What do a tattoo parlor, a used furniture store, a swimming pool, a flower shop, a laundromat, a restaurant, a bike shop, and a paint store have in common? Since we are talking about Beverly, Massachusetts, we are talking about establishments that have hosted a poetry reading.
These poetry events have been sites for what Colleen Michaels has dubbed the Improbable Places Poetry Tour. Colleen, the creative mind behind this wonderful romp, began the program three years ago.
As the Director of the Writing Studio at Montserrat College of Art, she had three things she was concerned about – Montserrat students, Beverly, and poetry. She wanted to introduce everybody, to get students to know the town, to get the town to know Montserrat and poetry. “One day I was walking by a bike store, and I just walked in and asked them if they’d be interested in hosting a poetry reading. They agreed, and that was the start of the program, now sponsored by the Mass Cultural Council.”
Each of the venues has offered its own unique poetry prompt, which sends local poets and those who didn’t know they were interested in writing poetry into their brain store to pull out a poem on the specific topic. For example, the next stop on the Improbable Tour is Waters & Brown, a paint and decorating shop at 13 Elliott Street in Beverly, and the prompt is “Write a poem about a color.” The date for the reading is February 7, from 7 to 9 o’clock.
A contest you can enter
But before you arrive, you are encouraged to submit a poem on color to Colleen at firstname.lastname@example.org by February 4. The winner will be announced at the reading where any attendee is encouraged to read what they have written. The one stipulation to winning the prize for the evening is that you must be available to read your poem at the paint shop.
Colleen sees the program as a kind of democracy of poetry. “First time readers are reading with veterans who have been reading and writing for decades. It’s a wonderful place to learn from each other.” Besides the first timers, there have been poets like Michael Ansara, Jill McDonough, January O’Neil, and J.D. Scrimgeour.
She describes overhearing a conversation between a student and an elderly woman known for such community involvement as knitting caps for preemies born at the Beverly Hospital. “Two people, widely separated by age, were engaged in the liveliest discussion about form in poetry. It was exciting.”
A program ripe for any town or city
Grass roots poetry. Democratic poetry. Poetry fun. The Improbable Tour is catching on in other places. The poet Susan Rich brought the idea back to Seattle, and the Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, is beginning a program. The idea is ripe for expanding to other cities and towns in the Commonwealth. All it takes is someone with the will, energy, and daring to walk up to a business owner and ask if they’d like to participate.
The program in Beverly has been so popular that some of the initial sites on the tour are contacting Colleen about providing space once more. “But right now, I’m looking for venues that present another angle.” So far no organization has turned her down when she has asked.
The Beverly tour benefits from the unique talents of faculty and students at Montserrat. “The art department creates unique letterpress posters for each event, and they’ve provided videos we can post on our web site. We put the posters in local stores, and our audience has been growing.”
Check out these videos:
As the videos show, the meetings are relaxed and fun, and the program often draws around 100 people, with a wonderful mix of veteran poets and newbies. The popularity has even made it a concern of the town planning committee, which listed it on its agenda in a recent meeting.
Colleen Michaels is always busy. She will be in charge of poetry on the trollies at this year’s Massachusetts Poetry Festival in May. She will not only be recruiting poets, she will be reading her own work. Her poems and essays have appeared in journals and anthologies including The Paterson Literary Review, Blue Collar Review, The Mom Egg, Paper Nautilus, Stoneboat, Up the Staircase Quarterly, Constellations, and Here Come the Brides: Reflections on Love and Lesbian Marriage. Her poetry has been commissioned as an installation at Crane Beach in Ipswich, Massachusetts. She was a finalist for the Split This Rock Poetry Competition and the recipient of an honorable mention in the 2011 Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prize.