on 2016.

Of course you don’t have to take our word for it. Here’s what some of the festival’s attendees had to say:

“The programming was great—I only wish they’d given more of a window between events to get from one place to the next. You had to leave the talk that you were in ten minutes before it was done in order to get in line for the next one. And then you didn’t know if you were going to get in! Even with the pop ups, there wasn’t enough leeway to get from one to another, and it was hard to figure out which pop up was going on where. But I really enjoyed the talks that I did get to experience—Wendell Pierce, Jesse Eisenberg, the Kitchen Confidential event. And despite all the standing in line in the rain, I’d still go again next year!” — Grace Sobieralski, blogger and student.

“Wordstock this year was a wet, chaotic mess, but it had the right energy, the right surroundings in art galleries and a church.  No longer a staid event in a cold convention center, it was a lively affair with smaller gems and big star jewels and, yes, some disappointments.  A shake-down cruise that gleamed with newness, it drew true book lovers (why else stand in rain, just to see a writer?) and I was thrilled to be part of it. “ — Michael McGregor, author of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, who also spoke at the festival.

“An hour before the event I had planned to see, I was wandering the various pop-up locations with little luck and itching for an itinerary. Suddenly, Jesse Eisenberg appeared in an art-laden corner, reading from Bream Gives Me Hiccups and eliciting laughter from the small gathering that must have also happened upon him. As the charming moment ended, anxiety set back in: navigate the crowd, find the location…witness the unending line. I sighed and caught an Uber home.”—Megan Haverman, freelance writer.

“The Wordstock relaunch was a helluva deal for $15, a literary feast of ‘small 45-minute plates’ served to truly a stunning number of people. But the overloaded logistics of the day and long, rain-soaked lines made those luscious snacks hard to enjoy, much less grab as they whizzed by on the conveyor belt schedule. Pulling up a chair wasn’t easy!” —Julie Whipple, journalism teacher and freelance writer. 

"Wordstock at the Art Museum was a beautiful experiment I still want to believe in. The church setting for Jon Krakauer's conversation with Barry Lopez was stunning though, sadly, the rest of my day was spent mostly in a fruitless line. But there's no returning to the convention center so hopefully the organizers can solve some very real logistical frustrations." —Deborah Reeves, writer.

Wordstock’s inaugural “Lit Crawl,” which hosted short take readings everywhere from Mother Foucault’s Book Shop to Green Dragon Saturday night, was an attention deficient book lover’s dream. Shivering attendees crowded into the open air garage of Michelle’s Piano Shop to hear geographers David Banis and Hunter Shobe explain their unorthodox map masterpiece Portlandness and witness author and musician Nick Jaina’s guitar-aided performance of snippets from his lovely recent book Get It While You Can. A highlight came as the crowd munched on takeout boxes of Little Caesars pizza and sipped boxed Franzia while Portlander-turned-Austinite Amy McCullough read an excerpt from her Oregon to Mexico sailing misadventure memoir The Box Wine Sailors. As the former Willamette Week music editor narrated her tumultuous virgin voyage from Astoria’s Clatsop Spit to Tillamook Bay (on a 27-foot sailboat neither she or her partner really knew how to sail,) a frenetic tune from a live concert in the adjacent piano showroom trilled through the air. Suddenly, the reading was transformed into a live movie—crescendos of piano music soundtracking each cold, wet, towering wave of the Pacific Ocean. Awesome.—Kelly Clarke, Portland Monthly Senior Editor

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