IMAGE: Darryl James
“In August 2008, I had a panic attack that forced me out of my home naked. It was three thirty in the morning. I was startled awake with the feeling of something holding me down in bed. I was in my
apartment alone.... My closet door was open, and a heap of dirty laundry was spilling out of it. I felt like something was standing there, watching me, ready to hurt me. Maybe it was my father.”
—from Kevin Sampsell’s memoir, A Common Pornography
COOK/BOOK: Portland writer Kevin Sampsell (left) staples chapbooks while his partner, Frayn Masters (right), makes hot dogs in their Portland home. IMAGE: Darryl James
Kevin Sampsell speaks so quietly, at first you can barely hear him. Your ears have to acclimate. If your conversation with him takes place near a heating vent, or while his girlfriend, Frayn Masters, is Facebooking, or with Boo Boo, their adopted cat, purring nearby, you may have to lean in.
If you are asking him questions, know that he will give no simple replies. Everything has an answer that wends back and back and back for Sampsell, tying in somewhere deep in his past.
A question as simple as how he got the book deal for his new memoir, A Common Pornography, with Harper Perennial—an offshoot of the massive HarperCollins publishing house dedicated to publishing exciting new writers—for example. “Oh...that’s, uh...I feel like I’m going to get that question a lot when I go on my book tour,” the 42-year-old father of one says, wearing a Powell’s T-shirt, leaning side-on against his kitchen sink, “I have to figure out a simple way to answer it.”
But the complexity is daunting. Sampsell is known in Portland’s lit scene as the publisher of Future Tense Books. He’s known nationally through his work on The Insomniac Reader—where he edited Jonathan Ames and Jonathan Lethem—and as the man who discovered Zoe Trope, the precocious queer teen who shocked and delighted left-of-center America with her 2003 memoir, Please Don’t Kill the Freshman. Regular Powell’s Books customers will recognize him as the solidly built book associate manning the info desk in the Blue Room a few days a week.
The Kevin Sampsell most people don’t know discovered, at his father’s funeral in 2008, that the man who raised him was not who he seemed, and carried with him a darkness that did far more damage than the man’s flash-bang temper ever did.
It’s a rabbit warren of identity Sampsell hasn’t found a quick way through yet, and so when asked to tell the story of how he got his big book deal, he begins instead with, “When I first started writing....”
The first things he wrote for public consumption were these weird little poems and short rant pieces in the late ’80s, often designed to be spat from the stage at places like the Big Dipper in Spokane, Wash., occasionally after stripping to his underwear, walking around the block and redressing. Then came his transition to slam poet in the early ’90s and then writing short stories. He talks about the first time he felt like there was a market—any market at all—for the kind of writing he did. It was fall 1999 when he discovered McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, the journal of literature and miscellany that has become a crystal tower for his generation of writers.
“I remember thinking: This is where I belong—these are my people,’” he says.
And though the magazine made him feel like there was a community for him (he wrote for its website), Sampsell assumed for years it was a small one. “I always thought my stuff was too strange for a large press.”
He was right and wrong about that. The work is strange. Collections like How to Lose Your Mind With the Lights On are mashes of poetry and short stories and word collages cut out of magazines and arranged like existential ransom notes. Even A Common Pornography, which debuts Tuesday, Jan. 19, is exquisitely odd. Not so much for the content—about growing up in a small town filled with parental disappointment, abuse, alienation and sexual want—but for the form.
The book is a slide show, small bits of his childhood and adolescence and early adulthood often taking less than half a page to tell, like:
“Dad gave me a vibrator once. Sort of oval-shaped. He gave it to me so I could wrap it and give it to my mom as a birthday present. Later, they kept it in a drawer by the bed. Then, shortly after, they slept in separate beds.”
Where many memoirists would spend thousands of words on the nauseating stickiness of giving one’s own mother a sex toy—especially when you’re the youngest child in the family and your mother has Golden Girls hair—Sampsell takes just 48.
“I wanted readers to write parts of it themselves,” Sampsell says, thereby connecting more deeply with it.
It’s a common technique in fiction but incredibly bold for a memoirist, to give each reader so much power in the telling of his story.
This is not a new idea for Sampsell, though. And Harper Perennial’s version of A Common Pornography can only be called newish, because about one-third of is has been around since 2003, self-published in a slim, sherbet-orange volume.
Though it’s good for a young author to be humble, hints of Sampsell’s potential marketability have been apparent since the early ’90s.
Seemingly everyone who exists in Sampsell’s Portland life—his girlfriend Masters, the novelist Mike Daily, young author Riley Michael Parker, his co-workers at Powell’s—either came into it through Sampsell’s writing and publishing, or has become deeply indebted in some way to it.
With just days to publication, that life could get 40,000 readers deeper.
As I mentioned before, there are two Kevin Sampsells: the Kevin Sampsell of the past and the Kevin Sampsell of the present and (presumably) future. He is careful to keep them separate.
A Common Pornography, the version that came out in 2003, is the Chronicle of Old Kevin. It begins in Kennewick, Wash., and ends in Spokane, after he’d left home but before he began building a home of his own. Old Kevin is a kid who starts off into sports and ends up into porn. Hints of the tumult caused by his father’s erratic anger float amid gauzy recollections of childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, when he makes his first hesitant, embarrassing attempts at love and sex (and, briefly, guy-on-guy handjobs). He’s a New Wave kid, very much a boy in search of himself, trying on writing the way his male friends would try on women’s hats. As something to set him apart.
New Kevin is the Kevin of Portland, where he has lived since the early ’90s. This Kevin is a successful publisher, a respected editor and, among the small-press set (tiny publishing houses that court the avant-garde), a beloved writer. Quiet, sure, but seemingly happy with who he is. To hear his co-workers tell it, he’s an indispensable part of the team at Powell’s, but we’ll get back to that.
Sampsell is careful to keep the two Kevins clearly delineated. It’s hard to get him to talk about his childhood; it’s all but impossible to read about his life in Portland.
When his father died in 2008, though, Kevin’s mother, Patsy, told him a few things about the man that seemed unthinkable. Suddenly, Old Kevin and New Kevin were forced to spend time together, strapped side-by-side in a theater of the mind where they were played home movies that had taken a bleaker, darker tone now that the old man was gone.
The Harper version of A Common Pornography is murkier water. Though the timeline is barely stretched—shifting just two years ahead of his time in Spokane, and then jumping briefly to the time in 2008 surrounding the funeral—New Kevin is more present, struggling to come to terms with the fresh reality of his past.
It makes for a more compelling read than 2003’s detached reminiscences of childhood, but also a more mysterious one. In the first version, it didn’t matter what kind of a person the narrator, writing 15 years after the fact, had become. In the new version, it’s all the reader can think about.
Kevin Sampsell is a writer capable of brandishing a pen like a rapier—articulate, precise, often devastating. Talking to him person-to-person, though, it’s hard to get him to say anything that elucidates the struggle.
“It’s still really hard for me to utter those words,” Sampsell says, “‘my dad was a rapist.’”
The first evening in Sampsell’s Portland, we go to Dots Cafe in the Clinton neighborhood, to meet an incendiary young writer Sampsell recently published named Riley Michael Parker. Kevin says Parker reminds him of himself at that age, blatantly though ambiguously sexual.
The chapbook of Parker’s that Sampsell published, Our Beloved 26th, is a terrifying downhill ride into a wall of corpses, a murderous satire of corporate greed, filled with just enough homoeroticism and outright gay sex to transform it from a CliffsNotes American Psycho to something startlingly pansexual and contemporary.
At Dots, against a backdrop of black damask wallpaper and bullfight posters, Parker talks about how he met Kevin—in the stacks at Powell’s—and how, after several trips seeking Sampsell’s advice on small-press books, Parker learned Sampsell did a little writing, too. “One day I came in and we were talking and [Kevin] said, ‘Oh! You like flash fiction?! Maybe you’ll like this, ’ and he pulls his own book off the shelf.” The joke slays. Masters laughs her ebullient laugh and Sampsell opens his mouth and works his shoulders in a kind of soundless chuckle.
As the night wears on, Masters and Parker take over the conversation while Sampsell pulls slowly out of it. By the time we pay, his mind seems off somewhere, deep in thought.
As careful as Sampsell is with the spoken word, he is even more so with the written. There are reasons for the way he guards his language, and examples of why it ultimately doesn’t matter.
The latest: The January issue of Harper’s magazine just reviewed A Common Pornography, and the critic, Benjamin Moser, likes it. But in the blurb, Moser calls Sampsell’s dad a child molester. Which, technically, he wasn’t. This is troubling to Sampsell.
Anyone who reads that review will now think something of Sampsell’s father that isn’t “technically” true. And since there was no police report ever filed, no one would know the technical truth about Kevin’s father at all if Sampsell hadn’t written this memoir, which makes him both the gatekeeper of the knowledge and responsible for it.
In 2008, while Sampsell was home tending to the death of his father, his mother and other family members took him aside and told him that his father had, many years prior, forced himself on Sampsell’s sister Elinda—half-sister, much older, history of mental and emotional instability—impregnating her in the process. Elinda corroborated Kevin’s mother’s story.
Kevin was already at work on the memoir for Harper when he learned these things about his father, and in deciding to include them, he made sure to get on record, in interviews, those deeply disturbing things he hadn’t seen firsthand.
It lends passages near the beginning of A Common Pornography a reportorial vibe that never strays into actual reportage. Acute and matter-of-fact, the passages stand, poking from the skin of the text like quills, inviting the reader below to see what damage these hard new insights have done. Sampsell was very careful in fashioning them in such a way that the reader might imagine the emotions they conjured, while making clear exactly what kind of monster his father had been.
And yet, to at least one reader, what Sampsell’s father was isn’t clear at all.
“He wasn’t a ‘child’ molester, because she was 19 or 20 when he did these things,” Sampsell says. “Not that it’s any better that he’s not a child molester, he’s an incestuous...molester....”
It’s in these distinctions, though, that Sampsell has reclaimed his father’s humanity, and in misunderstanding those distinctions, book critic Moser seems to have stripped the humanity again.
Another reason Sampsell is careful with language is because he once wrote a story about working in a doughnut shop in Kennewick called Spudnuts, in which one of the owners teaches him about cunnilingus. The owner’s daughter found the story on a website called Gut Cult while researching the restaurant for a report. For the new book, he changed the store’s name to “Taternuts.”
THINGS WE FOUND IN THE FIRE: A 1951 photo of Sampsell’s dad, partially burned in the family’s 1977 house fire. A note found in Sampsell’s dad’s belongings after his funeral. Image courtesy of Kevin Sampsell
At the Original in downtown Portland, Mike Daily sits at a booth within view of the door. He has a tattoo of a typewriter running the length of his right forearm—the old kind, with the circular keys—and wears the kind of eyeglasses a Danish architect might wear. On his lapel, there’s a tiny button with the Future Tense logo. He gets a broad smile when Sampsell walks through the door.
Daily is the world’s foremost collector of “Sampselliana,” a term he coined. He has fliers from readings, Future Tense paraphernalia and more books of Sampsell’s than Sampsell himself.
Daily has been a devotee since “’94 or ’95,” whenever he first read How to Lose Your Mind With the Lights On. He loved the melange of it. “It was perfect bound, glossy,” Daily says. It had “poetry, collages, short stories, an excerpt from a novel—such a range of form, and the voice of each piece had such an appeal.” Then he goes a little Twihard: “The photo on the back was him in a suit and sunglasses...the mystery...was very intriguing.”
Here, Sampsell begins to open up. “I sorta feel like I’ve grown up in public” as a writer, he says slowly. “I put out all the craziest, most undisciplined, raciest stuff.” Daily has many of these works. A novelist himself, he has connected with all of it, and from the very beginning. He talks about various times Sampsell’s words, and later, his friendship, comforted him during “times I was struggling.”
“You become more conscious of the fact that someone is reading it, and if you want to be taken seriously, you have to take yourself seriously,” which means, Sampsell says, editing and rigor. “I can’t say they were failures,” he says of these early books. “They weren’t really attempts.”
Taking himself seriously also meant networking, however unintentionally. Sampsell made contacts, over the years, in the small-press world and through Powell’s that came together in a kind of kismet. An informal tour of the HarperCollins offices given by a friend in 2007 (and meeting his book agent Michael Murphy while the man was hawking his other writers to Sampsell at Powell’s) culminated in Murphy taking Sampsell’s name to Harper and having the people there reply, in Sampsell’s words, “Oh yeah! We love Kevin!”
The new edition of A Common Pornography, complete with a $15,000 book advance, was the eventual result. The money allowed him to take a day off a week from Powell’s while writing the book.
Zach Sampsell came into the world “just after midnight on the hottest day of the year, 1994.” He enters the world of A Common Pornography on page 190, son of Sampsell and “my girlfriend,” at the end of a chapter called “Arkansas.” It serves as the memoir’s de facto climax and one of its most frustrating moments. We learn almost nothing about Zach in the only paragraph he appears in, except that his was a home birth and that the next morning Sampsell’s world felt “totally different”: lighter, more certain.
The paragraph ends with the following affirmation: “I didn’t know much about babies or how to be a father yet, but I knew right away that I was going to do better than my own father.” And then Zach disappears again.
Zach’s absence is one of the great mysteries of A Common Pornography, a critical nexus in Kevin’s life. It helps tie up the pain and aimlessness of Old Kevin, but leaves readers wondering what kind of father, New Kevin, becomes, how he learns to push past his own upbringing.
I have only a brief time with Zach, who splits his time between Sampsell's home and his mother's house in town. The boy, his father, Masters and I go out for Staccato Gelato before Sampsell’s shift at Powell’s. Zach’s a good-looking kid with a strong jaw and brown hair. He wears a smile on his face at all times, almost as though it’s frozen there.
Sampsell delights in Zach’s sense of humor. He goads him into doing his Beavis & Butt-Head impression, and prods him about his search-and-rescue work for the Multnomah County Sheriff.
Zach tells a story about an anti-meth film he watched in class. “It was like watching Twin Peaks and having an acid trip.” Without missing a beat, Sampsell rejoinders: “You watch one scene of Twin Peaks and it’s a reference for everything.” It was horrible, though, Zach continues: “This girl got gangbanged by, like, 40 guys.”
Kevin quietly chastens his son: “Don’t say ‘gangbang’; that’s terrible, especially when there’s a woman here.” Masters looks a mix of horribly embarrassed and on the verge of riotous laughter. Zach protests—what would Sampsell call it? “Say…‘sexually assaulted’ or something.” Zach apologizes.
It’s a stunning contrast to Sampsell’s father, who yells and screams and threatens Sampsell and his older brother, Matt, throughout A Common Pornography, while always also seeming somewhat powerless and pathetic.
Speaking later, Masters tells me Sampsell lives for Zach, a sentiment Matt, now a sportscaster in Houston, backs up. Masters says his discipline is meted out much like the gangbang talk, in a voice that’s soft but insistent.
There’s a certain degree of show in Zach’s attitude and his stories, a performance for the reporter, but it’d take an incredible actor to fake the look on both their faces when they lock eyes over a shared joke.
Something like, “I need TP for my bunghole.”
INDIE KINGDOM: Kevin Sampsell restocks books at Powell’s, where he oversees small-press offerings and chapbooks. IMAGE: Darryl James
“Kevin Sampsell, one, two, five, zero,” drones the voice over the intercom. “Kevin Sampsell, one, two, five, zero.” I’ve been left to my own devices in the small-press section of Powell’s, an area of the Blue Room that sits tucked into the fold between the west wall and the stairs to the Gold Room. In Powell’s warren of stacks, it occupies a prominent place, dead center in the fiction section, between the store’s main entrance on West Burnside Street and the always-packed World Cup Coffee.
Herein lie some 3,000 books, usually not more than a copy or two per title, representing the carefully pruned catalogs of more than 100 publishing houses. We’re not talking about subsidiary imprints of monolithic labels; each is an independent entity. Estimates from 2007 put small presses as responsible for nearly 50 percent of publishing revenue.
This is Sampsell’s kingdom, a place he has near-complete authority—partially because the world of small presses is so huge and decentralized, the idea of reining in its ever-changing breadth is something only a disciple like Sampsell would take on. “We couldn’t do it without him,” says Chris Faatz, who was Sampsell’s boss when Sampsell transferred from the Beaverton store. “How can you keep up with those micro-zines? It’s amazing.”
After work, Sampsell headed around the corner to Blitz Pearl, the one bar in town that caters to fans of the Arizona Cardinals. Sampsell is a sports nut, and the Cards have been his team since the ’70s. Masters met us and, surrounded by a dozen other fans, we sat there the whole game, Sampsell showing an animation in rooting for his team I’d never seen in him before.
Gradually, though, as the Cards pulled ahead, Sampsell withdrew again, as he had in every previous social situation that weekend—away from the people around him and deep into a kind of contemplation that struck me as probing and intermittently troubled. When he’d reach for something or thumb through his wallet, there was a slight tremble in his hand.
Watching him in those quiet moments, surrounded by different cross sections of Portland’s peculiar chaos, reminded me of a line from A Common Pornography, one that struck me before I ever met him. Speaking of his life just before the birth of Zach, he writes, “Even though I was happy, I felt anxious.” It’s a not-quite paradox that still sums Sampsell up well.
There is yet a bit of Old Kevin in the New.
Sampsell says he ended the book the way he did, fast-forwarding past the birth of his son to include 26 pages following his father’s death, because these events represented a discrete though non-chronological chapter in his life.
Volume One: Birth to Death of Father.
Which makes perfect sense, and the yarn he spins within A Common Pornography is compelling enough to devour a day of anyone’s time—reading through, flipping back, rereading, connecting dots.
There’s a more involved project ahead, though, for Sampsell and for his readers. One that may, in time, become a hagiography of sorts. The kind of thing scholars, or at least fans, will pore over for references between works and hints at understanding a man who can write whole episodes of his life in 48 words. A man who can grow up and grow past such deep pain, yet still have enough trust in the world to allow each individual who reads him a hand in telling his story.
It could be a decade off, but you might get a glimpse before it comes out. Hang around the small-press section in Powell’s Blue Room—in the nook on the left-hand side of the stairway leading to the Gold Room. When you see a guy with squared-off glasses and a slight cowlick, ask him if he can recommend a good book.
KEVIN SAMPSELL’S WORRIES
Little snippets of self-doubt, collected over a weekend, regarding A Common Pornography:
“I wasn’t sure if it held up.”
“I didn’t know if it would be intriguing to people.”
“I didn’t know if women would like it.”
“I didn’t want to just bash my dad.”
READ: Kevin Sampsell’s A Common Pornography will be available at local bookstores starting Tuesday, Jan. 19. Sampsell reads from his new book at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Tuesday, Feb. 2. Info at kevinsampsell.com.