Happy Virgo season to all of you reaping your harvests and separating your wheat from your chaff! And a bonus salutation to all of you who supported my screentime sabbatical this month by sending me postcards or calling me on the phone or (gasp) visiting me in the flesh.
If you were with me on this newsletter journey last August, you may have read my musings on moving, and because all things, including leases, come to an end, this month I find myself moving once again. This time, it’s under happier circumstances, as I’ve found a house with a yard where I can garden and where the dogs can bound and sniff and dig futilely after underground creatures. (If it sounds like I’m buying a house mostly to make my dogs happier, that’s not necessarily a wrong assumption.) I feel like I’ve only just begun to get to know my current neighborhood, and I’m excited and only a wee bit overwhelmed at the prospect of learning a new one. Even though my new home is only about two miles from here, I’ve still been making my rounds to say goodbye to the local residents: Post Mabone, the two-story tall skeleton who lives in a neighbor’s yard; Cawliflower and Cawsmonaut, the crows who puff themselves atop the elementary school fence; the cherry-sized, striped spider who lives in the Japanese maple beside my front door and who has, despite my entreaties, refused to share their name with me.
As we swing into these last few weeks of the summer (or winter, depending on where you are), I hope your life is rich with both warm greetings and fond farewells.
Over the summer, I let my almost-daily writing habit drop for the first time in at least six years. I decided to write only when I felt like it, which was surprisingly rare. Mostly, I’ve been okay with hardly writing because, well, it’s summer, and I’ve been enjoying the sunshine in Oregon, camping and hiking and swimming as much as I can before the inevitable rainy season returns. Occasionally, though, a little itch tickles me, and I find myself looking for something to provoke me into writing.
Because writing communities have been harder to come by over the last few years, I’ve often turned to online accountability groups to prompt me into writing when I feel my self-motivation flagging. Some of the most fruitful have been Camille Wanliss’ Galleyway
’s Hotpot, a writing space for Asian diaspora writers. But after teaching classes and holding meetings on Zoom for most of the last two years, the thought of continuing to sit before the unwavering eye of my laptop camera to engage in creative work felt untenable this summer. I started looking around for other options and stumbled upon a write-in hosted by HOCUS
, a Portland group that hosts a wonderfully unusual reading series. (How unusual? HOCUS is an acronym for Hermetic Order of Clandestine Urban Scribes, and many events begin with a recitation of the Litany of the Fonts: “O Fortuna! Fortuna Bold! Fortuna Bold Oblique!”)
This particular write-in was held at Portland’s Lone Fir Cemetery
, a place I’d previously only visited on spooky October evenings, when actors portray some of the notable people buried beneath the graveyard’s hundreds of trees. At the write-in, a dozen or so of us gathered during a sweltering July heatwave, which I suppose was spooky in its own way. Beneath the blazing sun, we said our hellos, the HOCUS folks offered a few possible prompts, and then we all wandered off to various parts of the cemetery to write for two hours. Though the prompts were intriguing—imagine the relationship between persons buried beneath showier monuments and more modest ones; write about what someone buried there would say if they witnessed the world outside the cemetery—I roamed around, waiting to be prompted by the place.
I sat for a long time beneath the shade of a scrawny tree, staring at a plot in the southwest corner of the cemetery that contained no headstones or markers, no names or dates, no countries of origin or indicators of family ties. While other blocks were festooned with fresh roses and silk flowers, this field—Block 14
—had only knee-high grass spotted with clumps of wild carrot and red clover. Beneath those flowers that some might call weeds rest the remains of a thousand Chinese people and several hundred people who were patients of the Oregon Hospital for the Insane. (The name feels like an egregious misnomer. In the late 1800s, when the asylum was in operation, people who were institutionalized there included folks with mental illness and/or physical disabilities, people who didn’t speak English, and people who just had no one else to care for them.)
have written far more eloquently about Block 14 than anything I jotted down that day. Still, there was something about sitting in the cemetery, meditating on who and what we choose to remember—and how we choose to remember them—that provoked me in the month since then to begin writing essayettes that try to memorialize quotidian moments: boarding a public bus, donating a box of books, messily eating a peach. (Is there any way but messily?) Again, other writers have done this with more delight
, but I’m trying not to judge. It’s been a gentle way to ease myself back toward a writing habit, a kind of accountability to noticing my days instead of spending them.
I Speak of the Pompatus of Love
For some time, I’ve held a secret dream of performing stand-up comedy. By the burgeoning number of comedy classes available through local clubs and colleges, I imagine I’m not alone in this dream, but it’s one that I haven’t quite had the gusto to chase. Part of what keeps the idea afloat, though, is the sense that I could write something that would make people laugh instead of making them cry or rage or feel something else fraught with gravitas, which is my usual MO. (To wit: after a reading in Vermont several years ago, one audience member felt moved to exclaim, “Your poems are SO depressing!” I had no comeback at the time, though now I might say, “They’re not depressing. They’re bittersweet
!”) The other part of what makes me want to write and perform comedy is the same thing that makes me want to write poems—I’ve witnessed people do it so skillfully, and I’ve been so deeply affected by it, that I want to help create that experience for someone else.
I’m a tough audience for comedians. All sorts of things from cerebral to silly make me laugh, but I often get hung up on the tiniest aspects of stand-up routines, and once those elements catch my attention, they fracture my funny bone. As I’ve been venturing out to more comedy events this summer, I can’t help but notice how many comedians make self-deprecating jokes, especially about their bodies, encouraging people to teeter on the thin line between laughing with them and laughing at them. This sort of self-roasting makes me uncomfortable, though I know of several comedians who would call it cathartic. I also know of at least one comedian
, though, who would say that self-deprecation, when it comes from somebody who exists in the margins, isn’t humility but humiliation. (If you haven’t watched Hannah Gadbsy’s Nanette
, welcome back from hiding under that rock, and please stop reading and partake of her greatness now.)
In June, I got to watch Hannah Gadbsy
perform live as she crafted an expert story over the course of an hour. The story culminated in an uproarious punchline, which I won’t reveal here as I suspect it will one day be documented in another Netflix special. One reason the punchline was so funny was that she’d left us a trail of breadcrumbs to follow right to it. She’d done more than foreshadow it—she’d stated the punchline outright and the circumstances that would provide the context for it—and yet, I was still utterly surprised when she returned to it at the end of her set. It wasn’t a callback; it was a magic trick. We watched her every move, and because we were watching so closely, it was doubly astonishing to see her pull a rabbit out of what we presumed was an empty hat. (If you’re asking, “JP, why are you belaboring this not-quite-apt metaphor?,” the only answer I can offer is that I harbor a secret dream of being a magician as well.)
Since Gadsby’s show, I’ve been on the lookout for more comedians who have the precision to tell incisive stories without pointing their sharp wits back at themselves. Hari Kondabolu
, in a recent live show, offered jokes that unfolded into a map of the term “relatable.” Kondabolu, who’s best known for political comedy about race and racism, laid out jokes for a mostly White Portland audience, prodding us to consider who he wants to be relatable to and why. Throughout the set, he juxtaposed a kind of relatability that upholds integrity to one’s values and relatability that earns you money in a racist, capitalist society. It never felt—to me, anyway—like a lecture, but like a simple statement of fact dressed in beautifully funny observations. And even when he referred to himself, the object of his skewering was always the systems that create absurd conditions, not his own body or behavior.
I don’t know if I’ll ever perform stand-up. I don’t know if I need to. Really, all I want is more opportunities to be in rooms full of people, amazed by stories, warm with laughter that doesn’t come at the expense of any of us who live in the margins.
My second piece on Oregonians of color in the outdoors—this one focused on the nonprofit Wild Diversity
—was just published in Oregon Humanities’ Beyond the Margins
. I’m grateful for the Community Storytelling Fellowship
that funded my work on this project, as well as a piece published in July
. (If you live in Oregon and are interested in applying for the fellowship, the next round of applications opens in October!)
After being wowed by Melissa Febos’ Body Work
earlier this year, I’ve been working through her back catalog, and this month, I’ve been reading Abandon Me
. A memoir in essays, the book explores abandonment from several angles, including the travels of her sea captain father (referred to only as The Captain throughout the book) and the story of a beloved who demonstrates intense passion yet who often remains emotionally and physically unavailable. The most harrowing abandonment Febos describes, though, is her own drug addiction and the other methods through which she attempted to flee herself. I admire so many of these essays not only for their vulnerability and lyricism but also for the ways she weaves the broader thread of the memoir through subjects that may, at first glance, seem unrelated: the movie Labyrinth
, her tattoos, her first name. I admire, too, how the memoir balances suspense with revelation; it's clear early in the book that the relationship with the beloved must end in ruin, and yet Febos details so many thrilling, sensual, beautiful aspects of that same relationship that I often wondered what would be the thing that finally brought it to an end. Abandon Me
isn’t always an easy read, both for its subjects and its many references, but it’s certainly one worth abandoning hours to.
Keep an eye out for a few new poems in Plant-Human Quarterly
’s autumn equinox issue, due out September 22. If you’re interested in reading more poems in the Beautiful Outlaw form I wrote about in previous newsletters
, a new one, “Ashes,” will be in an upcoming issue of Nimrod,
alongside a companion poem, “Portrait of My Mother on Her Green Card.”
I’m excited to share that I was selected to participate in the Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC)
re/source residency from September 2022 to September 2023. As part of the residency, I’ll continue to work on Dead Ends
, the branching narrative memoir I’ve written about in past newsletters
, but in a few new forms. I’ll be handmaking books that allow readers to physically unfold different paths through the story and installing letterpress broadsides in public labyrinths, where readers can move through a maze of narrative choices. I’ll also be facilitating public workshops on creating branching narratives, broadsides, and handmade books. Stay tuned for more details on those!
I’ll be co-hosting Incite: Queer Writers Read
with Vinnie Kinsella on Wednesday, September 14, 7:00pm-9:00pm PT
at Literary Arts. The September theme is “Speculate” and will feature three queer speculative fiction writers: Lydia Rogue, Christopher Rose, and Wendy Wagner. As always, the event is free and the readings will be followed by a community discussion.
I’ve been enjoying a break from teaching this month, but I’m gearing up for more classes this fall. I’ll be offering an online class through Hugo House—Embodied & Mindful Writing
—which meets Wednesdays, October 5-October 26, 7:10-9:10pm PT
. By combining writing prompts with skills derived from embodiment and mindfulness practices—including trauma-informed yoga, mindful movement, forest bathing, meditation, and breathing—we'll bring our awareness to sensation and emotion, for the benefit of both our writing and our well-being. You'll leave with a set of techniques that can be used to regulate stress, pique your curiosity, and bring more of your body and senses into your writing. No prior experience with writing is necessary, and practices are inclusive of all minds and bodies. Registration
opens for Hugo House members on August 23 and for the public on August 30.
Also this fall, Frances Lu-Pai Ippolito
and I will be hosting a Kundiman
reading salon for BIPOC writers at Literary Arts
in Portland on Friday, October 21, 6:30-9pm PT
. The theme is “Burden, Bliss, and Balance
,” and we’ll lead a short community discussion and writing exercises to explore these concepts. Readers may sign up for an open mic to share work after. (This free event is open to everyone, but only people who self-identify as Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color will be invited to read.) Light snacks will be provided.
If you’re looking for a writing retreat, I’ll be teaching two classes—"Wander & Wonder: Writing in the Woods” and “Serious Play: Surrealist Writing Games”—at Northwest Writers’ Weekend, November 3 – November 6
in Port Orchard, WA. Registration
for the full weekend also includes room, board, and opportunities to participate in creative nonfiction, cross-genre, and songwriting classes
And if you’d like to really dig into serious play, I’ll be offering another six-week Surrealist Games for Surreal Times
class this fall! The class meets in-person at Literary Arts
, Tuesdays, November 8-December 13, 5:30-7:30pm PT.
(Yes, that first day is Election Day, which I hope will feel less surreal than in years past, but one never knows…) Surrealist games are practices for circumventing our rational, reasoning mind to unlock unconscious or seemingly irrational forms of creativity. By using play, surprise, chance, and collaboration, we’ll write in ways that tap into our dreams, our imagination, and our intuition—the extraordinary spaces that help us move through challenging times. The class will introduce a variety of surrealist practices: automatic writing, chain writing, found poems, collage, inquiry, provocation, reinvention, experiments with objects, and techniques drawn from visual art. No prior experience with writing is necessary, but full COVID vaccination or a negative test result is! Register here
, or apply here for the access rate
(60% off class tuition).
Other opportunities I recommend:
For Writers of All Stripes:
Thursday, August 25: BIPOC Reading Series — August
7:00–9:00 p.m. | Online via Zoom | FREE | Register
This bimonthly reading series is intended to prioritize the safety, creativity, and stories of Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color. Listen to featured readers and/or sign up to share your work in the open mic. Readings are followed by a short community discussion. The event is open to everyone, but only people who identify as Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color will be invited to read.
Monday, August 29: The Break with Kaveh Akbar
5:00–6:00 p.m. | Online via Zoom | FREE | Register
In partnership with Alano Club of Portland, “The Break is a monthly virtual gathering of writers and artists celebrating amongness, collaboration, and interdisciplinary creative experimentation. Though many of the activities and discussions orbit or are inflected by recovery themes (Akbar has been in active recovery for eight years), participants are not required to self-identify as being in recovery to participate.”
For NY, PA, NJ, & DE Folks Working with Racial Justice & Environmental/Outdoor Experiences:
Friday, September 2: Liberated Paths Grantmaking Program
The Liberated Paths Grantmaking Program was created to build power with and allocate resources to leaders of color and environmental work rooted in communities of color. Justice Outside is offering grant awards of up to $20,000 per year for organizations working at the intersection of racial justice and environment/outdoor experiences. Organizations do not need to have a 501(c)(3) status or be fiscally sponsored, but they must engage counties of the greater Siconese/Lenape Whittuck (Delaware River) Watershed. Justice Outside is offering individualized support through the application process and is accepting application materials in a variety of formats (for example: written letter of intent, video/phone interview, audio recording) to make the application process as accessible as possible. All applications must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. PST on Friday, September 2nd, 2022. Check out the Application Guidelines here
and the Application Walkthrough and Q&A session
recording for more info.
For Portland-Area Folks Interested in Forest Bathing:
Saturdays, September 10-24: Forest as Nourishment for People of Color Outdoors
9:00 a.m.—1:00 p.m. | Oxbow Park, Gresham, Oregon | $20 | Register
Tia H. Ho of Finding Mindful Now
is facilitating a three-Saturday skill building workshop for People of Color Outdoors
members who want to learn more about the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, also called forest bathing. In this experience, you bathe your senses in the forest using sensory-based invitations. Because of its support to the nervous system, blood pressure, and mental clarity, it's sometimes described as the forest being your therapist. This workshop is the one I participated in last year and that I’ve been writing about nonstop since then! It’s open only to people who are part of the People of Color Outdoors Meetup group
who are willing to lead three forest bathing/wellness events for the group. I’m happy to chat with you if you’re considering participating!
Sundays, October 9-23: Forest As Nourishment
9:00 a.m.—1:00 p.m. | Oxbow Park, Gresham, Oregon | $350 | Register
This is a similar offering to the one described above, but open to anyone. If you want to slow down, explore integrating mindfulness into your outdoor time, and share your nature connection experiences with others, this may be the workshop for you!
If you’ve got an opportunity you’d like me to include in a future newsletter, please let me know.