Last night’s Oregon Book Awards was a breezy literary romp, lacking both the ribald language and sprawling speeches of last year. Instead, writer, Pulitzer-finalist, and MC Luis Urrea steered with wit and charm through 11 categories, a couple of anticipated heavy hitters, a surprise winner, and an epic poem that brought it all together with a nip of whiskey.
Last year’s poetry winner, Zachary Schomburg, kicked off the ceremony with a poem about celebrating—with champagne, in the shower, for months—before Urrea, a self-described "poor boy from Tijuana," used his short monologue to gush about his love for fiction-nominee Ursula K. Le Guin. But it wasn’t just a fanboy screed; it was a charming story about how she visited his school, invited him into her workshop based off a short story he wrote, taught him to write, and then published the story, giving him his first sale.
In return, he took her to see Star Wars in the theater (she smoked a pipe at the time). She spent the time correcting its science, because, as everyone knows, the stars should turn blue in hyper drive, not white, and then red when the Millenium Falcon slows down. So before there was Neil Degrasse Tyson and Gravity, there was Ursula K. Le Guin and Star Wars. "I'm here tonight for Ursula, the queen of America," he finished.
The night went like this:
Children’s Literature — Graham Salisbury for Calvin Coconut: Extra-Famous
This is Salisbury's eighth win, setting his record to almost unchallengeable heights.
Young Adult Literature — Kari Luna for The Theory of Everything
In her exuberant speech, Luna thanked the moss and the ocean and the trees and the YA writers and just about every other feature of Oregon, declaring that the state was the best place to be an author. She concluded with: “I guess there's a world in which shaman pandas are needed.”
Readers Literary Legacy Award — Ellen Fader
The recently retired Multnomah County librarian was on a well-deserved vacation in the Caribbean.
Creative Nonfiction — Jay Ponteri for Wedlocked
He in turn thanked Sonic Youth, all of his fellow nominees, and pugs in their many permutations, including Chewbacca the Wookie pug (Star Wars was the closest to last year’s word of the night).
General Nonfiction — Paul Collins for Duel with the Devil: : The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take On America's First Sensational Murder Mystery
- In honor of the William Stafford Centennial, Slater Smith performed “Back O'er Oregon,” the song he sang in every Oregon state park in his viral video, as the soundtrack to a slide show of photos of Stafford, including one with a very young Bill Clinton. My companion’s quip: “If there are this many photos of Stafford, why do we keep seeing the same one in every centennial ad.”
Literary Legacy Award — Vince and Patty Wixon
Paulann Petersen’s presenting speech was one for the history books—and included some historical ephemera itself.
Graphic Literature Award — Berry Deutsch for Hereville: How Mirtka Met a Meteorite
In my mind, this was the most competitive category, with two of the biggest names in graphic novels anywhere competing against each other: Joe Sacco with his hard-hitting collection Journalism and Craig Thompson with his beautifully intricate Habibi. And that’s to say nothing of a team-up between New Yorker cartoonist Shannon Wheeler and Oregonian columnist Steve Duin, and Natalie Nourigat’s buzz-worthy biocomic Between Gears.
But the award went to Deutsch’s YA fantasy tale about an Orthodox Jewish heroine. And no one seemed more surprised than Deutsch himself: “I have nothing prepared; I was positive I would not win tonight.” Then, of course, he went on to improvise one of the funniest speeches of the night—a true storyteller.
Fiction — Ursula K Le Guin for The Unreal and the Real: Collected Stories, Vol: 1 & 2
What a joy to see Le Guin take the stage. After declaring that you can trust Urrea’s written words, but never his spoken ones, Le Guin went on to tell the tale of starting the book awards with fellow authors in 1987. Turns out she presented the first fiction award, which made this moment pure poetry.
Charles Erskine Scott Wood Distinguished Writer Award — Vern Rutsala
Rutsala shared that he admired Wood for his progressive politics and his beard.
- Once again, Live Wire Radio poet Scott Poole undertook the gargantuan task of creating an epic poem that included the names of every author, book, and prize. It hung loosely on a man at Multnomah Falls extolling the virtues of Oregon, but really it was the type of delicious, delightful nonsense that only Poole’s mind could produce. At one breathless point, he pulled a flask from his pocket, downed a nip, and toasted Thanksgiving, before realizing it was St. Patrick’s Day that deserved the honor.
The Oregonian Reader’s Choice Award — Amanda Coplin for The Orchardist
In introducing the award, Oregonian book critic Jeff Baker said that, counter to popular belief, Oregonian readers can read. They just can't spell.
Poetry — Mary Szybist for Incarnadine
It would’ve bordered on heresy if this National Book Award–winner didn’t also take home the state prize.
But the real win goes to all of us.