Beside the fact that both earn their meals selling words, Sarah Mirk and Carl Adamshick could hardly be more different. He’s from a small town in the Midwest; she’s from small town in Southern California. He writes poems; she writes news and nonfiction. Most striking, while Mirk has wanted to be a journalist since she was a little child, Adamshick didn’t read a book until he was 21.
“When I was growing up…I would write the family newspaper. I would make headlines like ‘Dad makes pancakes for dinner’ and ‘Dog gets stuck in tree,’” Mirk said.
For Adamshick’s part, he said that once he started reading, “I found that it was something I needed to fill this gap in my life that I didn’t really know I was missing.” It took little time for him to try his own hand.
Both writers read to, and answered questions from, a small gathering of faculty and students on Tuesday night, an event sponsored by PSU’s master of fine arts in creative writing program. Adamshick read from his first book of poetry, Curses and Wishes (2011), published by Louisiana State University Press, and Mirk read from her Oregon History Comics (2012) from local boosters Dill Pickle Club.
Adamshick comes from Harvard, Ill., a small farming and industrial town north of Chicago, now memorialized in a crisp poem of his. He said that, though his was a family of readers, there was no library in town, so they made do with popular fiction. He moved to Portland when he was 21 and wasn’t really working, so he just spent time in the library, where he discovered Raymond Carver. “He got me into poetry,” he said.
In a time when a master’s degree in fine art seems like a prerequisite for writing anything more involved than a blog post, much is made of the fact that Adamshick is entirely self-taught. He claims that if he were to do it again he would indeed go through an academic writing program, but he wonders what the difference is between school and a writing group.
“I think the big question is whether it matters to other people or not,” Adamshick said. “There’s a big sense that people get, like, ‘I can’t get published unless I do an MFA,’ and I’m glad I can represent that not being true. That’s the big question, whether you think you can do it without the MFA or not.”
Adamshick is fascinated not just by text, but by books themselves. That fascination is apparent in the practices of Tavern Books, his publishing company.
Tavern publishes rare and out-of-print titles and translated poetry from around the world. Tavern’s focus is on a finely crafted product with pamphlets in hand-stitched bindings, copper plate printing and gorgeous covers. Tavern promises to keep their titles in print and never to publish electronically.
“It’s in our contract that we will never have an electronic book,” Adamshick said.
The bulk of Mirk’s published work, on the other hand, is available for free on the Internet. As a staff writer for The Portland Mercury, Mirk covers much of that paper’s “serious” journalism, with a particular focus on transportation, politics, gender and sex. Mirk graduated from Iowa private liberal arts school Grinnell College and went directly to the Mercury for an internship.
“The problem with newspapers is that the only way to get a job at a small one is if somebody quits or somebody dies,” Mirk said. “I interned at the Mercury for way too long, like six months or something like that, until somebody quit and I got their job, and that’s how I ended up here.”
In many ways, Mirk is doing exactly what she’s always wanted to do. Besides her early fascination with journalism she claims—with apparently perfect sincerity—that Seattle’s The Stranger (parent paper to the Mercury) was her favorite paper in the country while at Grinnell.
Mirk interned there, too, but passed on an offer of a position in order to finish school. She fondly remembers coming to Portland as a teenager for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry’s science camp and spending a summer here after high school as a canvasser: “A terrible, terrible job, but it was really great to live here,” Mirk said.
Having set herself up right where she wants to be, Mirk has begun launching some ambitious side projects that encompass an ever-larger circle of interests.
Her Oregon History Comics is a series of 10 short pamphlets, each authored by Mirk and illustrated by a different artist and sold as a boxed set. Mirk illustrated and wrote the first one, “Faces of the Lone Fir Cemetery,” before the Dill Pickle Club approached her about doing a series with different illustrators.
She says she was inspired by the pace of change in a city that grows so fast that transplants now outnumber natives.
“I went to a talk at the library and they were talking about how different things were in the old days, like in the early ’90s, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this city changes so fast, ancient history was like 20 years ago,’” Mirk said.
She saw comics as a way to pique people’s interest in a subject dominated by imposing tomes penned, more often than not, by old white men.
As an example, she showed photos of the five top-selling history authors of last year. All were men, all were old and all but perhaps one were white. She also projected a photo of a history mural at a local school, depicting the history of this continent beginning with the landing of Columbus.
Mirk’s current project is called Sex From Scratch: Rules for Relationships for People Who Make Their Own Rules, which she describes as “a nontraditional guide to relationships.
“Most of the traditional relationship books out there really suck, like, ‘how to snag a man and get married to him,’” Mirk said, describing her book as an ethical guide for people for whom the term “relationship” carries a different import.
When unrelentingly pressed for a common thread through her various interests, Mirk points to the human factor.
“I’m always interested in talking to strangers,” Mirk said. “So that’s what I see as cutting across all those fields…people’s stories.”