Spokane's current poet laureate on the joys of poetry experienced out loud and in person

Chris Cook believes in the power of poetry as a shared, communal experience. But right now, he's in lockdown like everyone else. |YOUNG KWAK photo
Chris Cook believes in the power of poetry as a shared, communal experience. But right now, he's in lockdown like everyone else. |YOUNG KWAK photo

"But it's a false picture that represents me as always digging potatoes or saying my own poems in the woods. This time we're gonna have it right — we're gonna have occasions like this where I'm with my crowd."

— Robert Frost

In that cantankerous, New England-tinged baritone of his, Robert Frost reminded us that reading poetry to the people mattered to him. There's something special about hearing poetry from the source — like a farm-to-table meal, everything grown on-site. It's also a pleasure when the poet's life experience is fully audible in the quality of their voice, and so I try to hear them in my head even as I read their poetry from the page: the wisdom and the weariness of the ages in the delivery of Maya Angelou; the possessed, outlandish 1920's rapping of Vachel Lindsay; the easy brogue of Seamus Heaney; the quiet, hypnotic cadence of Nance Van Winckel; the disarmingly unpretentious tone of Laura Read conveying her fully armed poems.

I grew up with my grandfather, Don Grant, reading me his poetry, as well as the poetry of some of his friends, including U.S. Poets Laureate Josephine Jacobsen and William Stafford. And although there are plenty of recordings of both Jacobsen and Stafford, whenever I read their poetry, I still hear Grandpa's gravelly voice (apologies, Josephine).

It wasn't just his voice that heightened my experience, either. Facial expressions and body language, even the subtlest of gestures, gave me insights into the meaning of the words. I can still see his raised eyebrows, or his suddenly pursed lips at a surprise turn in a poem. There are many local poets who I enjoy hearing and seeing: the light transfer of weight from one foot to the other as Tod Marshall walks us through one of his wild, vivid literary journeys; the serene eyes and understated voice of Lauren Gilmore that belie the intensity of her words; war veteran Seth Marlin, fists at his sides, snarling out seething poems through clenched teeth; James Decay, head turned to the side, unable to fully face the tragedy on his page; Mark Anderson, with magnificent Medusan ringlets, feet in a closed stance, rubbing his hands together, preparing to deliver another gentle poem that suddenly goes big; Thom Caraway's barely concealed smile while reading every poet's dream-come-true, In the Parallel Universe, which ends, "and the crowds go wild." And they do.

Take the opportunity to hear and see the extraordinary poets of our region when we're again able to gather. Visit with them — you'll find that they're extraordinary people, too. There are many ways to do so: We've got literary festivals, university visiting writers series, book release events, poetry picnics, lit crawls, multiple poetry open mics, a monthly poetry slam (which the Inlander's Nathan Weinbender famously called "a psychotic literary hootenanny."), writing groups, self-publishing groups, workshops and more. Most of these events are free to attend, and all of them are very welcoming. At Broken Mic, Spokane's long-running weekly poetry open mic, we say "this is a safe and sacred space for the written and spoken word" and first-time readers are wildly cheered.

If you'd like to try poetry alongside food and drink specials, check out one of Spokane Arts' Lit Crawls, essentially a pub crawl with several readers at each venue, all of which are within walking/crawling distance of each other. Pie and Whiskey, a Get Lit! side event that's the brainchild of Sam Ligon and Kate Lebo, is always packed, and with good reason. There's free gelato from Ferrante's at Moran Prairie Library's Poetry Picnic. Neato Burrito always has food and drink specials on Wednesdays for Broken Mic, and it's also just a corridor away from Baby Bar, where Patty Tully squeezes fresh fruit for the cocktails.

Mixed media events are also crowd favorites. Tod Marshall's book release for Bugle had a great rock concert vibe, staged at the late, great Bartlett. Terrain, as well as its other yearly events, routinely feature poetry amid live music and art. Brooke Matson launched her poetry collection, In Accelerated Silence, at Spokane Civic Theatre, featuring visual and musical elements. Poetry Rising happens at the South Hill Library every other month, and it features poetry, prose, music and art. I recently had the honor of having my poetry accompanied by my Spokane Symphony colleagues at the Knitting Factory, a show which also featured a silk aerialist, projection screens and a smoke machine. In short, you can have your poetry pretty much any way you want it.

Hearing the recorded voices of poets can also be a joy, and you needn't leave the house to do so. Something that's gotten a lot of attention recently, and deservedly so, is photographer Dean Davis's "Pictures of Poets." Not only do you get to see Dean's vivid, candid portraits of many local, regional, and national poets, you also get to hear recordings of them reading their works aloud. Or check out Spokane Public Radio (KPBX 91.1 FM) every weekday morning at 9 for "The Poetry Moment," which Verne Windham and Chris Maccini have curated with great care and talent. It is also supplied in podcast form, so you can hear and re-hear it at your convenience.

My wife and I recently became grandparents. I'm looking forward to sitting down with little Gannon in my lap, reading him my poems, as well as the poems written by my friends. Who knows, maybe years from now, long after I'm gone, he'll open up a book of poetry and still be able to hear Grandpa's voice. ♦

Chris Cook is Spokane's current poet laureate. He is the author of two poetry collections, The View from the Broken Mic and Damn Good Cookie. Chris hosts 3 Minute Mic and co-hosts Broken Mic, two of Spokane's poetry open mics. He plays trumpet for the Spokane Symphony and the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lourdes, and teaches music at Gonzaga University. Chris is the former Washington state yo-yo champion and was once a nationally ranked professional foosball player.

In normal times, the Inland Northwest offers myriad opportunities for people to experience live poetry. Of course, the normal times are on pause right now. Rather than list venues and readings you can’t go to, we encourage you to keep an eye on the Events section of inlander.com when the ban on public gatherings is lifted, the Facebook page for Poetry Spokane for some online inspiration, and poetryfoundation.org for links to all things poetic. (DAN NAILEN)