On 18 July 2006, I started the monthly SoulFood Poetry Night at SoulFood Books in Redmond, Washington. The bookstore had just opened in April or May, and when I saw the beautiful stage and sound system they had (plus live video streaming), I immediately thought it would be a perfect place for a poetry series, and the store owners agreed. A nod of thanks to Clint McCune and Sara Pelfrey for making this possible, and to Kevin and Makia Oaks who later took over store ownership. At some point, the store changed its name to SoulFood CoffeeHouse, though plenty of books and other soulful items are still available. Lana Hechtman Ayers helped me curate the series from 2006 to the end of 2011, and then Tanya McDonald helped until September 2014. Since then, I’ve been curating on my own.
Each reading takes place on the third Thursday of each month. A distinctive aspect of the series (Lana’s great idea) is that we ask one featured reader to choose a coreader, thus bringing fresh voices to the series. Another distinctive aspect, for the first decade at least, was that we asked each featured reader to read a poem of their own that they designated as their “soulfood” poem, and to bring a printout of it to add to the poetry notebook we kept in the store. With so many years of two featured readers nearly every month (snowstorms have cancelled it a couple of times), that’s a lot of soulfood poems! However, we stopped asking for soulfood poems in 2016 or so, when we started featuring groups and organizations more often than individual readers. This change helped to revitalize the series and boost attendance after the 520 bridge toll to cross Lake Washington that started at the end of 2011 eventually took, ahem, too much of a toll on our attendance. Since then, our attendance rebounded from about 20 people each night to sometimes 30 or more, and even more in 2022 after we resumed in-person readings after the pandemic waned.
Our readings commence with each of the two featured readers, followed by a break for refreshments and book sales, then our open-mic. Videos of many readings have been streamed live, and a limited selection of them can still be viewed by reading date on the SoulTribeTV site or on YouTube. We’ve had as many as 55 people show up (when we had Washington State poet laureate Sam Green as our guest), although usual attendance has been about 25 to 35 most months. We held no readings from March through June of 2020, because of the pandemic, but from July 2020 through August 2022 we held our readings on Zoom. This enabled us to invite readers and audiences from farther afield, but our focus remained on local poets. We returned to in-person readings in September of 2022, with surprisingly high audience turnout of around 30 to 40 people (everyone seemed eager for in-person events again). Our long list of featured readers is a who’s who of the Seattle-area poetry scene. For more information, please visit SoulFood Poetry Night.