Reading Portlander Kelly Schirmann's poetry is a little like looking back on the transcript of a 3 am G-chat with a faraway art-school friend. Her writing is casual, fragmented, full of unexpected observation and imagery.
"I can never be certain when I say the word music if the person I am speaking to is thinking of birdsong, or Beethoven…," she writes. "I have several theories as to what, exactly, music is."
Her collection, Popular Music (Black Ocean, 160 pages, $14.95) is ostensibly a manifesto on how people interact with generation-defining songs. But more than offer any stiff academic treatise, a series of essays interspersed amid pages of verse act as evocations of formative moments—imagistic, memory-based explorations of times popular music played a major role in her life.
In one essay, we find Schirmann in the summer after graduating college watching infinite repetitions of The Last Waltz—Martin Scorsese's documentary about the Band's final concert— while in a Humboldt County commune. The backdrop of electric guitar and drums became a salve for her post-graduate anxiety. In another scene, her father sings, "You can't always get what you want" as they ride in his pickup.
"You can't always get what you want, the World insists, and always will," Schirmann writes. "Let's listen to something else, I say."
Her poetry scrolls down the page with few of the flourishes taught in creative writing workshops. You'll find little in the way of enjambment or hidden meter. Outside of the use of the ampersand and a handful of stray virgules (slash marks, used to compelling effect), Schirmann's language is essentially unadorned.
The language she uses bears some superficial resemblance to alt-lit—poets who grew up on the internet, and tend to favor web zines and Tumblr profiles. But while that poetry can suffer from an alienating, often impenetrable Xanax haze, Schirmann can create enveloping scenes of nostalgia and pathos that draw the reader in.
"When you have love/you zip yourself inside it like a tent," she writes. "You watch everything outside the tent/smear itself together seamlessly."
Genre and labels and borders blur, but the most important thing for Schirmann seems to be production itself—indeed, she's also a musician in Young Family and Sung Mountain, and runs a poetry record label called Black Cake Records. Tumblr feeds refresh, new albums drop, expression continues unabated. Schirmann doesn't even use periods in her poems, as if they connote too much finality.
"All art is a war of volume," she writes. "Be careful not to lose your voice."
SEE IT: Kelly Schirmann will read with poet Josh Fomon at Cardinal Club, 18 NE 28th Ave., 503-348-0763, cardinalclubportland.com. 7 pm Friday, Aug. 5. Free.