Last night, dozens of people packed into the (drafty, noisy) side room at the Pine Box to celebrate the opening night of the APRIL Festival. They were rewarded with four readings about youth and old age, about coming-of-age celebrations and old traditions.
Portland novelist Sara Jaffe and APRIL writer-in-residence Jenny Zhang shared a youthful approach. Jaffe read a portion of her debut novel Dryland, about a 15-year-old girl in 1992. It opened with the protagonist conflating the Eric Clapton songs “Wonderful Tonight” and “Tears in Heaven,” but most of the excerpt wasn’t interested in a nostalgia trip, or 90s-night jokes. Instead, the main character wonders over the sudden appearance of her best friend’s cleavage (“It was there. She had made it, somehow, be there.”) and tries to fit in at a house party. Jaffe’s surprising language kept things from getting too maudlin; at one point, a compliment landed “like a cold copper penny dropped in my mouth.”
Zhang read from Pity Our Errors Pity Our Sins, a chapbook created just for her appearance at APRIL. It’s about young women — “A quarter century and not a year more!” — trying to find their place in their world. One of them gets a job in a massage parlor. Another one overshares on Instagram. (“Don’t post your joy,” Zhang warned the audience, explaining that “studies have shown” that people who post enthusiastic notes to Facebook are always depressed or, worse, “psychotic.”)
Olympia poet and translator Alejandro de Acosta offered what he called “retranslations,” which were translated poems that he translated again. Like with a sentence spun through Google Translate a few too many times, the poems were airy and a little bit vague. But even in the airiest of the poems, de Acosta’s formalist approach was undeniably gorgeous. Some of the poems were modern reworkings of classical forms, bringing an air of tradition to a night that was otherwise obsessed with the modern.
The first reader of the evening, Seattle cartoonist Kelly Froh, was by far the best. Froh read and displayed a new autobiographical comic called “Senior Time,” about her decision to leave an office job to become a part-time senior care worker. Froh’s simple black-and-white figure drawings illuminated the text of her story without overwhelming it. “Senior Time” is almost assuredly Froh’s best-written story yet, a meditation on death and time and art and work that never quite goes in the direction you expect.
In one of the funniest moments of the night, Froh’s elderly charges proved that lamenting the loss of Seattle is not a new pastime: “I was at the Seattle World’s Fair,” one of them grumbled to Froh. “It wasn’t that great.” Another complained that Seattle died when people stopped referring to it as a “town” and started to call it a “city.”
“Senior Time” seemed like an appropriate kickoff for the APRIL Festival’s fifth anniversary. As the festival looks back on what it’s accomplished so far, many will try to draw comparisons to years past, or to get too heavy on the portentous predictions. As Froh, proved, the secret of getting older is simple: it happens to you whether you want it to or not. It’s happening to you right now. Why not stop worrying about it, and just see what happens, instead?