‘So, You’re a Poet’

The weekly open poetry reading celebrates 30 continuous years in Boulder

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Thomas Peters, owner of Beat Book Shop, has led the weekly open poetry reading 'So, You're a Poet' for 30 years.
Sarah Haas

Don’t read into the title, “So, You’re a Poet,” just see it for what it is. There’s no question mark, no other words. It’s not meant to be intimidating, judgmental or provocative.

“It’s a rhetorical, merely,” says Thomas Peters, emcee and host of the “So, You’re a Poet” poetry series and owner of the Beat Book Shop. “It’s a reply. It’s totally non-judgmental. It’s casual, colloquial.”

Thirty years ago, Peters was a fresh graduate of Naropa University with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing and poetics. Back then the scene was bustling, but even so it was hard to make a living out of verse. For a short time Peters drove limos and worked at bars to pay the bills, but when people would ask him, “What do you do?,” he would say he wrote poetry. Then, a funny thing would happen: no matter who he was talking to they would always reply:

“So, you’re a poet.”

The namesake reading launched in November 1987 as a project of the young Peters and his proclivity for doing what he loved, which often meant working with writers and working for free. Uninterested in money, he elected a life of authenticity instead — “pure and simple” — and for Peters that meant literature, books and poetry.

Decades later you’ll find him, almost every day, among the stacks of books in his underground Beat Book Shop on Pearl Street, a repository not just of Boulder’s beat culture but of beat culture the world over. In the pages of the books, Peters sees a latent potential that, if the book is to find the right mind at the right time, could change a person’s life.

The poetry reading serves a different purpose, though: to lift the words off the page, or so says Joe Richey, a participant of the reading since its beginning. He talks about performance poetry as being akin to stand up-comedy, saying, “After all, poets have always been the wits of the culture.”

“In that the ‘So, You’re a Poet’ series brings poetry out of books, off the streets, and to people it is demotic,” he says, stopping to spell it out like a poet, savoring every letter, “D-E-M-O-T-I-C. Demotic verse doesn’t always make it to the hallowed halls of academe, but there is so much life in there. Poetry is alive when you really start listening.”

Of course, you can write poetry and never read to an audience and, as Peters says, still be the best poet that ever lived. In fact, he originally set up the reading to hear poets read out loud things that he liked to read to himself, all alone in a room, just his eyes and the words on the page. But the performance aspect of the reading is as essential as it is notable and is inseparable from Boulder’s poetic culture that the series has helped to spawn and sustain.

“Poetry happens while you are paying attention to it only,” says local poetic staple Marcus If. “And due to the nature of read poetry, as an audience member you can’t take it home, you can’t memorize it on the spot. You can’t take a photograph of the reading of the poem. All you have left at the end of the night is the feeling of it.”

“So, You’re a Poet” acts as an admission of sorts that change isn’t just possible but inevitable. Yet, even as poetry escapes to the ether, some part of it magically endures.

Reed Bye, professor emeritus of Creative Writing at Naropa, worries about what is lost as Boulder’s priorities change away from culture and toward economy.

“‘So, You’re a Poet’ has survived increased rents and changing priorities,” he says. “It’s got an aspect to it that is simple, basic and very human, one that can get easily excluded (or literally paved over) by the speed and pace of economically driven existence.”

One need only look out the window of The Laughing Goat Coffeehouse, the cafe where the reading has been held since 2006, to find out what he means. Now, the streets are lined with new brick buildings, perfectly straight and lined with new retail stores. It’s difficult to imagine the reading’s former long-time host cafe, Penny Lane, sitting across the street, bubbling over with creative revolutions and free-form poetry.

But Peters isn’t worried. The scene is as strong as it’s ever been. That’s because “you don’t need funds, all you need is a room,” he says. “Poetry is the most anti-technological pursuit I can think of. All you need is a sidewalk and a stone, a paper and a pencil. Poetry is easy and free.”

What’s not easy is the staying power it takes to host the meeting, every Monday night for 30 years. Peters, though, shrugs it off, saying such commitment is a quality that everyone should have. Certainly it’s one that he has and it’s one the poetic community in Boulder shares. Attendance at the reading may vary, anywhere from half a dozen to 100, but one thing’s for sure — poets always show up. 

Local poet and professor of English Jonathan Montgomery likens it to church. “Tom Peters is the preacher and I but one among the congregation,” he says in regard to his forthcoming article about the anniversary for Boulderpoetrytribe.com. Indeed Peters is pious, dedicated to the poetics that he loves, but he is notably absent from what is religiosity.

“We want people to be great at what they do but don’t want to control how people do that,” he says.

Peters thinks “So, You’re a Poet” is the longest running “weekly, open, continuous poetry reading in the world” (and would like to know if you know otherwise). That means that in 30 years it hasn’t missed a single week and there are always open slots for anyone to read, even if there is a featured writer.

That means that over the years new and emerging writers have shared the stage with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Jack Collom, Amiri Baraka, Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth), Ernesto Cardenal, Diane di Prima and more.

As tempting as it is to focus on the famous minds who have graced the series’ humble stage, all those commenting on the reading are eager to redirect attention to the courage of the young poets who serve as a weekly reminder of the power of poetry.

“Poetry is a valuable way to encounter your own mind,” says Reed Bye, “an important experience in language. ‘So, You’re a Poet’ is the gesture of not keeping that a secret. And that’s the most important thing I can think to do with 30 years of Mondays.”

On the Bill: ”So, You’re a Poet.” 8 p.m. every Monday night at The Laughing Goat, 1709 Pearl St., Boulder. It is free and open to the public.