I’m going to let you in on one of Spokane’s craziest little secrets: we’re in the middle of a cultural bloom.
Yes, we’ve got culture—right here in River City, to quote The Music Man. And that starts with “T” and that rhymes with “P” and that stands for—wait for it—Poetry!
That’s right. Spokane has become well-known, far and wide, as a place that produces top-flight poets. Exhibit A: Gonzaga professor Tod Marshall has just been selected as Washington State’s poet laureate, the first time the recognition has been bestowed upon an Eastern Washington writer. The City of Spokane created its own poet laureate position three years ago, and Thom Caraway did a great job before handing the reins over to Laura Read last year.
And those are just a few of the recently well-recognized poets in town. At EWU, Christopher Howell and Jonathan Johnson head up the poetry-teaching staff in a well-respected Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing. Both writers have published books with major presses, and contribute to the cultural life of Spokane. The same can be said of GU’s Dan Butterworth and Maya Jewel Zeller, Laurie Lamon at Whitworth, and a half-dozen other poets who work here in Spokane.
But that’s not what all the buzz is about. There’s another side to Spokane’s poetic life, one that’s brimming with juice and life and verve, and for the most part it lives apart from the academic world. It’s Spokane’s spoken-word poetry scene, and it’s rocking.
By rocking, I mean rooms full of people shouting and clapping like they’re at a rock concert. I mean a weekly reading series that has been filling a local burrito shop for five years running, with standing-room-only crowds the staple for most of its existence. I mean poetry—and yes, I mean Spokane.
Too often, we let ourselves believe that because we live in Spokane, we live in a cultural backwater, where there really isn’t much to do that is interesting and challenging and fun. That may have been true at one time, but anyone who has paid attention to Spokane’s cultural life in the last few years knows that something’s afoot. There are more visual art openings, more musical events of all kinds, and for certain, there’s been an explosion of poetry readings.
And these aren’t your grandma’s poetry readings, where everybody sits quietly and gives out with a little “woosh” of air when the poem is over. This is another animal entirely.
Take the weekly readings at Neato Burrito downtown. Started five years ago by spoken-word artists Mark Anderson and Kurt Olson, Broken Mic has grown into a major event. Held every Wednesday, beginning around 6 p.m., the readings are almost always packed full, with 50 or more spectators—a few weeks back, 30 people signed up to read, a number that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Readers are kept to a three-minute time limit, so if you don’t like what you’re hearing, just wait a minute, and you’ll have another chance to connect with the next poet.
Another great venue is provided by Auntie’s Bookstore on Main Avenue. The first Friday of every month, in conjunction with the First Friday artwalks downtown, readers and writers converge for Three Minute Mic, hosted by Spokane poet Chris Cook. The scene here is slightly more sedentary, with a solid contingent of seniors adding their voices to the mix. This would be a good introduction to the range of voices available in Spokane open-mic poetry, and Auntie’s is a comfortable home-away-from-home for many of us readers in the senior set.
If you’re really up for something different, dip into Spokane’s version of the Poetry Slam. A Slam, for the uninitiated, features a group of readers competing for the highest score, which is awarded by random members of the audience selected to be that evening’s “judges.” It’s a little bit ridiculous, and a whole lot of fun. There are two Slams held every month: one starts at 7 p.m. on the first Sunday of every month, at Boots Bakery and Lounge, 24 W. Main Ave.; the other is at 7 p.m. on the third Monday of the month at The Bartlett, 228 W. Sprague Ave. (It’s always best to call the venue beforehand, to check on start times and such.)
Of course, the bigger question is: why? Why bother to go out of your way to listen to an artform that some say has long since lost its relevance in contemporary life?
Poetry is not only alive and well in Spokane, it’s having an effect on the greater cultural life of the city. For one thing, poetry is helping to bridge the gap between younger and older writers, and audience members. It’s also providing a living, breathing community for younger writers and artists in Spokane, a way for them to connect with each other and with the wider cultural forces at work here. It’s giving young, creative people a reason to stay here in Spokane and continue the work of making this a better place to live.
And for older Spokane artists—writers, painters, musicians among others—it’s a way to feed the creative fires that need to be continually stoked, in order to keep creating. If you’re looking for a boost during these short, drab days of winter, try visiting one of Spokane’s many outlets for spoken-word poetry. You just might wind up sparking up some new ideas of your own.