Literary rock stars descend on Port Townsend for free readings

Ilya Kaminsky

Ilya Kaminsky

PORT TOWNSEND — “Whip Smart.” “Godforsaken Idaho.” “The House of Broken Angels.” “Pie & Whiskey: Writers Under the Influence of Butter and Booze.”

They’re a few of the books by the bevy of writers about to gather here, beginning Sunday. Eighteen poets and authors, who range from a former dominatrix to a fruit pie baker, will read stories, poems and essays, published and not-yet-published, on seven consecutive nights.

Each of the readings is free and open to the public on a first-come, first-seated basis — quite a coup for local lovers of the literary art.

“I love them, as an audience member,” author Shawn Vestal said of the events.

“There’s a great energy there, a great welcoming spirit,” added Vestal, winner of the PEN Bingham prize for his “Godforsaken Idaho.” Also a columnist at the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, he’s still choosing something new for his own reading on Wednesday night.

These authors — Vestal, best-selling novelist Luis Alfredo Urrea, New York Times “Modern Love” contributor Deborah Gwartney, unconventional memoirist Melissa Febos and the rest — have come to teach at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference.

The Centrum gathering, at 44 years old, runs workshops for registered participants all day at Fort Worden State Park; then come the evening readings. All will be performances to behold, said Sam Ligon, the conference artistic director who assembles them.

Let’s tour the week. All readings start at 7 p.m. and last just an hour; unless otherwise noted, each is held in the Wheeler Theater just inside the entrance to Fort Worden, 200 Battery Way.

• Sunday: Deborah Gwartney, author of “Live through This,” and Bruce Beasley, Pushcart Prize-winning poet whose books include “All Soul Parts Returned.”

• Monday: Port Townsend poet Gary Copeland Lilley, health and environment writer Suzanne Paola and Portland, Ore., poet Emily Kendal Frey.

• Tuesday: “Whip Smart” author Melissa Febos and Spokane novelist Sam Ligon, whose books include “Drift and Swerve.”

• Wednesday: Moscow, Idaho, poet and novelist Alexandra Teague, Spokane journalist and novelist Shawn Vestal and multi-genre writer Patricia Henley, whose story collections include “Friday Night at the Silver Star” read at the Northwind Arts Center, 701 Water St., Port Townsend.

• Thursday: Luis Alfredo Urrea, writer of “The Devil’s Highway,” “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” and the new “House of Broken Angels,” and Kate Lebo, author of “Pie School: Lessons in Fruit, Flour and Butter.”

• Friday, July 20: Jonathan Evison, author of “West of Here,” “This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!” and the new “Lawn Boy;” Urban Wilderness Project founder Jourdan Imani Keith; Writers’ Conference founder and science fiction novelist Bill Ransom; Katie Farris, poet and author of “boysgirls,” a hybrid form text.

• Saturday, July 21: Lily Hoang, the California author of “A Bestiary,” and Ilya Kaminsky, a Ukrainian-born poet whose books include “Musica Humana” and “Dancing in Odessa.”

Ligon gushes about his fellow readers. They’re rock stars of the American literary scene, and “they’re cool — but they’re not jerks. You’ve got to have some egos, for sure,” he said.

These writers are busy winning prizes, fellowships and publishing contracts, yet “they’re not here to pose and be worshipped.”

The reading series romps across the gamut of subject and style. Hoang’s “Bestiary” is “one of the weirdest, coolest books,” Ligon said, while Febos “is a fantastic reader. Her work could very easily be over the top and sensational. But she’s understated.”

Urrea “is like an orator,” and when he reads, “It feels like this hurricane is coming at you. This big, literary drama is coming from him. He’s holding the book, but I don’t think he’s reading from it.”

As for Lebo, “She is the greatest writer of all time,” not to mention Ligon’s wife. The couple co-edited the “Pie & Whiskey” collection of stories based on the eponymous reading series in Spokane and Seattle. Lebo has another nonfiction book forthcoming: “The Book of Difficult Fruit.”

For Vestal, this full week of writing and reading is a potent experience.

“It gets me going,” he said.

“I just love it. Everybody is around to talk about the thing you love.”


Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.

Gary Lilley

Gary Lilley

Luis Urrea

Luis Urrea

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