Reading between the lines

On Nov. 10, Craig Lesley, Michele Glazer and Diana Abu-Jaber read from their recently published and upcoming works. The audience was filled with financial supporters of PSU’s English department and writing programs.

"We’re often asked, why literature?" PSU English professor Michael Clark said during the evening’s introductory remarks. "It’s because it’s clear that writers and poets are somehow in touch with the divine in all of us."

"When we started this many years ago, Portland was a place of great writing talent and passion, and we wanted PSU to be a part of it," said Marvin Kaiser, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "We figured there ought to be a way to hang around writers."

Craig Lesley began the evening’s readings with an excerpt from his upcoming nonfiction work, "Burning Fence."

The book is largely about his father, who left the family when Craig was a baby and returned 15 years later, after a catastrophic accident with a combine-like mint chopper found the teenage Lesley critically injured and recovering in the hospital. "He said, ‘I heard you was playing chicken with a mint chopper. I’d say you lost,’" recalled Lesley.

The reunion ignited an awkward re-acquaintance between father and son, which spawned the book. "My father was a coyote trapper and a fence builder and a gold miner, and he did whatever else he needed to make a living." After a boyhood lived in the outdoors, and steeped in the ethics and rituals of hunting and fishing, Lesley recalled his shock at finding out that his father was a poacher.

"He said he hunted for meat, and told me that people got hungry year-round."

Lesley’s reading recalled his pre-mint chopper years, a time when he became terrified by the idea of leprosy and imagined that lepers lurked at every turn. The reading ended with the hilarious and unintentional capture of his stepfather in a jury-rigged leper trap.

Michele Glazer began her reading by thanking the audience for coming out. "I’m excited about teaching here, my students, my colleagues, just being here in this room."

Glazer’s poetry is at once soothing and startling, at every turn rich with textural nuance and often anchored in the world of nature. She spent nine years working for the Nature Conservancy in Portland. When asked how that work impacted her own work, she said, "It gave me structures, and a language and insight into the natural world.

"When you write, you find out what you’re interested in," Glazer said. "I’m interested in natural history, whatever that means. There are lots of insects in my writing. I like the fact that insects are both ubiquitous and almost invisible." She paused for a moment. "I have a lot of love and death in my poems. I’m pretty sure those are the only things that interest me. And into which I can knead insects and politics." She grinned.

Much of Diana Abu-Jaber’s Arab heritage is tightly linked to food experiences, and those memories have found their way into her works. Abu-Jaber’s reading – a tale of a simmering love interest – is set in the kitchen, and framed by the baking of baklava. As she told of the cooperative choreography of hands, the delicate layers of filo dough, the anointing of clarified butter and the drizzling of warm, sweet honey, the audience could almost feel the room getting warmer.

Prompted by a question from the audience, Abu-Jaber reflected on her experiences as a bicultural Arab-American writer. "Being bicultural has been a bit of a journey. When you’re a kid, you don’t really get into it. A lot of my growing-up life was about putting it away, not wanting to be the thing that was trying to erase me. Now I know that those of us from two cultures have a responsibility to try to claim both of our voices."

The idea of finding voice was formative to the creation of PSU’s writing programs. "Portland State had this slogan, ‘Let Knowledge Serve the City.’ There was that notion of writing to make a living," Kaiser said. "There were a lot of ways to get at that. We hope our programs are representative."

"Literature is the concern of every generation," Clark said. The truth of this statement was more than demonstrated by the breadth and style of the three authors and the rapt involvement of their audience. Well after the readings ended, the audience lingered over wine and conversation, unwilling to leave the room even as darkness fell outside the window.