A.M. O’Malley has been the Program Director and Certificate Program Director at the Independent Publishing Resource Center, a literary arts non-profit in Portland, Oregon, since 2007.
Martha Grover is the author of One More for the People (Perfect Day Publishing), and has been publishing her zine, Somnambulist, for ten years.
A.M. and Martha got together to talk about what it’s like to build community through storytelling.
M: You’ve made the IPRC your hub for many years, but you also teach in a men’s prison and at PCC. How do these other teaching jobs inform the work you do at the IPRC?
A.M.: The work I do at the Prison is actually an IPRC program. There’s a publishing element that really defines that project. I also offer my former students a membership to the IPRC when they’re released from prison. The IPRC really supported me when I spearheaded that project, which is a blessing, because it takes a lot of time and effort. As for the PCC classes, for the most part, they are all taught at the IPRC in partnership with PCC and are a way for the PCC community education population to check out the IPRC and use its resources. I have had a lot of autonomy to build what my job looks like over the last eight years. I am a teacher first and an arts administrator/program director second, and all of that somehow fits under the umbrella of empowering folks to tell their stories which is what I feel passionate about.
M: What does community mean to you? Can building community be a goal in and of itself?
A.M.: Man, oh, man! This is a big question. I feel that community is a really important aspect of being a creative person–whether you’re a visual artist, writer or performer–because the community offers a mirror, a support network and a reminder that you aren’t just shouting into a well. It’s a chance to connect which is essential because so much of creating, for me, is a solitary occupation.
M: One of the skills I’ve noticed in you is that you are a great networker – meaning, you always try to help connect people you know with opportunities that would help them. If we were in the 1950s, I can picture you sitting at your desk with three telephones on it and the biggest rolodex you’ve ever seen, calling people up and connecting them with other people. Is this something that is premeditated or does it come naturally as an element of your personality?
A.M.: Ha! I do really like to make connections between people I think would work well together. I think I do it out of a natural matchmaker instinct. It doesn’t stop with working life, it carries forward into friends and family too. I like to start things and organize things. My husband would say that is because I like to boss people but I like to think I have a natural talent for organizing.
M: Can you talk a little bit about the projects you are working on right now? What was doing the kickstarter like?
A.M.: The Kickstarter was a wonderful moment when I realized that I have a wide and supportive community. It was humbling and heart warming. I am working on taking a trip to Vietnam to research my estranged father’s tour of duty there in 1972. Writing about his absence from my life and the long-lasting impact of war on future generations will hopefully be the last section of my book-in-progress. I have also been writing a long epistolary poem to my brother who has a developmental disability from oxygen deprivation at birth.
M: How does working in the Portland literary scene help or hinder your own writing?
A.M.: I have to be very careful about time management and balancing work and my own time. It is difficult to be a facilitator of other people’s creativity and expression and also have energy left to facilitate my own creativity and expression. That said, in many ways I feel indebted to the IPRC for injecting me into the center of a vibrant and thriving literary scene. I know a lot of writers and that is due in a big part to my work at the IPRC.
M: How do you find that balance between facilitating other’s work and having the energy to do your own stuff?
A.M.: It is indeed hard, I tell my students to pay attention to every piece of criticism they hear in writing workshop, whether it’s directed at their work or not, and think about it when they are revising their own work. This advice is something I try to follow as well. I think the act of talking, teaching and thinking writing does, in the end, help my writing.
A.M.: You’ve been making Somambulist Zine for years now, how has that project evolved over the years? Do you make the zine for the same reasons? Have your feelings about it changed?
M: I started Somnambulist Zine on a whim. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. At first, it was exhilarating to get my work out there and to have readers. Over the last ten years, I have asked myself these same questions: Why am I doing this? Does it still matter? But this last year, volunteering for the Portland Zine Symposium, I was just really overwhelmed by the amount of joy and meaning I still get from producing my work and being part of that community.
Something I keep coming back to is that, firstly, the zine is always a place that I can try out new ideas and it’s better than a blog or a website, because it feels special and contained. And secondly, I’ve really grown to appreciate my audience: the people who subscribe to my zine year after year and look forward to getting it in the mail. That’s my audience, and I feel like I write the zine for them. When I got really sick with Cushing’s Disease, it became apparent that, partly because of the zine, I had built myself this life raft. I knew that there were people out there I’d never met who cared about me! It was an amazing and humbling experience. Anyway, I have fallen in and out of love with doing Somnambulist, but it’s lasted longer than any relationship I’ve had in the past, so that is saying something!
A.M.: Your work is incredibly honest and revealing–which is part of why I’m such a huge fan. What advice would you give to the apprentice writer who is afraid of being too vulnerable on the page?
M: In a lot of “guidebooks to writing” etc., they always say something like “Write what you are afraid to write,” however; when teaching, it’s not my job to tell people what to write about. Everyone has their own path. It’s funny because that lack of honesty and vulnerability always shows up in the work. It’s flat, or boring, or doesn’t make sense. In discussion of the work however, the truth always comes out! The student will say, “Well, I wrote it this way because I feel that I have trust issues…” (or something like that.) And they usually come to the realization that their fears and vulnerabilities are the real driving force behind their writing. If you’re not getting into that stuff, then what’s the point? That’s what makes it interesting. So I guess my advice would be: resistance is futile! In the end, you’ll end up writing the stuff you were too scared to write.
A.M.: Have you ever had negative pushback from people you’ve written about? If so, how do you respond to that?
M: I get negative feedback all the time! I just had a discussion today with my sister about what was okay to share on my website and what wasn’t. I figure as long as you don’t approach it from an extreme point of view, then you are being respectful. For instance, I don’t believe I have the RIGHT to write about anyone, in any manner, that I want, and on the other hand, I’m not so scared of other peoples’ reactions that I am going freeze up and not write at all.
A.M. : Is there anything you want to talk about or are excited about that I haven’t touched on?
M: I run a monthly storytelling event at Tad’s Chicken ‘n’ Dumplins on the Sandy River in Troutdale, OR. It’s been a lot of fun and it has really helped me build a little community around this event. I have made connections in the stand-up, acting, education and music communities. It’s been awesome, and very gratifying.
More about A.M.: A.M. O’Malley has been writing and publishing on various planes since 1994. She has recently been published in The Newer York, Poor Claudia, Phenome, UnShod Quills, The Burnside Review, in the anthology Untangling the Knot (Ooligan Press), Jerk Poet, and The Portland Review. Ms. O’Malley teaches writing at the Columbia River Correctional Institution as a Writers in the Schools Resident Artist and at Portland Community College.
More about Martha: You can read more of Martha’s work and buy a subscription to her zine at : somnambulistzine.com, P.O, Box 14871, Portland, Oregon 97293