The large, round mahogany table, surrounded by tall maroon leathered upholstery, sat in a dimly lit corner of License No. 1, the former Catacombs bar, just off the Pearl Street walking mall.
Circling the mahogany perimeter: A double Jameson with just a couple of rocks in a whiskey glass; a ruby-red Negroni aperitif with an orange peel in a old fashioned glass; and a steaming hot-water tall glass with a tea-bag string loosely hanging over the lip, steeping peppermint tea.
“What I hear frequently from poets is that, ‘Wow, this (Boulder Poetry Scene) is such an amazing space, that I can just do what I do and not have to fit in a box.” – Marcus If
Smoke-stained fingers stirred the ice of his whiskey. “I don’t know if this type of poetic community can be found somewhere else,” said Marcus If, 49, Headmaster for Beyond Academia Free Skool, and author of 4 poetry chapbooks including: Tail Spin: A Garter of Sonnets. “Where even if you want academia or if you want slam, you can have that too. But there’s also the middle ground that allows people to become really a poet that they are, without having to be a one or other type of thing. And I don’t know of anywhere else in the world that this exists. What I hear frequently from poets is that, ‘Wow, this is such an amazing space, that I can just do what I do and not have to fit in a box.’ And I’m like, ‘Really!?’ I hear this from people from all over the country, that, you know, they come here, both of you (Caitlan and Ellie) expressed exactly the same thing.”
Caitlan Mitchell, 26, LoveShovelReview contributor/editor, and ’14 MFA graduate in writing and poetics from JKS at Naropa University, sipped on her tea, breathing in the hot steam. “Boulder is really unique with all these different venues and all these different opportunities, there’s definitely solid communities that rotate around each reading or rotate around each venue. But we all intersect in some weird incestual way. And that’s what actually generates a community.”
Mitchell sat her glass down. “It creates an actually fucking poetry community. There’s a lot of towns where poetry doesn’t exist. I grew up in small town bum-fuck USA and there’s one poetry reading once a month at this obscure café by the community college and like 5 people show up. And it’s just kids from the community college, basically. And that’s it. Or even in a lot of major cities, you are forced to choose between the slam scene or the academic scene.”
“I appreciate the space the Laughing Goat holds in the over-arching Boulder poetry community because it allows for that ‘both and,’” said Ellie Swensson, 27, Bouldering Poets events coordinator, Semicolon publication contributor (among others), and ’15 MFA graduate in writing and poetics from JKS at Naropa University. “We don’t just have a more exclusive reading or just have a super-accepting anyone can step up to the mic and it doesn’t matter if you just sneeze. But we have both of those things and more; in the spaces between, in the spaces beyond. Which is really great. And the fact that that can exist in the same week that an open-mic at Innisfree exists, in the same week that StarWater has their shit, in the same week that we got feature readers coming on different college campuses. It just, it helps to populate and enrich that diversity of event offerings that the poetry community has. Which is awesome. I like that it can have that flavor and stay true to it. And people know what they’re getting into when they go there (to the Laughing Goat).”
These three poets have gathered over drinks to discuss their collaborative spoken word feature and the Laughing Goat Coffeehouse (1709 Pearl Street) on Monday, February 1st, at 8pm.
The ‘So, You’re a Poet?’ reading series with Thomas Peters has been held every Monday night in Boulder since November 1987, and for the last decade at the Laughing Goat.
“Where I grew up, people went to church every Sunday,” earlier said Peters, owner/operator of The Beat Book Shop (1200 Pearl Street, Ste. 10). “Lots of people do a lot of things every day for 29 years, you know. My dad, my family members went to work 5 days a week, you know, for 29 years or more. I’ve been going to work for longer than 29 years… I enjoy running the poetry reading too.”
There are criteria for features at the reading series. “Somebody who has read before at the open-mic,” Peters said, “who is good at what they do, and who’s writing I like, and who can read their poetry in a way that people enjoy. Mostly I’m looking for poetry that I like, more than performance quality, or anything.”
“I like to think of us as we’re the poets of the street,” Marcus If said, setting down his empty whiskey glass. “We’re just the poets that are the poets. Like, we don’t have to be a part of slam. We don’t have to be a part of academia. We’re just the people who are poets… We’re the poets you’re gonna find in the coffeehouse writing and when you talk to them, when you talk to that poet, you’re gonna be like, ‘Hey, what are you writing?’ And then it’s like, oh, you just opened up the poet box. You know, instead of, ‘Oh, I’m doing my homework, shush’; where the academics might be. Or, you know, the slam might be like, ‘Well, you have to listen to me now!’ But the poets can just hold the space; it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m a poet. That’s what I’m doing. What are you doing?’”
Playing with the orange peel in her drink, Swensson said, “I was talking earlier that I’m going to sample from my thesis and then from this myth of ‘Switch’, and both of them hinge on the same thing, which is, tapping into theological language. But my primary concern of poetry, generally, is the confessional mode, the tapping into that moment when the ‘I’ becomes a ‘We.’ So, how do you push your self-awareness past your own self-awareness to serve something larger? That’s something that I’m trying to always reach towards. And I did it in a very particularly structured way in my thesis, and these are some poems I’ll bring out. You really like the one I did on abortion. I read that at the picnic tables after SWP. But I went through, and there’s a portion of my thesis that’s dedicated, I went through medical and legal documentation, of what I consider body access procedures. I did one on abortion, one on death with dignity, and one on sex reassignment. So, I’ll read some of those. And then, the current project is a bit of ‘Switch’, which is like my own origin story. But both of those are very much about getting back into your own body, and there’s this hyper-self-awareness, but it’s reaching towards something more. Kind of like that, ‘Me Too!’ moment; that we’re always reaching towards.”
After a sip on her drink, Swensson continued. “One of my sets is going to be ‘Switch’, and the other set is going to be some pieces out of my thesis. And it’s going to be very different voices; super different voices. I think that’s what’s exciting about this particular format, is because it breaks it up and it automatically puts us in conversation with each other, which is pretty cool.”
She sipped again, “It will be a progression.”
Mitchell held her warm glass, and said, “I think that the conversation is going to happen anyway. I don’t want to tell them (the audience) what’s old stuff and new stuff. I would like it all to be considered equally. ‘Cause I think once they hear, ‘Oh, this is older; this is newer’, that maybe the newer stuff is suppose to be better, or something; it changes how people hear it. And I feel like, we’re reading together for a reason. We are already artistically having a conversation, and it’s one Tom thinks is worth sharing with the community.”
She hugged her tea, and continued. “I want to try and bring representations of my versatility as a writer, so I want some sonnets or haiku; like really structured shit. I want the long run-on rants that I feel like what I would usually read at an open-mic poetry reading, because it’s fun. And I’d also like to bring some experimental shit and really show what I’m capable of; showing multiple voices out of one poet. I think it’s interesting to distinguish between poet and speaker, or what’s that like for the audience; the poem is then disembodied from the person reading it.”
“I do have intent on a particular set of poetics that I’m going to bring with me,” Marcus stirred his re-filled whiskey. “I intend to bring the projective sonnets, and probably talk about them a little bit, and let the audience understand what I’m up to, because that’s the whole point. And then I will probably also bring some of the multiple imbedded haiku, which was what I was doing when I was at Naropa. And I do believe I’ll bring a rant or two. Yeah, maybe “The Piggy Poem.” Maybe.”
Later in the night, Xander Rizzello, barista/barista trainer at the Laughing Goat Coffeehouse, who has worked the Monday night reading series for two and half years, said, “Every time Marcus and Caitlan come to the reading, it’s full of energy, everybody stops what they’re doing and listens to them. It’s always a lot of fun when they’re reading; a lot of energy. And it gives me a lot of energy as well. So I really appreciate the space that they bring to the Laughing Goat.”
Rizzello likes to make lattes and interact with the customers. “You know, David Letterman, and all the talk-show hosts always have their side guys that they always chime in with, so, you know, I feel I provide that. I just need to have some sunglasses to play that part… I need to play an instrument.”
“Marcus and Caitlan are both good features. I’m sure Ellie will be great too.” – Thomas Peters
Tom Peters is anticipating the reading as well, adding earlier at his store, “I know Caitlan, and I like her poetry a lot. And I know Marcus, and I like his poetry a lot. And I won’t know, and actually Marcus suggested her (Ellie), I’m not sure if I met her before, if I’ve heard her poetry before. We’ve never had a poet in 29 years where I didn’t know something about their poetry in advance, but Marcus suggested her, that he wanted to read with her. Marcus and Caitlan are both good features. I’m sure Ellie will be great too.”
Back at License No. 1, the three poets returned after a cigarette break to the mahogany table with filled glasses. “The Opens (mics) are always more dynamic than anything going on in the schools,” Marcus said, settling into his drink, “as far as I can tell. That’s why I left the schools; why am I here. I’m learning much more from my peers in an open-mic.
“When I was at Naropa, I was very much at the open-mics; not only here but also in Denver. I would go to the Denver open-mics every week too. And that was so much more valuable to me.
“What I was getting a lot out of was those open-mics. And I was kinda dumbfounded by the fact that CU and JKS don’t show up at the open-mics. But that’s, I think, the difference between what we have going on here is something in-between the spoken-word slam community and the academic community. And I think what we are talking about here is that these people are going into academia and they are going to stay there. Those are APR poets. They’re not going to ever come to the open-mics, ‘cause their shit stinks, they can’t do it.”
The table roared with laughter. “That’s part of the nature of the beast of Naropa or any other institution,” Mitchell said, “because you might say the same thing as the CU kids, you don’t see… So I think, when you’re in that inner-celler academic community, there’s readings at the school, and there’s future poets at the school, and there’s all these things you’re suppose to go to as extensions of your classes, and so I can’t necessarily blame people for not showing up to shit. [But] Once you graduate, no excuse!”
Glasses clanked, and Mitchell continued, “I’ve definitely heard some Naropa students express an intimidation factor about the Laughing Goat readings… Tom and the reading itself. I think they are more drawn to the Innisfree reading because Joe holds a really quieter, quote un-quote, safe space. Where as the Laughing Goat is very much like, ‘Get up here, so you think you’re a poet!?’ Which, I like what you (Marcus) mentioned about it, bridging those two communities; of spoken word slam and academia. We’re able to kinda transcend both of those at that reading (Laughing Goat).”
“There is something to be said on the different spaces held by different open-mic readings,” Swensson said. “Because I think there are plenty of people that went every week, if we’re talking specifically Naropa students that would go to the Innisfree open-mic all the time but didn’t necessarily go to the Laughing Goat. So I think there is a deference in audience; a difference in spaces there, there’s some sort of a level of comfort there (at Innisfree).
“It’s interested to talk about venues as a performer, because I love the challenge of spaces. Some of my favorite readings I have done are in spaces that were fucking terrible for poetry readings. And they were so awesome to read at… I love dysfunctional spaces for readings… Space, to me, is a weird thing to talk about, because no matter what it is, I just accept it as a challenge or an opportunity… I like to see how a space can be changed or manipulated or what-have-you.
“The Laughing Goat is another space where poetry can happen,” Swensson added, “and there’s so many, like this mortuary, what the fuck!? Ok. Yeah, let’s do that. Or the back alley. Or whatever, it’s another place for opportunity. And there’s always a solid audience. That floors me all the time.”
“People come to poetry readings that aren’t poets!?” Mitchell joked.
Marcus grinned, and said, “The thing about the regular community at the Laughing Goat, and this is why that reading is so important to me, is because it’s eclectic. That reading is what keeps me in town. That’s what brought me back and what made me buy a place to live, here. Because the people that I met there, inevitably, they inspire me. Certainly not every reading. And there’s certainly people at the readings regularly that I’ll walk out and smoke a cigarette on. But then, you know, also, we can hold space for them.
“Alright, so, I’m thinking of a particular person who comes and reads the same thing every week. Ok. And the poems are not bad. But once you’ve heard them, you’re like, ‘Yeah, I’m not going to listen to that again.’ And then there’s another poet who has issues with performing on the mic. And it’s very difficult to understand that person. And it’s kind of like, ‘Well, if I can’t hear what you’re saying, why am I sitting here?’ Smoke break.
“But the other side of the coin is, every once and awhile a really stellar reader comes through. And even, so that’s the real goal. But, sometimes, a lot of times, and enough of the times to make me go to this reading, maybe it’s not really a stellar reader, but it’s somebody that’s really trying to figure out their poetics, you know, generally somebody probably under 30. But they’re working their thing. I can smell their thing. And this is not slam, this is not academia, this is their thing. I think that’s the thing that’s so important about the Front Range poetry community, because it’s not just Boulder it’s also Denver, is that there’s a large community of people with unique individual voices, that they did not come to those voices through the training of some mob mentality, like academia or slam. And those individuals are what’s incredibly important.”
“The space at the Laughing Goat has just always generated a lot for me. Even not at the readings; just going there to sit around and write or read or whatever. It was a second home for awhile.”
– Caitlan Mitchell
Mitchell followed, saying, “The Laughing Goat is a really special place to me. I came out here to go to grad school at Naropa, not really knowing much about it other than I fucking like the beat poets and Ginsberg founded this program and named it for Kerouac, cool… I came to the Laughing Goat the first week in town and met you (Marcus) and Seth (Walker) and the entire fucking community of poets, and became a family. I don’t think I would have stayed at Naropa if I hadn’t met that community because I really wasn’t getting that much out of it (University). There were a couple professors that I had really awesome relationships with, but that’s really about it. And one of those professors wasn’t even in the writing program. But it was a vehicle for me to be out here. So, I stayed. The space at the Laughing Goat has just always generated a lot for me. Even not at the readings; just going there to sit around and write or read or whatever. It was a second home for awhile.
“As far as the regulars that come to the readings there, I appreciate, as Marcus, you kind of pointed to, it is an eclectic group of people. And everybody’s doing their fucking thing. There’s not a bunch, every now and then you get a slam clone or something or some white bitch trying to do hip-hop. You know, like, please get off the stage. But the regular crew, I feel like, have a practice of poetry. You see them there, maybe not every week, but most weeks. And, so, you get to see the evolution of all these different writers and that’s what creates a sense of community; people actually fucking listen to each other, and give a damn. And I think that’s who I’m really writing for anyway. When women get dolled up to go out, it’s for other women. It has nothing to do with men, you know. Poets go out and perform poetry for other poets. And I don’t give a damn if the general pubic is riding it or not.
“I also appreciate Tom,” Mitchell continued, “because I know that, I mean, number 1, he’s held down the space for so fucking long; he’s living legend in some ways. I like that he scares off people. I like he doesn’t take shit when Max Toast heckles him, and I like that people are afraid to read there, because then it’s more of a challenge. And that’s the challenge he gives: ‘So, you’re a poet!? Are you? Prove it.’ And I like that. There’s something to be said for the safe space that Joe holds down for the younger poet or maybe the poet who doesn’t know what they are on to yet or the shy poet who is uncomfortable reading in front of people. But Tom’s space demands more of the poet. And I think it’s more dynamic of a reading as a result.
“We don’t have Greyhawk telling people, ‘You suck’, but the audience reaction does correspond, like, if they really dug it, they will hoot and holler and fucking clap and stand up; if they thought it was just mediocre, you’ll get some snaps; and that’s a polite way of saying, ‘You suck.’”
Earlier at The Beat Book Shop, Peters said, “It’s always been an open poetry reading. It’s open to people reading their original work. Or honoring someone who’s dead, reading someone who’s dead’s work.
“It’s always fresh and exciting to me because there’s new people all the time. And I enjoy everybody’s poetry. And I enjoy hearing poems… if someone’s playing music, I’m much more apt to judge whether or not I’m enjoying it, you know, but I enjoy hearing anybody read their poetry.”
– Thomas Peters Jr
When asked what poetry he liked, Peters replied, “Everything. Everyone’s different voices, their different work. Poetry uses all the disciplines. So it takes skill at every level. To be skillful, poetry takes humor, intelligence, ability, and public speaking skills.
“It’s always fresh and exciting to me because there’s new people all the time. And I enjoy everybody’s poetry. And I enjoy hearing poems. I’m much, if someone’s playing music, I’m much more apt to judge whether or not I’m enjoying it, you know, but I enjoy hearing anybody read their poetry.
“I’m not saying that everybody who reads poetry is somebody I chose to read at home, or I’m not saying I wouldn’t either, but people reading their own poetry, it’s always fresh and exciting for me because it takes so much bravery and it’s such a hard thing to do. Most people, their biggest fear is speaking in front of people. Seeing people face their biggest fear; a lot of people that read at the poetry reading would rather climb a mountain wall than read in front of people. Seeing people face their fears, and do it successfully, and enjoy themselves, you know, it’s fun, for me.”
“I think it’s a pretty amazing thing. It was my favorite night of the week when I started working (at the Laughing Goat). I think everybody’s courageousness and ability to express their opinion confidently is really a unique thing, especially in today’s society. I think it’s definitely a powerful thing.”
– Xander Rizzello, Barista
Rizzello later contributed, “I think it’s a pretty amazing thing. It was my favorite night of the week when I started working (at the Laughing Goat). I think everybody’s courageousness and ability to express their opinion confidently is really a unique thing, especially in today’s society. I think it’s definitely a powerful thing.”
Back at License No. 1, over her tea, Mitchell said, “New York and San Francisco are so big the community doesn’t have the intimacy that we have here.
“Boulder is a really cool place because it’s not quite a city yet, but it’s becoming one. And the fact that the poetry scene is evolving with that though, I think, it’s interesting to watch. Because New York and San Francisco have this history of poetics but it’s very much become what you (Ellie) said, the ass-kissing thing. Which exists in Boulder too, certainly, if you decide to take that route, but you also have the opportunity to not. You can still, quote un-quote, participate within the poetry community.”
“The Laughing Goat is pretty bumping,” Swensson added. “It just astounds me because the other open-mics, or even feature readings I’ve gone to, it’s like 5 to 12 (people) and it generally happens in a corner of the coffee shop and then everyone else is doing their own shit, it’s kinda… But when the poetry events happen (in Boulder), the space, they take the space in a way you generally only see with a music performer in other venues… That’s why I’m still here. That’s why I’m still in this city. Hands down.
“The intent is different,” she smiled.
“I’ve forgotten the language of genre,” Swensson continued, “and like, fitting into a box, because I just feel like that doesn’t inform any of the conversations that I have around my work here. And it was funny, I didn’t even realize I forgotten that classification, but it’s something that permeates whether it’s the venue space or the reading. But it’s also in the conversation, the way we talk about our work. There’ll be questions about what does the form look like or what does it look like on the page, but that’s a very different thing than what box does it fit into.”
“It’s business,” Marcus said, clanking the ice in his empty glass. “It’s the business of poetics. And we don’t have to do the business of poetics here. We just chill.”
“It’s something about the proximity of the mountains that is that higher calling, whether spiritual, intellectual, or both… Lay your burdens by the river and then go talk to god in the mountain.”
– Ellie Swensson
“I think it’s because of the mountains,” Swensson said. “If you look historically, like go back to the myths. Where do people go to do this shit? They go to the mountain. If they want to lay down their ego, or they want to lay down their human, and they want to talk to the gods, they go to the mountain. And I think that is a potent thing that is happening. Which is interesting because you get people who feel that call and feel that deep, and you also get the people who are like, ‘Uh, snowboarding, that’s why I want the mountains.’ I feel like that’s a big part of it. And that’s why you have both. It’s something about the proximity of the mountains that is that higher calling, whether spiritual, intellectual, or both… Lay your burdens by the river and then go talk to god in the mountain.”
“It’s a very sacred landscape,” she continued, also clanking her ice, “and it’s something that I feel every day that I live here. I always felt so oversized in the South, because I lived in suburbia in the South. I was always like this giant woman. And there’s something very specific about being raised in the South as a woman, and it’s all across. As a woman your suppose to be small and contained, like that is your femininity. So I always felt so expansive. Then living next to the mountains, like humbled me, every day. It gives you that perspective. It can empower you, kind of.”
As Peters organized his books and records, he said, “Allen Ginsberg encouraged people not to memorize their poems because he thought memorization of a poem, somebody’s more likely to sound like their doing it by rote or doing it the same way every time. It’s theatrics. He thought theatrics, and actively reading a poem, wasn’t good. So he encouraged students not to memorize their poems so that each time they went to the script they could approach it in a new way. If you memorize it in a dramatic public speaking way, and present it the same way every time, then it becomes more of a theatrical performance than a poetry reading. And so, actors aren’t always the best at reading poetry because they get actor-ly about it instead of poet-y, you know.”
“Fuckin’ pirates,” Mitchell laughed, slamming her empty glass on the round table. “Comin’ in whiskey drunk to the poetry events at Naropa to steal students. Where Anna Avery warned everyone, she was hosting the student reading, ‘Beware of the poetry pirates, they’re the whiskey drunk wolves in the back, don’t let them steal you away.’”
“We’re slippery like that,” Swensson said, sitting back in the leather upholstery. “We knew how to use weird spaces, and no one else knew what to do with that.”
“So, You’re a Poet?” Reading Series
Laughing Goat Coffeehouse
(1709 Pearl Street)
Monday, February 1st, at 8pm