Building a Suburban Poetry Community

First published in Line Zero #2, February 2011.

Ten years ago, if you wandered into Victor’s Celtic Coffee in Redmond, Washington, on a particular Saturday night each month, you’d find aspiring writers clamoring for their turn to step up to the microphone to belt out or whisper their latest poem or piece of fiction. They were members of the Redmond Association of Spokenword, which began in 1997. While RASP sometimes had trouble maintaining a good location for its monthly reading series over the years, its core members have always managed to keep the nonprofit organization alive, also staging Write Out Loud, Poets in the Park, teen poetry workshops, and other community writing and poetry events. The group has never been as edgy as its RASP acronym might suggest, but it has been a vibrant community, encouraging both beginning and more established writers. Its enthusiasm and camaraderie continues today.

         RASP met at Victor’s for years, but the relationship was sometimes testy. The baristas would fire up the loud espresso machines without much regard for the performers, and management seemed vastly more interested in selling coffee than supporting its community. At the time, too, the facility was too small to accommodate all the readers as well as the customers who came in for coffee instead of poetry. So it was no surprise that Victor’s eventually pulled the plug on hosting RASP readings. RASP was without a home for a while, then met for a year or so in Woodinville, the next town north (despite “Redmond” being in the group’s name), and then found a home back at Redmond’s Stone House Café. When Stone House closed, the group almost died, but a reformation meeting kept the community going once again. RASP moved to Tully’s Coffee at Redmond’s Bella Botega shopping center, and the board was excited to rejuvenate RASP with a new curator and improved publicity. But Tully’s was often too noisy, a little too corporate and sterile, and didn’t have sufficient room. So when RASP moved to the Old Redmond Schoolhouse Community Center (ORSCC) in January of 2009, it finally found a suitable home, one that it hopes will be permanent. Thanks to an in-kind grant from the City of Redmond Arts Commission to provide meeting space in the spacious ORSCC auditorium, RASP finally achieved the stability and space it sought for years. The group now meets on the last Friday of each month, with anywhere from 20 to 40 people enjoying a featured reader, snacks, and an open-mic reading. Participants continue to share poetry more often than fiction, but all types of creative writing are welcome. Michael Heavener currently serves as RASP president, and is assisted on the board by active writing advocates such as me and Laura Lee Bennett, among others. Readers in the last year or two have included fiction writers Matt Briggs, Harold Gross, Brenda Cooper, Gerri Russell, and Cat Rambo, poets Martha Silano, Jared Leising, and Jack McCarthy, additional poets and fiction writers from Seattle’s Jack Straw Writers Program, and Redmond’s first poet laureate, Rebecca Meredith.

         Redmond’s poet laureate position may, in fact, be directly attributable to RASP and other poetry activities in Redmond, which certainly helped raise an awareness and appreciation for poetry in the city. When Meredith took on the position in January of 2010, after nearly a year of arts commission planning and city council approval, Redmond became one of the very few cities in the state to have its own poet laureate. This position was also inspired by Washington’s new state poet laureate position, promoted for more than a decade by the Washington Poets Association before it finally came into being. Samuel Green, the first state poet laureate, even served on the selection committee for the Redmond poet laureate. The arts commission reasoned that it routinely supported drama, music, and public art installations, so why not poetry too? Fox News dished out a predictable TV news story about the appointment, which pays $5,000 a year, as a waste of taxpayer money, but the on-the-street interviewees who raised questions about whether it was worth it seemed unaware that municipal laws require a certain percentage of the city budget to be spent on the arts, so the money wasn’t being pulled from fixing potholes or from teacher salaries. In fact, the position helps city education, providing a trained and talented poet to speak to Redmond schools and improve literacy. Meredith has been appointed for a two-year term, and continues with youth and school workshops and readings, teaching Redmond seniors and teens, and advocating for poetry whenever she can. She teamed with RASP board members to stage a poetry booth at Redmond’s popular Derby Days festival in 2010 (you can see photos online). The poet laureate position has also brought added media attention to the Redmond poetry community through stories in the Redmond Reporter, City Arts, and other media.

         Also supporting the poetry booth at Derby Days was SoulFood Poetry Night, which I run. If RASP has been a poetry community, SoulFood Books is a community on steroids. SoulFood was originally in a much smaller location right next to Victor’s Celtic Coffee, but when it moved to the Redmond Center shopping center, it acquired not only a bigger space but a new vision that quickly made it one of the most vibrant community arts hubs not just in Redmond but the entire Seattle Eastside region, nurturing music, poetry, books, reading, visual art, and more. SoulFood has a great variety of music events and other activities every week, streams performances via live video to the Internet, and has a state-of-the-art stage lighting and sound system. Sure, it’s a bookstore, too, and a coffee shop, with work by a new featured artist displayed next to the performance stage every month, but all of that pales in comparison to the way the store has developed its community—or “tribe” as they call it. And the poetry night, held on the third Thursday evening of each month, is a key artistic part of that community, typically attracting 30 to 55 people each time, drawing people from the greater Seattle region (more so than RASP).

         SoulFood Poetry Night began in July of 2006, shortly after the store opened at its current location, and has had two featured readers every month for nearly five years—without having a repeat reader yet. In the spirit of community, I and co-curator Lana Hechtman Ayers choose one featured reader for each month, who is then asked to select his or her own coreader. This approach creates harmony (or contrast) by fostering connections between writers, bringing new poetic voices out to the suburbs. The Seattle poetry scene isn’t just in Seattle! After attending, many featured poets have come back on their own to participate in the open-mic readings and to cultivate growing friendships. Featured poets are also asked to designate one of the poems they read as their “soulfood” poem, however they want to interpret that, and a printout of that poem is added to the poetry binder kept in the store—a binder that is regularly thumbed through by people visiting the store. Featured readers have included Allen Braden, Rebecca Hoogs, Holly Hughes, Michael C. Ford, Samuel Green, James Bertolino, Cody Walker, Kelli Russell Agodon, Jim Bodeen, Rick Barot, Peter Pereira, Charles Potts, Madeleine DeFrees, Susan Rich, Kathleen Flenniken, and many others. SoulFood Books also welcomes poets to participate in its other open-mic events, even though they mostly feature musicians.

         One of SoulFood’s owners is Clint McCune, who also currently serves as chair of the Redmond Arts Commission—both the bookstore and arts commission are in good hands. Clint’s dad was Don McCune, famous as Captain Puget on Seattle TV in decades past, so Clint grew up in a media and music environment. He’s a great supporter not just of music, but of various arts, as any visitor to SoulFood Books or City of Redmond arts events can easily witness, and his media background is partly why SoulFood performances are wired to support online video streaming, extending the community beyond just those who can come to the store in person. The community that Clint and his partner Sara Pelfrey have developed and harnessed at SoulFood Books is a vital part of Redmond’s poetry community.

         Both RASP and SoulFood Poetry Night support writers who are new to their craft, and while publication achievements and aspirations might be stronger among the SoulFood crowd than at RASP, RASP has deeper roots in the Redmond neighborhood, and both groups provide a supportive community that inspires people to improve their writing, or at the very least to enjoy sharing it. In 2010, RASP started a casual critique group for poetry and prose that meets at the Redmond Regional Library, and occasionally provides workshops or other events for teens and other groups. Oddly, few “RASPutians” participate in SoulFood Poetry Night, and vice versa, but that might be simply because of scheduling, with RASP typically being a weekend (now Friday night) attraction, while the SoulFood crowd is an after-work midweek audience. Together, though, with help from the city’s poet laureate, they mutually support poetry in Redmond, Washington, giving a creative voice to the suburbs of eastside Seattle. They get help for a younger generation, too, from Rick Smith, who directs Redmond’s New Poets Society, which has provided thousands of dollars in scholarships primarily to Redmond high school students through its poetry contests. Rick also gives poetry workshops to both seniors and teens, and occasionally participates in RASP and SoulFood poetry activities.

         What does this community do for writing in the burbs? No doubt good writers will write well because of their own personal motivations and aspirations, but being part of a community, or just knowing it’s there, is surely an additional inspiration. In comparison, the neighboring city of Bellevue, the state’s fifth-largest city, hasn’t had a regular poetry reading series in at least a decade. Nor have most other adjacent towns, especially on the Seattle eastside. Redmond is no Port Townsend or Santa Fe, but it is fortunate to have an organized community that values the writing and sharing of poetry. There’s hardly a Redmond poetry “voice” or regional style, at least not yet, but perhaps that will emerge over time. Along the way, Redmond poets will enjoy the warmth of its community, which helps them strive to improve their poetic art.