by Marty Demarest

In the first line of his seminal poem "The Wasteland," the great American poet T.S. Eliot named April "the cruelest month." It's bitterly ironic, then, that April is also the month that the United States Government has designated "National Poetry Month." Of course Eliot saw the month as the launching point of spring, and all of the hope and rebirth that the season can bring. For most poets, however, a little bit of hope and appreciation -- whenever it appears, scheduled or not -- is never unwelcome.

And so throughout Spokane during this month, opportunities abound for poets and lovers of poetry at all levels of experience and from diverse poetic backgrounds. "I think that language is the heart of culture," muses local poet Tom Davis, "and that poetry is the heart of language. A culture discovers who it is through poetry. It's just the way that language works. It's outside of linear thought and straight-ahead ideas. It includes everything -- all aspects of culture -- because of the freedom that it contains."

Davis, author of the recent collection The Little Spokane, has already helped kick off a series of weekly readings at Mootsy's Tavern that will continue throughout the month. He has been a frequent voice at the pub, which has played a significant part of the local poetry scene since 1995. Occasionally stopping and starting again, the pub has finally settled on a new reading series, organized by Connie Grove, who has decided to take an alternative approach to structuring the events.

"I've set the readings up backward, if you look at how poetry readings are usually organized," Grove notes. "Rather than the usual arrangement of having the featured reader for the evening first, and then the open mike, we start with the open mike segment, then take a break with the drums, and finish with the featured reader. That way the featured author's voice is the one that people leave with, sort of lingering in their ears."

The lineup of featured authors for the rest of the month includes John Whalen on April 12, and Dennis Held on April 19. Held's new book of poems, Betting on the Night, will receive its publication party at the same time. The month concludes on April 26 with "Mootsy's Poetry Slam-A-Rama," hosted by local poet Eric Bergloff. The event will feature head-to-head poetry readings judged by members of the audience.

"My biggest challenge at this point in organizing the readings is being consistent," says Grove, "so that people know when the next reading is, and how it's going to be structured. We try to keep the sessions brisk and exciting. In the past, it's occasionally run a little long, and you see people yawning. We don't want yawns."

For poets who are looking for more opportunities during April, Auntie's Bookstore will be holding its second annual "Goodtime Poetry Competition." Poets are encouraged to drop off their poems -- that will take no longer than four minutes to read out loud -- at Auntie's before 6 pm on Friday, April 13. A panel of local judges will choose the top 20 entries, which will then be read by the poets starting at 7 pm; the top five entries will receive gift certificates from Auntie's.

Mitch Finley, Auntie's event coordinator, explains that the purpose of the event is to encourage poets to have fun with their writing. "Basically, it's an attempt to give anyone who wants to a chance to throw their poetry out there, and give it an audience. When we insert the word 'goodtime' into the title, we want it to convey that poetry is fun. I think that poetry has an image problem, and one of the best ways to change that is to give poetry that is fun a chance to be heard."

Authors with a less ambitious nature may wish to check out both area Barnes & amp; Noble bookstores, which hold reading groups for poets and poetry lovers. The "Poem Zone" meets at the NorthTown Mall store on April 25 at 7 pm, and the Valley store will feature local junior high students reading their own poems, and some of their favorites, to children on April 18, during story time at 1 pm.

Regardless of the forum, one of the hallmarks of any poetic gathering is a sense of discovery -- a realization that coming together to share art made from words results in a unique moment of communion.

"Especially for people who have never been to a poetry reading before," observes Tom Davis, "it can be surprising and stimulating. And there are all kinds of poetry readings -- it's not always about an open mike. And there always seems to be someone there who has never been to a reading before, which heightens the sense of surprise. It can touch people in ways that they don't expect."

"Thursdays Out Loud" are at 8 pm at Mootsy's, 406 W. Sprague. Call: 838-1570. The Goodtime Poetry Competition is at Auntie's Bookstore, 402 W. Main on Friday, April 13 at 7 pm. Competitors will need to have turned in their entries by 6 pm. Call: 838-0206. The Poem Zone takes place at the NorthTown Barnes & amp; Noble on April 25 at 7 pm, with the Valley Mall Barnes & amp; Noble hosting a local junior high poetry reading on April 18 at 1 pm.

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