10 Portland Powerhouses Bringing the (Good) Hurt to Publishing
Boasting the largest independent bookstore in the country, dozens of weekly readings (spearheaded by series like Bad Blood and If Not For Kidnap), the Independent Publishing Resource Center (which provides access to letterpresses and everything else that an independent publisher could ask for), a graduate program in publishing, cheap housing and cheaper booze, not to mention numerous publishers, literary journals, and several annual conferences, Portland, Oregon has become a Mecca for writers of all sorts. People here are rabid about their books. It's evident in the sheer variety of experiences and aesthetics on display among the city's authors and publishers, many who will be coming together October 3-5th for Wordstock, Portland's national book festival. There's no shortage of great publishers here. A list of them all could fill a book-length article, so here are ten presses worth your attention. Together, they'll give you a sense of the full range of fiction and poetry being produced in Portland.
Without the presence of Future Tense Publishing and its founder, Kevin Sampsell (who also runs the small press section at Powell's City of Books), Portland may have never become the indie lit empire it is today. Thanks in large part to Kevin, people in Portland are inspired not only to write, but to get involved with every stage of the bookmaking process. Future Tense has contributed more to this scene than any other Portland press, having published chapbooks, paperbacks, collaborative oddities (like the Scout Books Series), and more for over twenty years. Some must-read Future Tense releases include Partial List of People to Bleach by Gary Lutz, Everything Was Fine Until Whatever by Chelsea Martin, Legs Get Led Astray by Chloe Caldwell, Our Beloved 26th by Riley Michael Parker, and Monogamy Songs by Gregory Sherl.
While you're checking out Future Tense, don't forget about Mammoth Editions, a micro-press run by Future Tense designer Bryan Coffelt. Mammoth Editions has only published two books, but both of them — Hallelujah, Giant Space Wolf by Daniel Bailey and Slow Motion German Adjectives by Donald Dunbar — are righteous examples of independent publishing gone perfectly right.
My favorite poetry press in the universe is Black Ocean, and my favorite Black Ocean author is Zachary Schomburg, who's also the editor of Octopus Books. More than just another small press, Octopus is comprised of four separate departments. In addition to the main publishing arm, there's the online poetry publication Octopus Magazine, the reading series Bad Blood, and the imprint Poor Claudia. If you want to know what Octopus is all about, I recommend Sexual Boat (Sex Boats) by James Gendron and The Difficult Farm by Heather Christle. There's simply not a better poetry publisher than Octopus in town.
Established in 2001, Hawthorne Books stands out as one of the biggest independent publishers in Portland. Major releases like Clown Girl by Monica Drake and The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch have landed in the national spotlight, while many of their titles have gone on to win major awards. Locally, every new release from Hawthorne is an event, but their ability to incorporate a big-picture, professional mindset into a local company brand is what distinguishes them from the rest.
If there's a bigger force in Portland publishing right now than Tin House, well, there's just not. Between the nationally acclaimed magazine, the books (like Moby Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page by Matt Kish), the annual summer writing workshop, and daily web content, Tin House does it all. One of their fall releases, Kevin Sampsell's This Is Between Us, a novel about sexual obsession, promises to be one of the most exciting releases of the year.
Perfect Day Publishing is a perfect example of a publisher born and raised in Portland. Perfect Day was founded by active IPRC member Michael Heald, and the influence of the IPRC and other Portland publishers — namely Future Tense — shows in their aesthetic. Their books maintain a good balance between slick and handmade, and their taste leans toward the personal true-life story while leaving things open for more adventurous works, like the heart-rending, anonymously written Choose Your Own Adventure book Love Is Not Constantly Wondering If You Are Making the Biggest Mistake of Your Life. Heald's own Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension is a compulsively readable essay collection that I'd also recommend.
Small Doggies started out as an online magazine and popular reading series in the basement of The Blue Monk, a jazz club in Southeast Portland, but last year they took a direction that many Portland reading series do: they started publishing books. Fall Ill Medicine by Carrie Seitzinger, only their second release, was an Oregon Book Award finalist. Their latest release, Brian Allen Carr's surreal western Edie & the Low-Hung Hands, is an absolute must read. Also worth checking out: Nailed Magazine, the new online endeavor spearheaded by Small Doggies founders Matty Byloos and Carrie Seitzinger.
Between its Dr. Who, Lovecraftian, and arcade bars, the plethora of comics shops and conventions, regular movie theater screenings of cult classics and forgotten gems, and the citywide acceptance of all things geeky, Portland is a city where nerdom is the norm. It's no surprise, then, that Dark Horse, one of the biggest comics publishers in the country, calls Portland home. But in addition to top-selling comics, Dark Horse has also published novels and anthologies by some of today's leading authors. Their latest prose offering, the punk rock detective novel Love is the Law by genre outlaw Nick Mamatas, was just released.
Leading the darker side of Portland's nerd assault is Deadite Press, the cult horror imprint of Eraserhead Press. Deadite editor Jeff Burk hosts semi-regular events at the Lovecraft Bar, including the pre-party for this year's Lovecraft Film Festival. Deadite is infamous for publishing the grisliest, most hardcore books around, the literary equivalent of the sleaziest sections in Video Madness. Hell, Deadite published a novel by Dave Brockie, lead singer of Gwar, which should give you a sense of what they do. My favorite Deadite release to date is the emotionally hard-hitting novella Just Like Hell by Nate Southard, which is a must-read for Jack Ketchum fans.
The alt lit brat pack known as Housefire publishes a little of everything, with a special focus on prompt-inspired fiction and poetry, sort of like Oulipoean constraint filtered through Pabst Blue Ribbon and wool sweaters. Their first book, the anthology Nouns of Assemblage, featured over three dozen stories titled after various nouns of assemblage (a murder of crows, a plague of locusts, etc.), while their latest, the eBook Selfies, is a collaborative novel about a cast of twenty-something slackers living in San Francisco. Their strongest release to date is the novella A Cloth House by Joseph Riippi. Two of Housefire's driving forces, Riley Michael Parker and Robert Duncan Gray, stand among the best live readers in town. Readings can be bullshit, but when either of these gentlemen take the stage, I listen. So does everyone else in the room.
Like Tin House, Microcosm is a miniature empire of its own, albeit one more entrenched in Portland's indie zine culture. They operate out of a shop near the vegan mini-mall in Southeast Portland. It's a rad little store packed with books and zines on radical politics, punk rock, bicycles, anarchism, veganism and vegetarianism, and just about every other subject you could want a zine on, plus shirts, movies, buttons, and more. You owe it to your soul to check out their zine Henry & Glenn Forever, a hilarious glimpse into the love life of Henry Rollins and Glenn Danzig.
Portland is a city where major writers (Ursula K. Le Guin, Chuck Palahniuk, Katherine Dunn, Patrick deWitt, etc.) frequent the same cafes and bars as writers just committing their first stories to paper. It's also not uncommon to spot someone on the street reading one of your favorite small press titles, or that obscure European novel you thought no one else had read. But Portland's small town vibe, DIY attitude, and youth prevent it from becoming just another New York. The city doesn't have a history that weighs on you. It can be anything you want it to be, a fact that enables writers and publishers living here to create anything they want to create. Like the first ever LitHop PDX, a bar crawl reading event that's kicking off Wordstock this year. Hell yes.
(Header Image: Amelia Gray reading at Colonel Summers Park, August 2013. Photo by Aaron Gilbreath.)
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