“Reading The Listeners is like being gently electrocuted,” local author Alexis M. Smith said as she introduced the author of the novel, Portland State professor Leni Zumas. Zumas’ novel is “a story of humanely sloppy punk-rock love,” Smith told a crowd of about 50 last week at the Angry Pigeon Gallery in the Pearl District.
Zumas was reading her work as part of the first installment of Late Night Library’s “In and Out of Town” reading series, each installment of which features readings from two emerging writers—one from Portland and one from out of town.
The standing-room-only crowd listened to Zumas read a short story titled “The White Serjeant.” The story was part of a forthcoming collection “that had something to do with ’80s hair metal bands,” Zumas said.
The story was inspired by “a W.A.S.P. song I kinda liked,” Zumas told the crowd as she proceeded to read a story loosely connected to W.A.S.P.’s raunchy debut single, “Animal (Fuck Like a Beast).”
“The White Serjeant” centers on a bow-tied, mild-mannered immigration secretary named Smithson. Smithson sits on “the baleful knoll of the early ’40s”; he is a reader of “aged books,” mostly antiquated technical books, who, “despite the secretarial trappings,” can “recognize a metaphor.”
Zumas’ language pops with such descriptive language, especially when spoken aloud. The author pays special attention to the auditory delights of the written word.
“Acoustics, cadence, rhythm, repetition, the texture and weight and mouth-feel of syllables—I think about these things constantly when I write,” Zumas said in an email. “Language is a material substance, not simply a vehicle for representation. It comes from the body as breath, is shaped by our mouths, can make us physically ill: And even when we encounter it on the page, it’s never quite silent.”
The painstaking care that Zumas takes in choosing her often-unexpected words was part of what made her stand out during the hiring process at PSU.
“I read her work and heard her read it aloud, especially, and I was impressed with the sharpness of her writing, the syntax, the constant surprises of her prose,” Michael McGregor, director of the creative writing master’s program, said. (McGregor has held the position since this summer, and was not director when Zumas was hired.)
With its ’80s hair-metal requirement, “The White Serjeant” typifies much of Zumas’ writing, which often works within “constraints and limitations,” as she said at the Angry Pigeon reading.
“Ever since [graduate school], I’ve been interested in the generative qualities of limitation,” Zumas said. “Often, we aim to write freely, without any rules, but what happens when we give ourselves restrictions?
“In a poem, for instance, that ‘must’ contain zero adjectives, might we choose more compelling nouns and verbs? Or if we compose a story that ‘cannot’ have a human narrator, how might our powers of observation be stretched? What new angles and strategies arise from a limit?”
Zumas pushed these limits in her first book, a collection of short stories titled Farewell Navigator.
“One of the stories in Farewell Navigator…grew out of a self-imposed rule that every sentence had to (a) begin with either ‘He’ or ‘I,’ and (b) take up no more than a single line,” Zumas said. “The story [“Waste No Time If This Method Fails”] got its energy and oddness from this arbitrary rule, proving right, I think, the writers of the OuLiPo movement, who contended that chance and randomness can be vital ingredients in artistic production.”
Zumas also brings her experiments in constraints and limitations to the PSU classroom.
“She’s taught a class for us on defamiliarization,” McGregor said. The class is about creating “situations on the page that take away the familiar. She finds language in what might be ordinary situations, makes it strange and makes us look at it anew.”
After the publication of Farewell Navigator, Zumas began work on her debut novel, The Listeners, which was published by Portland press Tin House in May.
“The novel got its start from a real-life event in my family,” Zumas said. “When my father was little, he and his brother were sleeping side by side on a bed by a window, and there was a robbery next door. In the exchange of gunfire, his brother was killed by a stray bullet.
“The Listeners emerged from my curiosity about how it would feel to be the survivor of such a tragedy: What sort of guilt, sadness, doubt and just plain strangeness did my father have to deal with afterwards?” Zumas said. “I changed the details of the family itself, but the same event is at the core of the book, this senseless and reverberating loss.”
Zumas, an East Coast native, had her world shift west suddenly—and unexpectedly—
“Having The Listeners accepted by Tin House and getting the job at PSU happened almost simultaneously in the spring of 2011,” Zumas said. “Within, literally, a week or two of one other. I can’t even remember which came first. It was pure coincidence, and luck, and joy.”
The author has found a vibrant, burgeoning literary scene in Portland.
“It’s an excellent city for writers, not least because we have these long stretches of grim weather that give us permission to stay inside,” Zumas said.
“More important than dampness, though, is the fact that so many readers live here: Tons of people go to readings, whether at Powell’s and Literary Arts or at edgier series like Bad Blood, If Not for Kidnap and Loggernaut.”
Late Night Library, the local literary nonprofit that hosted Zumas’ recent reading, is an emerging player in the city’s book scene. The reading at the Angry Pigeon is the first live event in what the organization hopes will be a lengthy series.
“‘In and Out of Town’ is shaping up to be every other month,” said Candace Opper, Late Night Library’s managing editor and a graduate of the PSU master’s program in nonfiction (a program I am also enrolled in). Zumas was on Opper’s thesis committee, a choice Opper made after she read The Listeners.
Late Night Library is branching out to live events, though its main method for spreading the literary word has been the podcast.
“We pick a debut book and we recruit two established writers to talk about the debut book,” Opper said. “Other writers are talking about the book. They’re not only promoting the debut author, they’re self-promoting at the same time.”
Late Night Library’s next podcast features poets Camille Rankine and John Murillo discussing Marcus Jackson’s debut poetry collection, Neighborhood Register.
Since Portland State switched from a Master of Arts in Writing to a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing in 2009, the program has bolstered its profile by hiring established and emerging writers like Charles D’Ambrosio, John Beer and Zumas.
“All three [professors] have created increased diversity in what we offer,” McGregor said.
Zumas agrees that PSU’s Master of Fine Arts program is on the rise.
“I think the MFA at Portland State is poised to become one of the top writing programs in the country,” Zumas said. “My fellow faculty members are brilliant writers and teachers. Our partnership with Tin House enables us to invite a nationally renowned writer-in-residence to teach a workshop every spring. Our reading series has brought in a stellar array of writers.”
The Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing reading series continues with upcoming readings by fiction writer Whitney Otto and poet Emily Kendal Frey on Oct.23, fiction writer Jon Raymond and poet Catherine Wagner on Nov. 2 and nonfiction writer Sara Mirk and poet Carl Adamshick on Nov. 13.
For more information about times and locations of the readings, visit the PSU Creative Writing website at pdx.edu/mfa-creativewriting.