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The City and the Writer: In Portland, Maine, with Kathryn Miles

By Nathalie Handal

Special Series/Nature Writers 2015

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                  —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities



Can you describe the mood of Portland as you feel/see it?

Hopeful. A decade or so ago, Portland had the reputation of being pretty down-and-out. Since then, it’s really been revitalized: not so much in a gentrified, push-out-the-little-guy kind of way, but more in a quirky hipster kind of way. Portland is a young city, and a right-minded one at that: lots of progressive thinking, sustainable initiatives, and experimental art, too. I feel old in Portland, and I kind of love that.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

To really have your heart broken—the kind of gut-wrenching heartbreak that leaves you sobbing in bed for weeks—you need to first have had a really deep love affair. I’m pretty new here, so Portland and I are still working through our infatuation with one another. Give us another year: maybe by then we will have had our first fight.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Portland is a harbor town, and it still has a very traditional working waterfront. If you get past the coffee shops and tourist traps and boho chic boutiques, you’ll find lobstermen who still go out every morning, urchin divers and bloodworm diggers, schooner captains, and dilapidated wharves that look like they hopped out of a Steinbeck paragraph.

What writer(s) from here should we read? 

The headquarters for the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance is based in Portland, which does a great deal to promote a literary community. There are so many wonderful writers doing their work here. Right now, I can’t get enough of Brock Clarke. His new book, The Happiest People in the World, is mind-blowingly good.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Many, but my favorite is the farmers market. My partner and I like to take his two boys: we both feel like it’s really important that they understand local economy and where their food comes from. Each week, there are added bonuses, too, like slide guitar-playing buskers, knife jugglers, social activists, and free hugs. In the winter, we love to get breakfast at the taco truck there, too. Nothing says good morning like chile tamales and Mexican hot chocolate.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

We’re all pretty proud of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He was born and raised in Portland, and his home has been preserved as a lovely museum. But the real literati know the best place to be in Portland is Longfellow Books: a truly first-rate indie store famous for their readings and impeccably curated stacks.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

One of the biggest cultural shifts to Portland has been the establishment of a strong Somali community here. A lot of their culture is hidden in plain sight: the sudden appearance of Halal butchers, the store windows written in Arabic, and women dressed in traditional dirac. Thus far, most Mainers have kept their distance, and the two cultures have remained largely separate. I would like to see more interaction and exchange.

Where does passion live here?

Definitely in the city’s food and restaurants. Farm-to-table dining is experiencing a fantastic renaissance in Portland, where you can order bacon-dusted fries, cured quail eggs, and roasted bone marrow with apple-pear agrodolce all before moving on to your main course.

What is the title of one of your works about Portland and what inspired it exactly?

Two books ago, I wrote All Standing: The True Story of The Jeanie Johnston, the Legendary Irish Famine Ship. It’s a work of popular history that details one historic ship and its fearless crew, who risked their own lives to save thousands of Irish famine refugees. During one particularly dangerous voyage, the ship was forced to seek safe harbor in New Brunswick. The passengers found few opportunities there, so they made the perilous decision to walk hundreds of miles to Portland—and to do so in the dead of winter. Miraculously, they all survived. Many of their descendants live here still. I think about their ancestors a lot when I walk these streets.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Portland, does an outside exist?”

Yes. But does that make a difference?

Where does the nature exist within the city?

Everywhere. You can smell the tide, find coyote scat on park trails, and pick blueberries if you know where to look. Most people in Portland are cool with that. And they’re serious about their outdoor recreation, too. Just before I sat down to write this, a friend of mine took me to a not-so-secret downhill ski spot right in the middle of the city. We played in the powder with dads and kids and dogs until well after dark.

Is writing from a city somehow different than writing from natural landscapes? If so, how?

Yes. And I think that’s a good thing. Since 2009, urban dwellers have outnumbered rural populations. By 2017, even less developed areas—places like sub-Saharan Africa—will be dominated by urban communities. It’s time once and for all for us to shed the antiquated notion that nature only happens high up in the Sierras or in an untrammeled forest. Increasingly, that is an elitist view that can only do harm—and one that alienates far more people than it inspires. It’s time to really begin legitimating the idea that “environmental” means all environments—including the ones that are sooty or covered in graffiti or marked by tract houses set on small lots. Those landscapes deserve a place at any nature-writing table, and they have a lot to teach us all of us if we’re willing to listen.


Kathryn Miles is the author of Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy, All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, the Legendary Irish Famine Ship, and Adventures with Ari. An award-winning journalist and science writer, her work has appeared in publications including Best American Essays, the Boston Globe, Ecotone,the New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Outside Magazine, and Time. Miles currently serves as writer-in-residence for Green Mountain College and as a scholar-in-residence for the Maine Humanities Council, where she works with returning veterans and their care providers. Her forthcoming book, Shaken, details one seismologist’s race to create solid earthquake prediction science and why all of our lives depend upon her ability to do so.

Published Jun 23, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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