Portland poet Floyd Skloot says he’s stunned to learn that nobody in Portland has won a MacArthur. After looking at the roster of poetry and literature winners, Skloot understands why the city lacks a winner. Portland, he says, for all its belief in itself as a magnet for young creatives, lacks the infrastructure to support young literary geniuses.
Skloot’s daughter, Rebecca Skloot, wrote the nationally acclaimed book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” A few years ago, when Rebecca was looking to nurture her interest in creative nonfiction, she knew she had to leave Portland, Skloot says. Her journey took her to the University of Pittsburgh, Manhattan and now Chicago, places with respected masters of fine arts and writers workshop programs.
Floyd Skloot also says Portland lacks what he calls “a tastemaker.” That could be an influential literary arts magazine or press. The closest in recent years, he says, might have been Oregon poet laureate William Stafford, much revered but “the anti-MacArthur,” according to Skloot. The list of MacArthur winners for poetry is studded with writers exploring new styles, Skloot says, not traditional storytellers. Stafford, in line with local tradition, promoted making poetry more accessible even at the cost of innovation.
Quite simply, Pittsburgh is better at supporting creative and innovative endeavors. The Land of Three Rivers is a cauldron of talent. Portland is a lovely place to while away your twenties.
The article continues:
David Schiff, a nationally respected composer and Reed College professor, says he’s not surprised to learn no one in Portland has won one of the genius awards.
“We’re a small town that does not have a major university, that does not have a major arts school,” Schiff says. “We’re off the map in a number of ways.”
Succinctly put. That's the Rust Belt competitive advantage, the bright side to legacy costs. Without shrinking city talent, Portland isn't cool. The inability to produce talent organically will keep Portland poor.
The theory that the MacArthur board doesn’t respect the Pacific Northwest loses credence considering that at least 15 of the genius awards have been won by Seattle residents.
That’s the part that worries Schiff.
“The comparison between Seattle and Portland is quite horrifying, and it shows us that something needs to be done,” he says.
Schiff says it makes a difference that the University of Washington is in Seattle and the University of Oregon is based in Eugene. It also matters that Portland needs a new orchestra hall and opera house. Even more, Schiff says, local arts groups are torn between supporting local musicians and bringing in stars from the outside.
“That tension,” he says, “keeps us from nourishing our young.”
Outside of independent rock, there really isn’t much of a cutting-edge music scene in Portland, according to Schiff.
“What happens is that people interested in that may spend a couple years here because rent is cheap and then they realize they have to be in New York,” he says.
Portland is a Creative Class layover. Pittsburgh is a viable alternative to New York. Like Seattle, Pittsburgh has at least one major research university at its heart. The school in Ann Arbor doesn't really help Detroit. Boulder is a green belt too far for Denver. Portland is just an urban playground for Eugene.
The lesson? Better to be a producer of talent and suffer brain drain then to live off of imported talent. Eventually the flow turns around. Now Pittsburgh benefits from both. As for Portland, hipsters are a fickle lot. What's left after the scene dies?