With over 170 literary professionals in attendance, Wordstock is the premier literary festival in the Pacific Northwest. While the event hosts talks, pop-up readings, a book fair spanning two floors, workshops, and a litter of food carts catering to like-minded masses, knowing what to prioritize is difficult. Consider this your how-to-Wordstock.
I planned to see three talks, which turned out to be ambitious: to get into a popular talk, attendees need to get there ridiculously early. The rooms reach capacity quickly, and arriving 15 minutes early wasn’t early enough to see Ta-nehisi Coates or Chuck Klosterman.
The presentation I did manage to see was called “Rebel Rebel: Revolutionaries and Resisters.” Other than a catchy title and knowing the authors would be discussing young adult fiction, I didn’t know what to expect. The speakers were Julie C. Dao, Fonda Lee, and Emily Suvada, and the talk was moderated by Amber J. Keyser.
The format of these presentations appears to be as follows: The moderator introduces the authors and their respective books, then the authors answer some questions, leaving time for audience Q & A. The moderator read all of these books, so her questions were targeted toward broad themes the books shared like moral ambiguity: How do we know what’s right and wrong? This is a question hyper-relevant to the young adult audience, people who are trying to parse this idea in their day-to-day lives.
Each author supported the idea that morality is not black and white. Lee said she doesn’t write good vs. evil because that is not true to life. Suvada said her book is “an investigation into a future where we can mess with our DNA,” a future not as distant as one might think. She explained that people are currently conducting medical trials that involve changing DNA, and that she “can’t say what would be right or wrong because we [as a society] haven’t figured that out yet.”
These ideas point readers to question their moral and ethical views on the world and to investigate why they think and feel as they do, what sources provide that framework, and how to navigate a world that appears to be increasingly difficult to place in black and white boxes.
A poetic segue
When I missed another presentation due to capacity, I heard the heart-warming sounds of a typewriter tick-tacking away. I looked over to a short line leading to a table with two people typing furiously. A sign indicated people could pick any topic and get a free poem written about it right there on the spot. I was hooked.
I ended up being the last person they would write a poem for, as they had been at it since 11 a.m.; by the time I was at the front of the line, it was 3:15 p.m. I was amazed at the writers’ perseverance through many hours of impromptu poem creation. Typewriter Rodeo is a company out of Austin, Texas, and they do all kinds of events, ranging from the Smithsonian to Willie Nelson’s SXSW festival.
My real reason for attending Wordstock was to meet people in the industry, so I spent most of my time in the two floors of the book fair. I went to every single booth, and it was worth it.
There are not only a slew of local and more distant publishers, but there are writers and editors guilds, workshops, and a variety of different publications. One of my favorites, Opossum literary magazine, has a hybrid style: part magazine, part record holder. Yes, there’s a seven-inch vinyl record with author readings in the back of each issue.
The booths were diverse, ranging from a high school publication, a company trying to automate fiction editing using computer programs, a publisher that focuses exclusively on art education, and the Multnomah County Library. Portland State’s Ooligan Press and MFA programs also hosted booths at the event, and they looked busy.
How to plan for next time
For those of you like me who want to get involved in publishing at some point, I saw more opportunities available than I anticipated. I did not expect to see as many different kinds of publications or as many different authors and audiences represented. I only handed out a few business cards, but I expect to hear from each of them, as the hosts seemed excited to share their enthusiasm with someone who could get involved.
However, I would love to see the event spread out over two days instead of crammed into one. With such a packed calendar of speakers and events, I found many people disappointed with only being able to see one or two events, as long lines and limited capacity were ever-present issues across the festival. Showing up an hour early to make sure you get in the room with one speaker means you miss another. If we assume everyone is worth seeing and the festival wants lesser-known authors to reach wider audiences, prioritization and research is an absolute must.