Poetry Madness

From the Authors


Original Essays

Powell's Q&A

Tech Q&A

Kids' Q&A



Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers.


Author Archive: "Alexis"

Figures for a Darkroom Voice

These aren't just two guys with three names each; these are two of the poets to watch in the next generation. Gordon just won the National Poetry Series Open (judged by the legendary John Ashbery) for his book Novel Pictorial Noise, and Wilkinson won the coveted Iowa Poetry Prize for his book Lug Your Careless Body out of the Careful Dusk. Here the two have combined voices for a frisky, lithe, verbal romp. What started as an experiment in poetics, passing a pad of paper back and forth across a cafe table, ended as one of the most interesting books of last year. Think language poetry meets Project Runway. With whimsical drawings by Noah Saterstrom, and published by the always stellar Tarpaulin Sky Press.

New Year, New Books

The beginning of a new year at a bookstore can be a little dull. New books are always coming out, of course, but almost all the awards have been doled out, every media outlet in the world has put out its list of The Best Books of the Previous Year, and many readers, exhausted by the holidays, simply content themselves with whatever book-to-movie adaptation is up for a Golden Globe.

The biggest problem for me is that I'm not usually attracted to books that receive a lot of industry or media buzz. Maybe it's a desire to associate with underdogs (I never was a popular kid), but I just can't bear to cast my attention on those already glutted with it. So the books that do make it swiftly onto the public radar in the New Year are not generally the kinds of books that I want to read. Which means I have to do my best Nancy Drew and puzzle out who is publishing what, when, and with which publisher. This year I'm taking a proactive approach. I'm already counting down the ...

Books For the Kitchen

I come from a family that loves — nay, obsesses about — food. Witness my grandmother, Betty: at 80 years old she will spend the better part of an hour-long phone call from her home in Soldotna, Alaska, describing the food she ate over the last week and whether it was any good (don't get her started on who brought what to bridge night). My dad, Baker (yes, that's his real name) will drive down to Portland from Seattle simply to visit the Saturday farmer's market in the South Park Blocks for mushrooms and the Pearl Bakery's rosemary pecan rolls. And my sister, Acacia, found a way to make food her job: she's a dietician and master gardener who teaches city kids about nutrition through a community pea patch (and spends her spare time preparing elaborate meals for friends and hosting a wine club). And then there's me. I'm more home cooking than haute cuisine, but I'm fussy in my own way: I like to eat seasonally and locally — and no meat. Luckily, I live in the Northwest, which is one of the ...

The Event That Shall Not Be Named

I was secretly a little terrified at the prospect of a couple thousand fans of a bestselling fantasy novel converging on the store in costume. I'm not much for crowds, and tend to get grumpy just thinking about lines. But it turns out my fears were totally unfounded. The crowd at the Harry Potter Event was one of the most civil and enthusiastic I've ever witnessed. (For the record, I'm including in my experience about a hundred Indigo Girls concerts circa 1990-1997, an extremely sticky, violent mosh pit [I'm not kidding] at a Barenaked Ladies/Violent Femmes show at Bumbershoot in 1993, and the first midnight showing of the theatrically re-released Star Wars in — when was that? 1995?)

I was handing out free stuff to the crowd for a good portion of the night. The "free stuff" was mostly bookmarks advertising His Dark Materials and a couple of new books from publishers clearly hoping to piggyback on Harry's big night. Not that I minded, but some people looked at me, with my little apron full of bookmarks, like they were in line for the soup kitchen and I ...

Beyond the First 50 Pages…

After two and half years of sore eyes, carpal tunnel, and a perpetually distracted look on my face, I've finally received my MFA. Aside from the usual glee that accompanies this kind of accomplishment, I felt an overwhelming sense of freedom and joy when it dawned on me that my reading habits would never again be ruled by the requirements of an academic program or the whims my faculty advisors.

Weeeeeeeeeeee!!!! [For the uninitiated, that's the sound you make when you're being pushed very high on a swing, or sledding very fast down a hill.]

I really missed kids' books. In the last six months of my program I rarely had time to crack open a young adult novel, and when I did crack one open, I usually never got beyond the first fifty pages. It became something of a joke on the kids' team. After enthusiastically recommending a title to a customer, a coworker would ask, "Did you actually read that book?" And my answer was inevitably, "Well, I started it..."

My yoga teacher, Anne, used a great book analogy in class the other day. She said (approximately), "In yoga you ...

Booksellers Gone Wild!

I recently returned from a trip to Vermont, where I spent about a week on the campus of Goddard College, hanging out with other writers. I've made this trip biannually for the last two years as a part of the MFA program. These trips are exhilarating for many reasons: the gorgeous Green Mountains offer a much needed respite from city life; devoting an entire week to my writing is a welcome change from my daily life, in which I (as you know) sell the already-written words of others; and, the thunderstorms back east are better than television.

Every time I travel, whether it's a train trip to Seattle, or a day trip to Eugene or the Oregon Coast, I face the same dilemma: which books to bring? It's a more complicated question than it should be. This is what happens when you work in a book store. You're so accustomed to having an enormous selection that when you must pare it down to one or two paperbacks, you panic. Or at least I do. Will the books I choose affect the mood of the trip? Will the trip affect my desire to read the books I choose? What


Come, Armageddon

This entry will fit somewhere into the "What We're Reading" feature, since I've been reading a lot lately (this is my attempt to digest it all, and I must say, I'm feeling a bit dyspeptic). But it seems just as important to mention what I've been listening to lately, since I'm a member of Generation Mixed Tape and I believe religiously in the schematic importance of the soundtrack of daily life. There are mass transit songs, walking downtown songs, cooking dinner songs, have sex songs, doing the dishes songs, reading in the afternoon songs, and, for me, writing a novel songs.

Like Bolton, I too am one of the unlucky bundles of flesh and nerves born with the urge to create something. I have to admit that, right now, the novel's not going swimmingly. I mostly blame myself: sitting down to write every day, even when you love it and were born to do it, can be a terrifying and humbling experience. But I also blame the world (by which I mean humans, mostly), which, in case you haven't noticed, is conspiring to kill us all and everything we love.

A few weeks ago, sitting in my favorite green chair, listening to Low's The Great Destroyer, I read Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes From a Catastrophe. My favorite Low songs have the feel of dirges, with spare lyrics, slow, plaintive drum beats, and harmonized perfection courtesy of Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk. With Low in the background, the text of a take-out menu would have sufficient pathos to bring tears to my eyes. Still, Kolbert's book paints a scary, sad picture of the future: glaciers melting, climate change-inducing evolution and extinction in various species, ecosystems destroyed, populations displaced. Kolbert visits Alaska, where both my parents grew up, and where I lived until 1989. Though she visits places I never knew while I lived there, I know from her descriptions that the first landscape I ever knew has unalterably changed.

Are you there, Margaret? It’s me, Lexie.

I'll never forget the day I finished Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. I had spent the entire Fourth of July weekend riveted. Sometime between the potato salad and the fireworks I reached the haunting, perfect conclusion. I was stunned. I had never been so profoundly disturbed and enthralled by a book before. Of course, I was thirteen years old, and my reading up to that point had been more, shall we say, age appropriate. One of the fabulously hip, witty contributors of Sassy Magazine (RIP) had said that The Handmaid's Tale was a very important book, and I, wanting desperately to be a fabulously hip, witty lady myself, had gone directly to the Seattle Public Library to check out a copy.

I had imagined that the book would change me dramatically. Surely I would look and feel more mature in my Doc Martens and dress-worn-over-cut-off jeans after I had read it? Not really. Instead I was initiated into the world of adult literature, from which there was no going back. On to Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Jeanette Winterson, Virginia Woolf, and John Updike (don't ask).

Among The Bell Jar and Catcher in the Rye, books that are often associated with morose (read: thoughtful and highly sensitive) teenagers, there is an enormous amount of literature that exists in a gray area of readership. I remember Dave once saying in a meeting (this probably wasn't his point, alas) that bookstores are failing teens by putting so much physical space between literature and young adult books. In a store as large as Powell's, this means that they occupy completely different floors. But even in smaller stores, where the distance might be a few yards, the separation is symbolic: grown-ups read literature, teens read kids' books.

I'm about to digress, but bear with me. I've noticed an interesting phenomenon among some parents shopping for books. When the children are still young — toddlers to fifth grade, say — parents will sometimes make a point of telling us how advanced their kids are. It might go something like this: She's only two but she's way beyond board books; or, He's in fourth grade but he reads at a seventh grade level. But get the kids to junior high, and suddenly the parents start to fret that their intellectually advanced kids are going to be reading books that contain "mature" content.

Are You Listening, Oprah?

In the children's section of the City of Books, we tend to have underdog favorites — books that we always recommend to customers because we know that some child, somewhere, will be transformed by them, as we were when we read them. These are books that have fallen through the cracks of the publishing world, or that have fallen off of school reading lists, or that have been overshadowed by the monolithic bestsellers of recent years. We hope that by championing these books, we are participating in a larger project to keep good stories in children's hands, to broaden their minds and hearts, and to ensure that these children remain readers for life.

Which is what made me think, reading Brockman's comments yesterday, that Oprah should leave adult literature to her increasingly snippy, predatory critics and start selecting children's books for her book club. In fact, it just might be what children in our woefully illiterate country need. I know, I know: I'm one of those speciously optimistic advocates of the written word who thinks that if everyone just sat down and read Charlotte's Web there would be world peace, and you're already skeptical of how I've connected daytime television's ersatz cultural guru to any real solution to the present state of primary education in U.S. Call me a philistine, but I've always admired Oprah's ability to persuade millions of people to read and discuss books. Have I turned up my nose at some of these books? Sure. Have I read and enjoyed some of these books? Yes. Do I still love Jonathan Franzen? Madly. But when faced with federal policies like No Child Left Behind, I begin to wonder how we are going to keep teaching children to be truly literate human beings — people who can read road signs and metaphors with the same fluency.

  • back to top
Follow us on...

Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at Powells.com.