Skip to content
Words Without Borders “stands as a monument to international collaboration and a shared belief in artistic possibility.” 
— 2018 Whiting Literary Magazine Prize Citation

The City and the Writer: In Portland with Flávia Rocha

By Nathalie Handal

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?

When I moved to Portland almost two years ago, I knew, in my resistant heart, that I would love this city. Resistant because I was leaving my country [Brazil] and my language to enter the state of mind of voluntary exile, something I knew to have deep repercussions. Portland is to be loved. Rain doesn’t downgrade my love for the city one bit. Rain is the password that keeps the city protected from overpopulation, and it is used wisely to discourage. Its mood—laidback, yet expressive— is exactly what Portlanders safeguard the most.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Where I originally come from, heartbreak is on a different scale. Here, I see so many bright, colorful, excessive flowers. I can’t see clearly yet, but I know there are miles of underground tunnels in this city.

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

That’s the thing, Portlanders really pay attention to detail—all the crafted little pleasures. Nothing seems to go unnoticed. I wrote a poem a few months ago in which I present my feelings as a foreign observer in the city, a series of encounters in each prose paragraph. One of them is dedicated to a small installation: a miniature toy horse attached to an old iron ring in the sidewalk that once was used for real horses. You find these mini horse installations throughout the city. They’re meant to be seen, and they always make you smile.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

I still have so many poets to read here, which makes it all the more exciting. There is a very interesting young poet, Emily Kendal Frey, who we’ve published in Rattapallax. As for well-known poets, I’ve been reading William Stafford’s wonderful, alive poems.

Is there a place here you return to often?

I’m delighted to have a garden. I’ve never had a garden. I have yellow roses, berries, figs, artichokes. It’s a full contrast with the concrete life of São Paulo. Everyday I cross my front yard. Every day I smell the mix of earthly presence.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Undoubtedly, the famous Powell’s Books. Events almost daily in their two locations in the city. And an incredible, large selection of new and used books. It overshadows a bit the many cool, smaller bookstores.

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

Like in many other cities, the river defines life around town. The West (downtown, Pearl, Nob Hill) is more refined and city-like, with many gems and little shops with character. The East (Hawthorne, Belmont, Sellwood) is more alternative, experimental, bohemian. Every area has its charm—with amazingand inventive restaurants, its own set of food cart lots, boutiques, galleries, coffee shops, antique furniture stores, bars, bike-gear stores, record stores. I love to visit different pocket-neighborhoods for different things. There are parks in all of them. You can bike everywhere. Moving is so easy, so inviting.

Where does passion live here?

In the obsession for everything crafty.

9. What is the title of one of your poems about Portland and what inspired it exactly?

“Cidade das Pontes”(“City of Bridges”)—it is structured as a series of small prose poems (something I rarely do), glimpses into my own realizations and thoughts, my interactions with the place I find myself living in. It has a sense of misplacement and, yet, quiet fulfillment. It’s not translated into English yet—so, it exists only in another place.

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

Only if you want.

Flávia Rocha is a Brazilian poet, translator, and journalist, with an MFA, in Writing from Columbia University. Author of two poetry books, Quartos Habitáveis(Confraria do Vento, Rio de Janeiro, 2011) and the bilingual A Casa Azul ao Meio-dia/ [The Blue House Around Noon] (Travessa dos Editores, Curitiba, 2005). She has been an editor for Rattapallaxsince 2003, and has edited anthologies of Brazilian contemporary poetry for Rattapallax(US), Poetry Wales(UK), and Papertiger(Australia). Her poems and translations have appeared in various magazines in Brazil, the US, and other countries. She has been writing for the Brazilian press for fifteen years, including Casa Vogue, Bravo!, Cult,and Wish Casa. In the area of film, she founded, with her husband, Steven Richter, the Academia Internacional de Cinemaa film school located in São Paulo, for which she developed a Creative Writing Program and directs the Communications Department.

NH’s Discovery of the Month:

Imagine you are in the middle of the river, and William Stafford is looking at you.

The clouds are quilts around you. The rain insisting on reminding you where you are. In a city of two rivers where the mist decides what you are able to see. Where the wind shrieks. And the mountains, not too far, console the silence roaming the white of winter. Wouldn’t you want to stay? I did. Then it occurred to me that I might be in a dream (I hate when that happens). And worse, William started laughing incessantly. And I had no idea why. I woke up. And I was on a plane. The person beside me was sleeping. Her head tilted backward, her mouth open, her snores erupting, getting louder (there should be a fine for such disturbances on planes). Damn, I said to myself—why did William leave me?

Then I remembered his poem, “Ask Me”: Some time when the river is ice ask me / mistakes I have made. / Ask me what difference / their strongest love or hate has made. / You and I can turn and look / at the silent river and wait. / What the river says, that is what I say.” I shut my eyes. Open them, and Portland opens up. Portland is a small and electric metropolis. The Willamette is its heart. The Columbia River, Mount Hood, the dramatic coastlines, are close.

I first went to Oregon as a Visiting Writer at the Northwest Writing Institute at Lewis & Clark in 2003 (where Stafford taught). My first thought was how the green glistens in this city. It felt soothing, almost healing. Visiting writers Ted Conover and Luis Urrea with his wife Cindy—or Cinderella, as he affectionately calls her—and I, discovered many specials places together—the Japanese Garden, the Museum of Contemporary Craft. We also spent time drinking deliciously brewed coffee in quaint coffeehouses and looking at the roses, the roses, the roses (it is, after all, the “Rose City”).

Some electrifying literary places (bookstores and reading series): Powell’s City of Books (the world’s largest independent bookstore); Broadway Books; St. John’s Booksellers; The Reading Frenzy—An Independent Press Emporium; In Other Words; Three Friends Coffeehouse; Loggernaut Reading Series; The Mountain Writers Series; Back Fence PDX (think San Francisco’s Porchlight Storytelling Series and New York City’s Moth Mainstage); The Independent Publishing Resource Center; Writers’ Dojo; Attic Institute; and Annie Bloom's Books (Diana Abu-Jaber will be reading there in October from her new novel, Birds of Paradise. I met her years ago in Amman, Jordan, where she was on a Fulbright. We ate falafel, smoked shisha—apple-flavored—she gave me her book, Arabian Jazz, which won the 1994 Oregon Book Award, and we never lost track of each other.)

And of course, there is Portland Arts & Lectures (famous readings at the “Schnitz”), a program of Literary Arts, which merged with the Oregon Institute of Literary Arts in 1993. Other programs/literary ventures they have developed include the Oregon Book Awards, the Oregon Literary Fellowships, Writers in the Schools (WITS), Poetry In Motion, Oregon Book Awards Author Tour, Poetry Downtown, Verb: Literature in Performance, and Delve: Readers’ Seminars. They are truly phenomenal.

Book Festivals and a special writing retreat: Woodstock Book Festival; The Oregon Book and Author Fair; and Soapstone Retreat.

Energy for the mind: Burnside Review; Northwest Review; Glimmer Train;  Tin House (the inspiring poet Brenda Shaughnessy is their poetry editor).

And don’t miss the journey the works of Garrett Hongo, Dorianne Laux, and—of course— William Stafford, will take you on.

Published Sep 29, 2011   Copyright 2011 Nathalie Handal

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.