From P-Town… The Oregon Book Awards

1. The outside of the Gerding Theater. 2. Chelsea Cain, Suzy Vitello, Erin Ergenbright, Cheryl Strayed. 3. Elissa Schappell and Rob Spillman.

I’ve never been to a book award ceremony, so it seemed right that I go big for my first time. So when a friend arranged some tickets to go to the Oregon Book Awards, I jumped at the chance.

I started out at Indigo Publishing’s pre-awards party, where I chatted with some of the more active members of Portland’s literary community (who shall remain unnamed to protect us all). The conversation was lively and covered typical book event type topics such as Wordstock and food writing, then somehow dipped into recreational drug use in the ’70s (we’d been enjoying some wine), and finally landed, during the walk to the Gerding theater in NW Portland, on the subject of award ceremonies — in particular, David Foster Wallace’s essay on the AVN awards in Las Vegas. We all agreed that the Oregon Book Awards would most likely not resemble, in any way, the AVN awards but we were hoping that it would be a lively evening in its own way. We weren’t disappointed.

1. George Estrich, 2012 Oregon Book Award Non-Fiction winner for “The Shape of the Eye” with Matt Yurdana, 2006 Oregon Book Award Poetry Finalist for “Public Gestures.

Awards ceremonies can sometimes tend to drag, but that wasn’t the case for the Oregon Book Awards. Singer Laura Gibson opened with “La Grande”, a beautiful folk song that felt perfect for the Pacific Northwest setting, and set the tone for a comfortable and fun evening. Andrew Proctor, the executive Director for Literary Arts, gave an introduction reminding us that there had been 179 titles submitted, and from those, 31 finalists in 7 categories. And then he introduced us to Master of Ceremonies Elissa Schappell. Schappell’s work as an author is lengthy and distinguished, but if she ever gets bored with writing she would do well in a career as a host. Her sense of humor and tale-telling immediately set the audience at ease, and again reassured us that we would be having some fun.

1. Roberta Dyer of Broadway Books and Donna Kane of Powell’s Books. 2. Laura Gibson. 3. Scott Poole.

Rather than giving a play-by-play of the nights events — which would be long and tedious and not do it justice anyway — there were a few things that really stood out. Having never attended these awards before, I was happily surprised by how they announced the winners. Instead of simply reading the winners’ names, the presenter instead opened an envelope that contained a short excerpt from the winning piece. All of the nominees were gathered into the first two rows of the theater, so we could see them react as their work was read to them from the stage. I can’t think of a more fitting, creative, or unique way of going about it.

1. Rick Klaras and Hobie Anthony. 2. Pauls Toutonghi, Zachary Schomburg, and Sara Renee Marshall.

The acceptance speeches were gracious, filled with humor and some tears (I’m looking at you and smiling, Storm Large). None of the winners seemed to take themselves very seriously, but they did take writing and the literary arts quite seriously, each stressing the importance of keeping these traditions alive. This idea was most clearly reflected in the acceptance speech of Larry Colton, the winner of the Steward Holbrook Literary Legacy Award. Colton (who had twice failed an introductory English course in college and would now like to jokingly ask the “son of a bitch” who failed him how that guy’s writing career is going) founded Wordstock and served as executive director of Community of Writers, a program designed to improve writing programs for high school students. He pointed out that 1300 teachers could be employed using the salaries of the starting line up for the Blazers, and asked everyone in the theater to stand up and give teachers a round of applause.

1. Storm Large. 2. Ismet Prcic. 3. Larry Colton.

But the show stealer of the night was clearly Live Wire! poet Scott Poole, who had been asked to write a poem that included all of the finalists’ names, the titles of each of their nominated books, and the titles of each award category. The result, “Love Letter to the Muse after a Long Silence”, was outstanding, as was his delivery. Poole got the only curtain call of the night, and treated us to a little impromptu dance in return.

I had a great time and found myself marveling again at the supportive and encouraging literary community here in Portland. This isn’t just a great community of writers, it’s a great community of people who really love what they do.

For a full list of winners, go here.


–Jeanne Laravuso (text) is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland.

— Judith Ossello (photos) currently lives and writes in Portland, Oregon. Find her here.

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