by Ann M. Colford

The wind blows cold and blustery, driving dead leaves and other detritus along the nearly deserted sidewalk. Downtown Spokane rests fitfully on a Sunday night. An unassuming tavern door swings open on Sprague Avenue, and out wafts the smell of a smoky bar and the sound of -- poetry?

Since 1995, more or less, Mootsy's Tavern has been home to a series of poetry readings and open mikes. The scheduled day has changed, series organizers have come and gone, but the poetry community at Mootsy's maintains a loyal presence. The series has gained a name -- Out Loud at Mootsy's -- and readings are scheduled every other Sunday, 6-8 pm, from now through April. The current organizing team of Connie Grove, Craig Bickerton and John Whalen has been together for a year and a half, and they're pleased with the support the series has received from poets, poetry fans and bar patrons.

"We have a lot of fun doing it," Grove says. "The venue offers an informality that allows you to be freer as a reader. It's a little bit dark, so you don't feel so exposed. It's a wonderful learning experience for any poet."

Each biweekly session starts with an open mike from 6-7 pm, where a dozen or so readers may sign up for a three-minute slot in the spotlight. The second hour belongs to the two featured readers of the week.

The headliners on Sunday will be poets Dennis Held and Derek Moss, both of Spokane. Moss studied under poet Tom Gribble at Spokane Community College and was among the finalists at last spring's Poetry Bout, the closing event of Get Lit! He has been a regular at the open mike sessions and now steps forward as a featured reader.

Dennis Held's first book of poems, Betting on the Night, was published last year by Lost Horse Press of Sandpoint. The Wisconsin native holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Montana and his work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Poetry and Poets & amp; Writers, among other journals. After eight years on the faculty of Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Held moved to Spokane a year ago, drawn by the vibrant yet unpretentious poetry community here.

"I got to the point where I needed to focus on my own work," he says of his decision to leave teaching. "I came to Spokane for Get Lit! six years ago and found this amazing literary festival going on. After my reading, Tom Davis came over and gave me a big hug and invited me to Mootsy's."

Held came to Out Loud at Mootsy's whenever he visited Spokane, and he was welcomed as one of the regulars. When the time came to leave Lewiston, he considered other cities but chose Spokane as his new home.

"I looked at all the BO cities -- you know, Boise, Boulder, Bozeman," he laughs. "But they were all so hip and self-conscious. You have none of that here."

What he found here instead, Held says, is an arts community driven by individual creative energies rather than the latest trends. "These readings have been building for a long time, and they're really rooted in working people's lives," he explains. "You can find people from all walks of life there, and that's a huge cultural gift for the city."

The other factor that makes Out Loud at Mootsy's unique is its blend of new and experienced writers at the open mike sessions, Held says. "There's a sort of what-you-see-is-what-you-get attitude here, but there's also a lot of support for writers at all levels. It's very warm and welcoming."

Since the founding of the series, the audience for poetry at Mootsy's has developed to the point where bar patrons will shush anyone who interferes with a reading. Series organizers credit the venue and its owner, Rick Turner.

"None of this would have happened without Rick Turner," Grove says. "He gives us the reins and lets us run with it. It's a tolerant place. You can be who you are here."

"We get a respectful crowd in here, and it's an intimate environment," says co-organizer John Whalen, who coordinates the featured readers. "My goal is to provide a venue for experienced and developing writers from the Mootsy's crowd, the larger Spokane community and the academic communities, especially the graduate writing program at EWU."

First-year MFA students are encouraged to take part in the open mikes; after some practice, they may advance to become featured readers. "Our open mike is a place where new and developing writers can get experience behind the microphone," Whalen says. "I think our mix of new, developing and experienced readers is the best anywhere. We often have poets with published books alongside someone reading for the first or second time."

After the holidays, the series starts up again on Jan. 12, with featured readers Zan Adzigian and Stuart Polzin, and continues every other Sunday through March. The final evening of the season will be the last event of Get Lit!, to be held on April 13.

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