Good Old Fashioned Letters (Or: I Thought Reading Was Boring)

This past weekend, I was part of a panel discussion on zines at the downtown Portland library, which was super fun and informative (Fun facts: Nicole Georges’s first zines were about ska music and Chloe Eudaly’s idea for Reading Frenzy started outside of a Nation of Ulysses show she couldn’t afford to get into).

During the Q&A, people asked us about the future of zines, what our favorites were, and if podcasts were “the new zines.” But one of the questions that got a lot of us talking was about postal mail. As in, do people still just write personal letters any more? Of course, the answer is yes, though not as much as pre-Internet days. It made me think of The Rumpus Letters In The Mail, the awesome subscription idea brainstormed by Stephen Elliot three years ago. If you sign up you’ll get actual POSTAL mail from a different author every two weeks. I highly recommend it. You can even sign up for letters for your kids.


Anyway, last year I wrote a letter for subscribers and it was really fun and I thought I’d share it here. I even got a bunch of letters back (including one from a death row inmate).

So pretend you’re opening an envelope and pulling out this folded missive. Here’s the letter I wrote (I added some pics for this Internet version). Enjoy!


Rumpus Letter in the Mail (January 2014) 

Dear Reader,

I did not turn out the way I expected to. I mean, I probably grew up thinking I wanted to be a football player or a radio DJ or a cheesy pop star like Donnie Osmond. I don’t remember reading when I was a kid. I don’t remember being read to at all. I don’t remember learning how to read or write. But I do remember drawing fake football cards of my favorite players, complete with factoids about each one. I would steal football cards at the store and try to copy them.

But I was not an artist.

I think I wanted to be a reader. I wanted to absorb, if it were as easy as absorbing. But reading is not. I joined a book club thing out of the back of a magazine. I ordered fantasy books because I liked the covers—the strange creatures and mysterious landscapes. The bronze bodies rippled and set in heroic poses. This club was like those record clubs where you could order ten albums for a penny if you bought five more at regular price the next three years. I did that club too—I listened to the cassettes or eight-tracks or albums and I memorized every bad song. The books I set around the house, unopened. Maybe I showed them to friends, or possibly my older brothers read them. I’m not sure. I thought reading was boring. I’m embarrassed to say that now. I thought reading was fucking boring.

I remember seventh grade being the worst. What year was that? I guess that would be like 1980-81. Was that a good year for anyone? The thrill of the 1980 USA hockey team’s Cinderella story had worn off and people all around me seemed confused about the disco vs punk debate. I was probably listening to Fleetwood Mac or The Bay City Rollers. A Reagan-esque malaise had set in, though at first I kind of liked the president’s stern cowboy demeanor, his hostage-freeing power. My skin and hair seemed to be spouting grease and sweat and general grossness the whole year. Maybe I was afraid to take a shower.


I remember not wanting to shower after gym class even though we were supposed to. I didn’t want anyone looking at me or my penis, which I had become very intimate with around that time. I would sometimes get quick looks at other boys’ penises. Ugly snails, all of us. There was one fat kid who appeared to not have a penis. I felt mortified for him. No one would talk to him. I felt like I should be his friend, but I was afraid. (for some reason, whenever I write about this time period I have a feeling of déjà vu, like I’m about to remember something traumatic or important. I can’t put my finger on what it could be.)

It was the summer after that school year when I suddenly went through my one and only teen reading phase. I’m not sure what started it, but I read Brian’s Song in one day. I was in my parents’ bed for some reason and (spoiler alert!) I cried when Brian Piccolo died at the end.


After that, I read a couple of horror books that titillated me in some strange way. One of those books was called The Funhouse or something like that—it was set at a carnival. I recall a scene where a guy feels up a girl, maybe in a haunted house. I wonder if that was the first time I’d been “turned on” by words.

But despite reading books that inspired tears as well as boners (sorry, but teen slang probably works best right there), I didn’t really keep on with the reading bug. It wasn’t until a girlfriend of mine made fun of me (when I was twenty-one) for not reading books that I started reading—probably two months after breaking up with her. Still unsure if I felt like that was revenge or something. Like I’d see her out somewhere and say, “Hey, I’ve read ten books so far this summer. How many have you read?”

When I did start reading books (and therefore writing more seriously) I entered a sort of Phase Two of my life.

I taught myself a lot through books. I learned that we all build ourselves through them. I learned that they make me want to write. I never understood people who say they don’t read other books while they’re working on their own. I call bullshit on that. If you’re a writer who becomes so easily influenced by other writers’ books and worry about “starting to write like them” than you must not have found your own voice yet. You must not be confident in yourself.

I’m sorry. I don’t want to turn mean here. But it is kind of a cop-out. You must never stop reading.

So, I’d like to end this letter by asking YOU what book was the first to make you cry and what book first sent warm sexy waves through your blood.

Right now, as I write this, it is nearly Halloween (2013). In Portland, where I write and read and work (at Powell’s Books as luck would have it) it has become the gray season. This may last a few months. I’ll spend the season listening to music, watching football, doing some readings for my book (obligatory plug: This Is Between Us, Tin House Books), editing the next book on my press (another plug: Excavation: A Memoir by Wendy C. Ortiz, summer 2014, Future Tense Books), hanging out with my wife and going to her shows (she produces an awesome storytelling show called Back Fence PDX), reading, and eating a lot of fine food (In Portland, the foodie scene is as big as the book scene).

I didn’t become a football player or a pop star. I was a DJ for a while but that’s another story. What I became was a reader and a writer and that’s something that will last, something entirely satisfying. I’ve made my life what it is and it’s pretty great. I hope you’re as happy as I am. Thanks for reading.


Jason Katims Is My Spirit Animal

I was home alone on a Friday night a couple of years ago, clicking through TV stations, bored and skeptical about my viewing choices, when I happened upon something that seemed pretty intimate and serious. It was the show, Friday Night Lights, which I didn’t really know much about. The particular scene was one with Connie Britton, playing Tami Taylor, talking to her fifteen-year-old daughter, Julie, played by Aimee Teegarden. Perfectly capturing the awkward and tense sex-discussion vibe, Julie shrugged off her mom’s concern about losing her virginity. But Miss Taylor pressed on, and in one beautifully revealing voice-breaking moment, as she fears her daughter slipping away, she snaps, “Don’t you do that! Don’t you smirk at me right now. I am very upset. You’re not allowed to have sex. You’re fifteen years old.” It was one of the most startling and urgent pieces of acting I’ve ever seen. As a parent, this was a “holy shit” moment, or an instance that seemed too real to be on TV–a view of a parent trying to talk to their kid about real life. It was also the moment that made me go crush-crazy on Connie Britton, the perfect coach’s wife (and currently, the sexiest country music legend on ABC’s Nashville).

When my wife got home that night I made her watch that scene too. And then we binge-watched as much Friday Night Lights as possible.

It become one of our can’t-miss shows. Jason Katims was the producer and writer behind FNL and it became, even through ratings struggles and schedule shifts, one of the best, most realistic dramas on TV. Katims is a master at evoking the struggles and emotional lives of regular people and his Dillon, Texas was a place so full of life (shot Dogme 95-style, using natural light and real locations, sometimes accompanied by swelling ambient guitar), it exuded a small-town Americana vibe, and even though it was about a high school football team, the sport merely felt like a device to get into the characters’ emotional lives. It felt like a lot of the films I like. Kind of slow, quiet, reflective, but with a funny (sometimes laugh-out-loud) charm.

Aimee Teegarden and Connie Britton in Friday Night Lights

Aimee Teegarden and Connie Britton in Friday Night Lights

While doing FNL, Katims started up another show, also on NBC, an updated (semi-inspired by the movie) version of Parenthood. I also fell in love with this show because of the way it portrayed people speaking to each other in a way that showed their humanity, their need to be understood and loved by their family. In fact, the clincher for me–the special detail that made me want to watch every episode–was probably one of the scenes where a parent spoke to their child about something serious. Maybe it was a scene where the Braverman parents talked to their autistic son, Max, or maybe it was when Jasmine (played by Joy Bryant) introduces her ex-boyfriend Crosby (Dax Shepard) to the son he didn’t know he had (played by Tyree Brown). Or maybe it was one of the scenes where Sarah (Lauren Graham) tries (probably haltingly and with too much single parent guilt) to reason with her moody teens (the fantastic, adorable duo of Miles Heizer and Mae Whitman).

Joy Bryant, who plays Jasmine on Parenthood, with my wife, B. Frayn Masters, after appearing on her show, Back Fence PDX, in 2013.

Joy Bryant, who plays Jasmine on Parenthood, with my wife, B. Frayn Masters, after appearing on her show, Back Fence PDX, in 2013.

The thing about these two shows–the kind of surprisingly mature (un-patronizing) mood that they establish–is that their beauty is in how they portray people trying to communicate with people. In honest, sometimes clumsy, sometimes sad, sometimes accidentally poetic ways. Through six seasons, Parenthood has tackled cancer, PTSD, breaking up and getting back together, failed careers, stalled dreams, birth, death, and so much more. Katims somehow reaches such an emotional height with nearly every show, that my wife and I don’t even try to hide our tears any more. We know for sure there’ll be some crying tonight, when Parenthood‘s last episode ends, we’ll probably be soggy messes. We loved watching Parenthood‘s large cast of characters through the years as they did what we all do–tried to create a life to be happy in, with the people they care for. I also find it totally endearing how much the casts of Katims’s shows obviously love each other in real life. If you follow any of the actors on Instagram or Twitter, you’ll often see them post photos of them goofing around off-set or in the studio. And many of the actors who were on Friday Night Lights have also been on Parenthood. Two beautiful worlds collide.

Mae Whitman and her TV mom, Lauren Graham

Mae Whitman and her TV mom, Lauren Graham

If I ever wrote or produced a TV show, I would strive for a level as high as Jason Katims. I found it interesting to see on his IMDB page, that Katims also wrote some episodes of a much-older TV favorite of mine, My So-Called Life (1994). In some ways, Jason Katims feels like my spirit animal.

In fact, I even like his sometimes corny but very funny TV adaptation of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy.

If you haven’t seen Parenthood and you want to dive into a great drama-comedy (yes, it was often very funny as well), better go find this treasure as soon as you can, and you better get some tissue as well. There’s a lot of TV shows out there these days but I’m not sure when another one as real and as emotionally engulfing as Parenthood will come along again. This was a very special show and it will be missed.

Jason Katims and his Emmy

Jason Katims and his Emmy

Rookie Season

I never thought I’d give up writing for anything, but as 2014 winds down, I look back on all the stuff I did in the name of collage and I get the same excitable newcomer rush that I did when I started writing and publishing over twenty years ago. Like my first (often naive) forays into the world of making books, I have jumped head-first into this passionate exploration of a new form.


So, when I put up my first solo collage show at the Basil Hallward Gallery at Powell’s on New Year’s Day, it will be to celebrate the past twelve months of making over 100 collages, getting a few of them published, slowly putting together a Society 6 page, taking an on-line collage class, discovering (and befriending) as many collage artists as possible, launching a new collage column for The Rumpus, and co-hosting the lively new “Open Collage Nights” at the IPRC in Portland (every 2nd Wednesday of the month).


The show will be up for the whole month of January and it’s called “Rookie Season.” I have about forty pieces framed and ready to go on the walls. I’ve picked out pieces that will hopefully show some of the growth and changes I made through the year. It’s funny to look at collages I made last January and February and think, “Oh, those are my early works.”


First Thursday lands on January 1st this year, so come out and see my collages in person (I think they look much cooler that way as opposed to a flat jpeg). I may even have a surprise or two for you. Plus, you know–probably some snacks and cheese and stuff. I’ll be hanging out from 6:30pm til about 8:00. Hope to see you!


My Year End List of Books I Didn’t Get To

It happens every year. I want to read so many books and I uncontrollably start stacking towers of them all around my desk at work, my desk at home, and even in my Future Tense closet and on top of the washer and dryer. I NEED MORE BOOKSHELVES! Plus, more time to read! Also, a faster brain! Maybe I should read one of those speed reading books. Do people actually speed read books for enjoyment?

I confess that I’m kind of a slow reader, plus, you know, there’s been a lot of good TV this year (Hello, Nashville! Hi, Transparent. I’m going to miss you, Parenthood!). Also, there has been collaging (I ❤ you so much, collaging!!!). But I’ve still been able to read almost fifty books this year somehow (helps to read short books). However, it’s never enough. Here is my list of the top ten books I meant to read this year that I’ll definitely read in 2015.

The Free by Willy Vlautin

I have read every other Vlautin book and loved them all so much. But I somehow developed a slight disinterest in reading novels this year (in favor of poetry, memoir, and hybrid weirdness). But still: What is taking me so long to get to this one.

Revolution of Every Day by Cari Luna

Cari and I are label-mates (I think that’s what you call other writers on the same press as you, right?). She is an awesome friend and often smart and funny at the same time. Sometimes I avoid fiction that feels political or message-y but CL has assured me that her book is essentially about people–because she knows I’m a sucker for stories about people–especially underdogs! OK OK–I’m moving this up the list right away!


The Other Side by Lacy M. Johnson

Really enjoyed meeting Lacy this past summer and her reading at Powell’s was super powerful. I love the fragmented format of this memoir and it was edited by my awesome editor at Tin House, Masie Cochran.

What’s Important Is Feeling by Adam Wilson

Another guy I hosted at Powell’s who rocked the crowd with his funny, Sam Lipsyte-ish prose style. I’ve read about half of the book and need to slurp down the rest of this delicious brew.


If I Don’t Breathe How Do I Sleep by Joe Wenderoth

I worship Wenderoth’s classic, Letters to Wendy’s, but sometimes have a hard time getting into his poetry. Still, he’s such an enigma, I will always look at anything he writes.

Backup Singers by Sommer Browning

Another friend and someone I’ve even published, Sommer is someone who writes really funny, often surprising poems of wit and sass. Birds, LLC is one of my favorite poetry presses. I’m just going to read one poem really quick… oh, that was great.


The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

Longtime Portland writer Denfeld has written some powerful nonfiction in the past and a couple of my Powell’s co-workers have raved incessantly about this book, so I better check it out…someday, damnit!

Who Can Make It by Mike Young

This is a freaking chapbook. Why don’t I have time to read thirty magical pages of freaky poem action from one of my favorite young writers? WHY!?


Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag by Sigrid Nunez

I’ve been wanting to read more about Sontag (I actually met her with Annie Leibovitz in 1999) and this book has a really interesting angle. Nunez was Sontag’s son’s girlfriend and saw the author of Against Interpretation as a mentor.

Sugar Skull by Charles Burns

Graphic novels are wonderful things and the ones by Mr. Burns are quick and weird and deliciously fucked up. I’m going to cross this baby off my list very soon.

Okay, so here’s to 2015! Now give me more reading time and wish me luck!

Three Things

Friends! Some news tidbits I should share with you…

1. I’ve started a new reading series. Yeah, I know there are already dozens of others in this little town, but I think my idea is pretty sweet. I’m calling it Two Essays & A Poem. It will happen whenever I get the gumption to set one up. Maybe like once a month-ish. It may take place at rotating locations and maybe even with rotating hosts/curators–maybe even in different cities.! The first one is this Saturday at Glyph Cafe in downtown Portland. It will be exactly as advertised: Two people will each read an essay and then the evening will finish with one poem from someone else. No more looking at the clock, wondering when it will end. Each 2EAP will be about the same length as an episode of The Daily Show. Short reading. No nonsense. Maximum impact. The first one features Instant Future author Litsa Dremousis, Check out the Facebook event page for more info.

2. Instant Future has launched! This is the new eBook venture I’m doing with Matthew Simmons, Bryan Coffelt, and a bunch of awesome writers ready to rock your world. Check it out. The aforementioned Litsa Dremousis is our powerful first author, and her book, Altitude Sickness has already garnered many great reviews as well as debates on the sanity of mountain climbing culture.


3. I’ll have a collage show in January at Powell’s City of Books, in the Basil Hallward Gallery. I’m so excited that so many people will see my work there through the month. I just have to think of a cool name for the show. Hmmmm. I’m also writing an essay about my “rookie season” as a collage artist and it will appear in the January issue of Kolaj Magazine (a publication I adore). Speaking of collages, I have collage work in the new issues of JerkPoet and The Lazy Fascist Review. And my collage column at The Rumpus is still going strong. This whole collage mania has been so fun for me this year. Thank you so much to everyone who has shared my enthusiasm for it. I plan to do so much more in 2015. Sometimes I feel like such a nerd about it. :/

Tricky Dick Fish

Time to Read

Friends! I have two readings coming up very soon. After spending so much time and energy on my collaging adventure this year, I’m excited to get back behind the mic, especially on Wednesday, Oct 22nd with Miriam Toews, who is one of my all-time favorite writers and people. I just adore her. Also: The great Portland poet Adam Adamschick. Also: Ace Hotel lobby!?!


And then on Saturday the 25th, I’ll be reading at the Bone Tax Reading series at Ford Food & Drink, alongside John Beer, Wendy Bourgeois, and Zosia Rose. Gonna read some new poems and maybe even an old one. 🙂


Collage Summer Heats Up

Every time someone asks me what’s been going on, I usually shrug and say, oh, more of the same. Or something like that. I think it’s about time I just fess up: I’m busy as f$ck!
I go to work and then I come home and “go to work” again, until way past my bedtime. I thought July and August were like vacation months. Times to lay out in the sun or on the beach. Sadly, it doesn’t work out that way. Besides the recent Future Tense/Scout Book releases, me and team Future Tense (Bryan, Tina, Mareika, and Ariana) were working hard on getting Wendy C. Ortiz’s memoir, Excavation, out into the world. I’m expecting boxes of the paperback in the next day and then we’ll FLOOD THE WORLD with them! Watch out!
Besides all that, it’s been collage madness over here. And I’ve got a bunch of things coming up. Here we go…

1. I’m doing a collage slide show at the Entertainment For People show this Friday night, July 18th at Disjecta. It’s kind of hard to describe what exactly this entails. I think back to the time I saw Crispin Glover do his “Big Slide Show” and I feel like that’s sort of the vibe I’m going for. A visual roller coaster of weirdness, beauty, and precision cutting! Also there will also be awesome folks like Laura Gibson, Arthur Btradford, B Frayn Masters, and host Dan Kennedy.

2. Starting on August 5th, some of my collages will be part of the show, Sex From Scratch, at the Waypost in Portland. The other artists will be Molly Schaeffer and Natalie Nourigat, who illustrated Sarah Mirk’s awesome new book, Sex From Scratch. I just recently bought my first frames for some of my more sex-y, relationship-y collages. I’m so excited about this being my first art show. On Tuesday, August 5th, Sarah and I will be hanging out there and maybe selling art, books, and other things from 7:30-9pm.
art show banner

3. Just two nights after that, on Thursday, August 7th, I’ll be joining forces with A.M. O’Malley and the Independent Publishing Resource Center to kick off a new once-a-month Open Collage Night. This means you can come hang out at the IPRC and make collages with me, A.M., and whoever else wants to show up and cut and paste for a few hours. There will be some scissors and old magazines and books to cut the heck out of, but you’re encouraged to bring your own stuff too. Go ahead and bring some beer or other refreshments as well.

4. Besides all this, I’m continuing with my collage column, Paper Trumpets, on The Rumpus. Next ones posting on July 23rd and August 6th. Stay tuned to that.

5. I recently signed up with a retail partner and will be selling some collage prints and other collage-centric products soon. Like Andy Warhol’s factory, I’m planning to take over the art world like a mofo, or at least sell a few postcards and T-shirts. More (less vague) info on this adventure soon!

Cougar Cave, June 2014

Cougar Cave, June 2014