It’s six p.m., and the People’s Ink writers have begun to trickle into Analog Café, past the pink and red pillows stapled to the wall and posters for upcoming gothic burlesque and Haitian dance music shows.
Some carry leather laptop briefcases, others Moleskine notebooks and a pencil. Futuristic electronic music plays from the PA: “something’s wrong when you regret/things that haven’t happened yet…” People introduce themselves, order drinks; the People’s Ink population changes weekly.
Enter Richard Pope, writer and organizer of this Portland cooperative writer’s community. He sports a camel trench coat over dark, earthen colors. With small wire glasses and a Van Dyke goatee, Pope appears at once European. Writerly. Like he belongs in a 19th century whiskey parlor underneath a top hat. He walks straight to the bar.
“I’d like a cider, please.”
Pope keeps impeccable eye contact and speaks slowly. In conversation, I feel immediately at ease with him.
“People are welcome to participate however they wish,” he says. He is present, and attentive. Initially, Pope just wanted to bring writers together to learn from them. “As I recommitted to my craft after grad school,” he says. “I figured there was something I could learn from each of the original five members [of the People’s Ink]: a new perspective, a favorite author, a place in which they were learned.”
People approach him, say hello, ask questions; I feel mysterious pangs of loss when Richard Pope looks away.
“Rich,” one member inquires, “I was wondering, can we put together a discussion group on publishing?”
“Hey, what table am I at today?” another asks.
The People’s Ink is an inclusive, free writing community whose backbone is the critique groups: one hour workshops of four to six writers who read and comment on one writer’s submission. The point is constructive feedback and human connection— things online writing communities don’t always, or can’t, provide. Since its inception in 2012, the People’s Ink has grown from five writers to more than sixty. On any given Tuesday evening, upwards of fifty local writers fill Hawthorne’s Analog Café for critique groups, discussions on literary theory and the craft of writing, or simply to sit and write.
For more than three years, the People’s Ink has operated down the street from popular Portland literary institution, The Attic, whose traditional workshop structure allows paying students access to published authors’ series classes. The People’s Ink offers a consistent schedule determined largely by the commitment of the writers involved. Its always-free workshops are facilitated by volunteer participants to keep critique discussions succinct and on-topic.
“I see what a challenge it can be for a writer to find a critique group,” says K Marthaler, who was visiting from the board of Willamette Writers. Part of her job is to find critique groups for Willamette Writers authors. “It’s a bit like herding cats, because groups pop up, then either close to new members, or disappear.”
“I found People’s Ink on Craigslist a year and a half ago,” writer Tony Colton says. “I wanted to start my own group, but Rich seemed to have his stuff together. I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel.”
“The reason people come week after week, month after month,” Athena, a People’s Ink member and publisher, says, “is because Rich offers them safety. He provides a shelter for one to talk about ideas, and that’s where the growth happens, stretching a little bit at a time.”
Some writers stick to a consistent subgroup for years, with options like fiction, literature and essay, and fantasy/sci-fi. Others bump around as their writing changes. Subgroups, like members, come and go.
“The community suggests its own structure,” Pope says. He talks to people and figures out what they want. “I look for trends, and encourage them to come into being.”
“It’s really great to stumble on this organization which has structure and integrity for writers,” says K Marthaler. “The inevitable ebbs and flows of writers’ passions and schedules require a support structure for the writer to stay committed to their work.”
“It’s great to watch people express poorly,” Aran Alexander says. “You get to see the strengths of bad writers, and the weaknesses of good ones.” He says the People’s Ink has exposed him to styles and genres he never would have read otherwise. “I’ve been around since the beginning, in and out, but I keep coming back,” Alexander says.
“It’s a wonderful mix of talent, creativity, and exploration.”
“Rich has a unique ability to organize people without being a complete jerk,” says Cathy Danielson, who has been a member of the People’s Ink for more than two years. “He’s got a quiet, Zen-master authority.”
“The more I bring people together,” Pope says, “the more possibilities there are for exchange, collaboration, people learning from each other.” But community isn’t always so hunky dory. Bringing people together, he says, involves its fair share of “psychic difficulties.”
“People have two tendencies when it comes to others,” Pope says: “to get along, and to not get along. When people get along, there’s no problem, you just move on. When they’re not getting along, you have to keep the community going without their divide becoming a rift, or a shattering.
“Often that means separating them, and sometimes it means encouraging them to work in the same groups together to learn from their differences. I think there’s a lot to be gained from sitting with others with whom you disagree and have troubles with.
“Sometimes, we have a bad workshop. It doesn’t mean we throw our hands up and say, fuck it, I quit. I encourage people to stick with it.”
“Writers live in their heads,” says Athena, “and they don’t know it until they bump heads with someone else.”
At 6:30, the official workshop start time, the bartender turns down the background music. Longtime member Jason Arquin announces that he’s started a podcast for speculative fiction called Overcast. “I’m looking for fiction with a twist on reality,” he says, “so send your stuff in, and we’ll try to feature it.”
I’ve joined Pope’s experimental discussion group on postmodernism and literary theory. Five men, including myself, are situated in the back nook of Analog. The assigned reading was an essay called ‘Introduction: Rhizome,’ which is, to me, a nonsensical-though-sometimes-
“Postmodernism has been posed as questioning one’s ability to know anything,” Pope suggests. Though we could sit here all day arguing just over the definition.”
“In architecture,” Matt, who is currently working on a novel, says, “modernism is the rational, ‘form follows function’ model. In postmodernism, form follows form. It’s irrational.”
Suddenly I feel better about not understanding the material.
“Think of it as a writer telling a story versus providing the experience of reading it,” another writer, Will, suggests.
Our dialogue plucks from psychology, Buddhist philosophy, nihilism, the first chapter of Dune. Someone invents the term ‘postmodernist fractalian’, though we don’t have time to deduce exactly what it means.
By 7:45, the critique and discussion groups are wrapping. Some leave immediately, others hang around for another beer. I ask Pope what are his future ambitions for The People’s Ink.
“I could see this model going to another city. There’s no reason it couldn’t be for music, acting, visual arts, vocal arts, also for humanities.”
In the long run, Pope wants to turn People’s Ink into a non-profit, and open a venue to host it. He intends to keep the model and, importantly, keep it entirely free, inclusive and open for people who are “serious and committed” to the writer’s craft—or “whatever the medium of the workshop happens to be.”
Tony Colton has his own ideas for the People’s Ink. “I’d like to do a close reading of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ with a group. I feel like if I wanted to do something here, I could, whether it was Joyce or a Goosebumps book.”
“Maybe,” he suggests, “we could get together and watch classic cinema.”
By nine p.m., the majority of The People’s Ink has dispersed. Pope orders a whiskey on the rocks, and we talk in the nearly-empty bar. An eloquent man of strong opinions, Pope doesn’t rant; he carefully and thoroughly explores. At one point, I just sit back and listen.
“I see this growing segment of culture interested in the arts,” he says, “and it’s possible that those needs aren’t being met in the current educational environment because of how expensive universities are.
“There’s very little return on such investments. yet the need and desire to explore these things is greater than ever before. I argue that people shouldn’t even invest in the university model, because it’s economically disastrous for many people.
“Eventually, I want to create an environment outside the university system, possibly a successor to the university system, as it becomes less relevant and difficult to sustain.”
Perhaps showing up for one’s personal development no longer requires heavy debt and pretty degrees. Perhaps showing up to a group of people committed to developing their craft reveals one’s base desire to learn. As I cringe at my student loan bill, I’m ecstatic that education is making its way back to its root system of learning from the ground up.