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Portland booster of writers marks 30 years

PORTLAND — On one of Calvin Trillin’s past pilgrimages to Portland to read to local fans, he decided to grab a bite at the bar of the hotel where he was staying. He remembers the meal, a Northwest specialty: smoked-salmon hash and a local beer.

"I realized right then that the lot of the traveling man had been lifted just a little," the humorist said in a phone interview from New York City.

It’s not just the food that’s to Trillin’s liking when he visits Portland. It’s the vibes he feels in a city that’s crazy for literature and supportive of writers — the famous, the not-so-famous, and the many who manage to keep nursing hope they will someday get published.

Trillin is about to make yet another trip to Portland, this time to help celebrate the 30th anniversary of one of the nation’s most respected promoters of the written word: the nonprofit Literary Arts organization. Trillin, Elizabeth Gilbert and local poet Zach Schomburg are among those scheduled to appear at a birthday bash Literary Arts is throwing for itself — and for the local writers’ community — on Sept. 8 at Portland’s largest concert hall.

Nonprofits around the country promote writers and writing, such as The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Grub Street in Boston, the Richard Hugo House in Seattle, the 92nd Street Y in New York, Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, and Portland’s Literary Arts.

"Writers tend to be broke so these organizations are very grassroots," said Jocelyn Hale, executive director of The Loft Literary Center. "The literary arts do not generally attract deep pockets in the same way that other art forms do."

The Portland organization promotes literary creativity in many ways — from a book awards and fellowship program to working with high school students to elevate their writing skills.

"The (Portland) program’s outreach into the community, and their support for the arts in general, is unsurpassed," said literary agent Andrew Wylie, whose clients include Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth.

The group sees itself a service organization.

Liz Mehl and Justin Rigamonti last year were looking for a space to showcase new works by poets with a sort of performance-art pageant based on the fashion industry’s "fashion week." They had no money to pay for a venue. Literary Arts let them use a room free of charge, and took care of advertising and catering. Publishers, press and the public were invited to the event, called Poetry Press Week. Two manuscripts have been published as a result and a third poet has also been contacted by a publisher. Poetry Press Week drew so many people last year that this year they have had to move it to a larger venue.

"They (Literary Arts) opened their doors wide. They did a beautiful job helping us. They were lovely hosts," said Mehl, herself a poet.

Literary Arts may be best known for its lecture series. The program packs the 2,700-seat Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall with literature buffs who come to hear the likes of Salman Rushdie, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, Louise Erdrich and other top authors. It is one of the biggest-selling programs of its kind in the nation.

Revenue from the lecture series, from individual contributions, corporate sponsorship, foundation grants and government support is used to support Oregon writers and to generate interest in writing.

"We’re very intentional about making the case for literature," said Andrew Proctor, executive director of Literary Arts for the past five years whose prior credentials included membership and operations director at the PEN American Center. Literary Arts conducts the annual Oregon Book Awards contest as well as a fellowship program.

Since 1987, the two programs have awarded more than $700,000 to Oregon writers and independent publishers. The amount granted by the two programs during a year is usually $29,000, and that’s been raised to $59,000 this year.

Literary Arts traces its origins to Portland Arts and Lectures, founded 30 years ago. The first speakers were Trillin, Ann Beattie, Pauline Kael and Norman Mailer. In November 1993 that organization merged with the Oregon Institute of Literary Arts.

Author Ursula K. Le Guin, a longtime Oregon resident, was on OILA’s board back then and after the merger served on the board of Literary Arts.

"Each had been quite successful doing its own thing," she said of Literary Arts’ two parent groups. "But could they work together? It could have been a train wreck, not a merger."

"But the talented and temperamental people involved all acted with generosity, and it worked out surprisingly quickly and amazingly well."

Andrew Proctor, executive director of the nonprofit organization Literary Arts, stands in front of his office in Portland. Literary Arts assists and encourages writers through programs like the Oregon Book Awards and Fellowships. AP PHOTO.
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