Celebrating its fifth year, The Nature of Words' two nights of Tower Theater readings were a good indication that the event has come of age. Gone are the days of writers talking about sagebrush, distant mountain ranges, cattle and corrals that came with the High Desert Museum's sponsorship of the event. Here to stay is a variety of poetry, prose and some welcome surprises.
The surprises were the distinct breaks from the tried-and-true "author reads from his/her books" format.
The first presenter to stray from the tried and true presentation was Portland writer Karen Karbo. Yes Karbo read but also offered a PowerPoint presentation of images from her new book on the legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel.
For those who had seen either the 2008 American biopic film of Chanel's entire life or the 2009 French biopic film of her early years, Karbo covered familiar ground.
Even with that knowledge, Karbo helped fill in some blanks in the famed designers love life and did so with clever turns of phrase and drollery.
Humor was the underlying theme of the evening and poet (www.fishousepoems.org) Matthew Dickman rose to the occasion and immediately capturing the audience's attention with his off-hand self-effacing style. A style that gave way as he read to brilliant insights and a crackling wit.
It was as if Dickman had taken the best of Beat poetry a la Lawrence Ferlingetti, and enlarged upon and brought to new life to it. He did so with gusto and with imagery that stuck in the mind. Images like, when describing a lover: "her ass was like a shopping mall at Christmas."
Third on stage last Thursday night at The Tower was wildly popular Native American writer Sherman Alexie.
From the rousing rock star ovation Alexie received as he walked on stage it was obvious he had drawn a large number young fans to the event.
He didn't disappoint them as he set out to do something very different for The Nature of Words delivering a classic stand-up monologue. A monologue that could have been entitled "Unexpurgated Sherman Alexie or "Sherman Alexie Revealed"
Through wit and stinging commentary, Alexie described his tortuous road from infancy fraught with medical woes to his discovery of his path in life.
It was a boffo performance that on one hand with tinges of Richard Pryor's self-exploratory humor mixed with the sharp political insight of a Dick Gregory. It was very different for The Nature of Words and a transitory moment for an event that, for some, was flirting with getting bogged by its predictable format.
Friday night's readings were predictable in part but luckily there was some continuation of the event's new direction with two diverse opening readings.
The first reading was by author Seth Kanter
(www.kavikphotography.com) who expressed privately before stepping on stage his anxieties of being in a city and far away from the vastness of his Alaska wilderness home.
Rather than put the audience off, Kanter's obvious unease won them over as he warmed to his task at hand embellishing his tales with superb photographic images of the land that is at the heart of his work,
Following Kanter, pixyish-looking Belarusian poetess Valzhyna Mort
began her reading with a poem her native tongue. It wasn't necessary to know what the words meant as Mort's intense delivery made them universal in feel and tone.
Her work has been described as searing. That it is with clean piercing images balanced with those that cut straight to the heart of emotion.
Cutting straight to the heart of the five unique readings, The Nature Of Words turned a corner, entered a new lifecycle. A cycle in which the event appears to be reaching out to a broader, albeit younger, audience and moving into more approachable, and at the same time, more daring, territory.