As part of Lit Crawl Portland 2016, Tender Loving Empire West End (412 SW 10th Ave.) is thrilled to host a journal release and reading party for Opossum, A Literary Marsupial on Friday, November 4 (more info on the event here).
Portland and Texas-based Opossum journal, "a literary marsupial," couldn't be more loyal to its mammalian namesake. Its creators are intensely interested in the rich, brackish melding of writing about music. TLE's own Nicki Yowell sat down with Opossum's co-creator and managing editor Jon Ross for a chat.
NICKI: To me, music and the written word are a natural match. How do you blend the immediacy of music with an edited journal?
JON: It's not about the blend as much as it is about the crossroads. Our mission is inspired by Joyce Carol Oates' piece "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” that's dedicated to Bob Dylan. The story isn't explicitly about Bob Dylan, he's not in there. I'm interested in music as an underlying irritant.
N: An irritant?
J: In the manner of a grain of sand irritating an oyster until a pearl is formed. [At Opposum] we're also interested in harmonious interactions between music and literature but also very much in the tension between the two.
N: Do you think the musicality of language has been lost as we've relied more on text-based modes to communicate? We're all about text messaging and seeing words as visual these days.
J: This reality opens up other avenues for connecting all modes: musical, literary, visual. One poem in Issue #1 is called "Track 16: 'Half Light II (No Celebration)' by Arcade Fire" by Matthew DeMarco. It uses punctuation and the page to evoke something that's visually striking. It works as visual art but also as a read poem.
N: In that sense, then, visual and spoken communication are much more linked.
J: This poet has found visual rhythm that plays against spoken rhythm.
N: You teach a course on David Bowie, the inimitable, enigmatic Starman. How do you think Bowie's work blended literature with music?
J: That's an interesting question that I'm struggling with. I'm leading a workshop in January as part of the Portland Underground Graduate School. Participants will be writing a lot. One thing Bowie did as part of his process was to use cut-ups. He'd write in his journal, photocopy it, cut it up and reassemble it into lyrics. He's using a technique, collage, that comes out of visual art and merging it with written work to make music.
N: Has anything about Bowie influenced your own work?
J: I'm kind of suspicious of how he influenced me. He's such a star. As an author I prefer to...
N: Recede into the background?
J: Yes. I once wrote a story that wasn't very good. It's all about David Bowie trying to convince Iggy Pop to go on tour in 1976.
N: Fun! What other kind of music/literary genre hybrids or mashups would you like to see? A country odyssey epic poem? A hip hop pulp novel?
J: Those both sound great! Our manifesto describes some ridiculous things. "A story about teen angst that doesn't reference Slayer," for example.
N: What mashups could we think of? A commercial jingle written as a sci-fi noir?
J: Yes! That too. We have a piece in our slush pile about the use of circus music in a future totalitarian society.
N: I can definitely see that!
J: We're also publishing a story about a Freddy Mercury android. I'm making it sound like our hybrids are all out there....they're not. We're also publishing a lot of essays, more about how music threads into the larger themes of our lives.
N: It's a really tough prospect to do a huge creative project with the primary collaborators in two places. Your staff is mainly split between Portland and Texas. How does all that work out for y'all?
J: A bigger challenge for my partner and myself is our differing preferences for communication. He cold calls me and does things spur of the moment. I want to write detailed e-mails. It's a very odd couple type arrangement.
N: And how does the distance impact the process of putting together the journal?
J: Technology has made that part pretty easy. I used to be alone in layout but with shared files I can invite [Publisher and Co-founding Editor John Blanton Edgar] in. He found lots to fix. It isn't as hard to collaborate on the artifact itself. We've learned what to trust each other on.
N: Where'd you two meet?
J: We met in college in Missoula, Montana, at the University of Montana. Then, later we were in a band in Portland.
N: What were you guys called?
J: I don't even think the band had a name! We only played one show.
N: Do you remember where?
J: I think it was called the Witch Hat and it was on Hawthorne. It may have been what would eventually become The Know.
N: And they're moving again! Ah! Has this project brought the two of you as collaborators full circle?
J: It seems like a natural progression. A more natural thing for people of our age.
N: You don't want to be in a band? [laughs]
J: Well we could be in a band. If we were we'd be the old dudes in the garage kind of band.
N: Where do y'all see this project going beyond this issue?
J: We want Opossum to be a tri-quarterly web publication with online content out three times a year. And one single yearly print issue of material from the site as well as completely new content. I would love to do shows, more interactive and multimedia elements. We're really hoping that the reading with TLE holds to that. We're going to, hopefully, have one of our performers up with an electric guitar. We're also going to be at AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) in D.C. in February. The next print issue will also come out around this same time next fall, with online releases in winter and spring.
N: Finally, you talk in great detail about the nature of the animal the opossum in your manifesto. It's such a weird critter, with such a mashup of qualities, it can go and do a lot of things other animals can't. There also super nebulous, I feel like I've only ever seen their eyes our their carcasses on the road. They know how to hide. Where did the idea to call it Opossum spring from?
J: Magic realism, a matter of that mostly. In real life John Edgar had a dream he wall selling a magazine called Opossum and he saw the actual name pictured on a copy sitting on the floor of a print fair, in this dream. Around that same time, and he lives down in San Marcos Texas, an opossum started hanging around. Before he even told me any of this I randomly opened one of my wife's cookbooks, I think it was from Good Housekeeping or something, and there was a recipe for "roasted opossum." And now here we are.