“If a Poetry Reading Series Goes for 30 Years It’s Really a Church” by Jonathan Montgomery

“When I was a little kid I served six o’clock mass as an altar boy,” Tom Peters tells me as we stand between the vintage records and paperbacks of the Beat Book Shop, his store on the Pearl Street Mall. “I set everything up, and I light the candles, and I change into my outfit… and I take things out of locked rooms, and I put them on the altar… and the altar is like a stage… And after everything’s all set up I knock on the door between the church and the rectory where the priest is, and say ‘we’re going to start in fifteen minutes.”

Tom’s eyes focus, he goes deeper into his knife-sharp memory, which I’ve witnessed every Monday as he entertains the So You’re a Poet crowd at The Laughing Goat with fascinating, funny, and impressively detailed stories from his eclectic past.

“So I’m like 8 years old in this church,” he continues. “Handling gold candlesticks and chalices, and there’s bones of the saints of the altar, and so I go to the priest and say ‘Father, there’s only one person here. There’s only one old lady in the front row. Are we still going to do mass?’ And they’d be like, “Son, we’re going to do mass every time even if no one’s here.”

This Monday, November 20th, from 8-11pm, Tom’s poetry reading will celebrate its 1560th straight week.

Fifteen Hundred and Sixty. In a row. Without missing one.

The first one was November 23rd 1987. Since then we’ve had six presidents. Back then no one had heard of Starbucks or slam yet. Almost every address in town had a different resident or business occupying it. And most of the reading’s current audience was probably not alive yet.

There also weren’t poetry readings everywhere every night of the week (check out the Boulder Poetry Tribe calendar to see what I mean), even in Boulder, except for an occasional one at CU or Naropa, who only invited teachers and guests and maybe a student who would get “to read for five minutes once a semester.”

“I wanted a place where people could read who were good at what they did without having to jump thru a hoop…” Tom says.

That first reading was at the Art and Auction Gallery on Walnut St (eventually replaced by the Daily Camera Building, eventually replaced by whatever the hell you call the unaffordable-looking shopping and dining complex there now). Audiences paid a $3 cover to go into a cool punk-art space to see features Jack Collom (rip) and Randy Roark plus an open mic.

The plan was to pair an established poet who could draw a crowd with a lesser known one who was still very good. The next week featured Anne Waldman and Steve Martino.  It was soon clear there weren’t really enough marquis poets around to guarantee a huge audience for every feature, but the open mic itself had a strong appeal.

The next year the venue got demolished, but the series survived, moving into a space next to the old Penny Lane Coffeshop’s first location at 18th and Pearl. Johnny Jenkins, currently owner of The Laughing Goat, was then a barista at Penny Lane and helped set it up with the owner Isadore Million. Again audiences would pay a cover (how times have changed!), and a cut would go to features, the host, and the coffeeshop.

By the time Penny Lane’s lease ran out on that location in ’94, the reading “seemed like an institution,” drawing in media attention and a community of great but mostly unrecognized poets, now mysterious names like Helen Broderick, Mickey O’Connor, Reverend Dr. Todd Morrison, Bill LeClere, Andy Hoffman, Ashley Webb and Lauren Holloway…

A woman named Eve Branstein was influenced to start a similar reading in LA, which gained some national recognition. Others who participated in So You’re A Poet went back to their colleges or other towns and started readings too.

After a brief interlude at the West End Tavern, the series resumed at Penny Lane’s new location across the street (where Full Cycle bikeshop is now) and continued there until it closed for good in July 2005. Many consider this to be the golden age of the reading, documented in the acclaimed 2003 Poets from Penny Lane anthology, featuring such megapoets as Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Gregory Corso, Ted Joans, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Diane DiPrima, who all read in the series.  Los Angeles poet S.A. Griffin said he was more proud to be in that anthology than any other he’d been in including The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry.

The reading survived Penny Lane, temporarily locating to Camille’s on Pearl St, and eventually landing at The Laughing Goat at 1709 Pearl in February 2006, where it has been ever since, making it So You’re a Poet’s longest residence.

Although some may feel nostalgic for other eras of the reading, things are still very present for Tom who suggests things might have never been better.

“The Laughing Goat is a really nice room, and they serve alcohol, and the sound system…. and the lighting… [are] really good, and the décor… and the baristas are really nice.”

And even when it feels like no one’s there, there’s actually probably like a 40 person audience.

While there are so many other readings and literary events in the Boulder/Denver area these days, none quite have the feel of So You’re A Poet. A little over ten years ago Tom tallied the number of people who’d read in the open mic at 6000 (He keeps the sign up sheets for every week. Also the first 500 or so are recorded on cassette.), which means the total now might be somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000. You can sense these deep roots when you perform there.

Personally, this appeals to me. I suppose I understand why someone would want to start their own new series (although some newcomers can seem so oblivious, almost like ‘hey, you know what this town could use? A poetry reading!”). Naropa has always encouraged the DIY approach to things, and young people will always be compelled to establish themselves independently, and some might just not fit with Tom’s style. But I feel comforted by the idea of submitting to a tradition that’s bigger than me, doing it longer than I’ve done anything in my life. And I’ve been a regular for most of the Laughing Goat era.

Tom Peters has literally not missed one Monday since the beginning. Even when he had to attend a family funeral one week, the reading still went on, and he still introduced readers over the phone. Even when venues were closed for Christmas Day, they’d give Tom the keys to open the doors himself for a handful of loyal poets, without even drinks to serve.

1560 straight Mondays. 30 straight years.

 “People will be like, ‘Oh, how could you do it?” Tom says. “But people go to their job five days a week for 50 years. There are people who go to church every Sunday from when they’re born til when they die when they’re 80… and no one from the newspaper says, ‘How did you go to church for 80 years?”

As we’re talking I can’t get over how apt the church comparison is. I didn’t grow up with that background like Tom, but perhaps there’s a more primal need at play. To gather in public with an inclusive community and hold this recurring ceremony. It would explain why I feel obligated to go even if I don’t have anything new to read or I’m tired or just not feeling it. Deep down I know something about it will replenish my soul for the week.

So You’re A Poet is really a church.

That’s why Tom deflects my question about the highlights of the reading’s history.

“What happens when you highlight, it defeats the whole purpose of the original thing about people in the open reading being really great… And then I can’t say to you that (someone like) Mickey O’Connor was really great in 1988, because that doesn’t mean anything to you or your readers now.”

Although you could talk at length about Allen Ginsberg’s packed appearances every summer, or a host of other Beat legends, and rockstars, and future slam champs, or random yet somehow exciting barely-celebrities like Michael O’Keefe (played in Danny Noonan in Caddyshack) who participated in the reading’s long history, it is really the congregation of no-name poets who show up week-to-week which matters most.

Poets like Gary, Jim, Shoshanna, Steve, Eric, Whitney, Ted, Julia, Andrew, Jane, Clint, Margaret, Shayna, Marcus, Jonathan and more…

“Anyone who’s running a business wants there to be a lot of people there, and they want people to spend money,” Tom says, “but just because it’s jampacked, doesn’t mean it’s going to be the most successful poetry reading… There might be (one) with ten people there where everyone’s really good, and it seems really incredible that there could be talented geniuses that nobody knows, and some of them have never published a book, and have never received any acclaim…”

“For me the definition of a successful poetry reading isn’t the definition of success for everyone else,” Tom adds.

But it makes total sense if So You’re a Poet is a church.

A church survives despite the chaos of its always-changing town and members.

A church honors their old saints like we do Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac every year. Or Joanne Kyger and Jack Collom this past year.

Tom comes in early to the church each Monday, organizes the scrambled up Laughing Goat chairs and tables into rows, props up the microphone, adjusts the soundboard, and after everything is set up goes to the baristas and says “you can turn off the music, we’re ready to start now.”

And the once altar boy is now The Priest and will host this church as endlessly as possible into the future, even if there’s just one old poet in the front row, even if no one’s there.

Jonathan Montgomery is editor-in-chief of Boulder Poetry Tribe.  He’s a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University.  The author of Pizzas and Mermaid and Taxis & Shit, he lives in Boulder and teaches English at Front Range Community College.  You can read more of his creative work at jonathan-montgomery.com