These 20 words were assigned to Pam Houston by her friend, the writer and photographer Kyle Wolff, as part of Project 2020 (Quarantine Edition). She gave Pam and others a word most mornings, and the assignment to write to that world and either take or find a photo to go with it. These 20 words and photographs by Pam Houston are appearing daily in Terrain.org through June 20, the summer solstice.
April 19, 2020
Every Monday and Thursday night since the pandemic began, the nonprofit I cofounded, Writing By Writers, hosts a Zoom reading/interview with a writer or poet who had their book tour cancelled or abbreviated because of Covid. I read each book and spend literally hours (sometimes days) on my interview questions.
I welcome everyone (sometimes 100 folks, sometimes 300) and introduce the writer. They read for 30 minutes and I ask them questions for 30 minutes, and then we open it up to the audience. I especially love to interview the poets, a thing which I am not 100 percent qualified for, and might not be allowed to do in real life. But I love poetry truly, and it is an adrenaline rush to interview, for instance, Carl Phillips, even though we have been friends for decades and have walked together many times, on Commercial Street in Provincetown and over the graves of Nebraskan horses.
So far I have interviewed Carl, Paul Lisicky, Lidia Yuknavitch, Santee Frazier, Rebecca Solnit, and Katie Peterson, and coming up is Fenton Johnson, Jericho Brown, Ginger Gaffney, Carolyn Forché, and many more. If there ever is an after-Covid, we may well keep the series going, less often of course, but some people are saying it is better than church.
We talk, in every case, about the power of art to make a better world, about the value of beauty and form in a society that seems to value money above everything. We talk about racism and generational trauma, misogyny, the incessant brutalization of women, of brown and black people, the power of words written down on a page.
When we are all finished, Karen Nelson, my cofounder (and tech wizard), pops all the cameras and microphones on for everyone who is in attendance and everyone waves and claps and says hi to us and each other for a minute or two before we sign off. I feel so intensely connected to my community in those moments. I say “my” community, though there are many people who attend who I do not know, not personally, maybe not even their names; they are still very much my community. I am so happy for minutes and even hours after those Zoom sessions end, I very nearly forget the reason we are doing them. Forget that there is no way to know when I will see any of those people in person, forget the 41,000 dead, forget there is a weak and insecure man actively trying to destroy our country and a bunch of his minions waving their guns around and infecting other people on purpose. For those minutes and hours, I believe art can and will change lives, and that we are all in this together.
Pam Houston is the author of the memoir Deep Creek: Finding Hope In The High Country, which won the 2019 Reading the West Advocacy Award, as well as five other books of fiction and nonfiction, all published by W.W. Norton. She lives at 9,000 feet above sea level on a 120-acre homestead near the headwaters of the Rio Grande. A book co-written with activist Amy Irvine, Air Mail: Letters of Politics, Pandemics, and Place, is forthcoming from Torrey House Press in October 2020.