Published on May 19th, 2014 | by Brook Ellen West0
An hour past closing time and the door to King’s Books is unlocked. I shut it behind me, sealing off the sound of the street—a car braking for a parking space, laughter spreading from smokers outside of Doyle’s—and become aware of low voices hidden within the stacks of paper.
I follow the sound beyond the temptation of new releases, curiosity of literary fiction, andunisex bathroom towhere eight rows of folding chairs face a podium and microphone. Kindred spirits have gathered and greet each other in whispers, bending the laws of silence that exist in the company of art. Claiming their chairs, they form a seated orchard of rain jackets with blue jean trunks.
If nothing else, the smell of old books lured them here, I think, planting myself toward the back and wincing when the chair’s metal hinges clang. It’s the second Friday of the month and the Puget Sound Poetry Connection Distinguished Writer Series is coming to order.
Among the crowd is May’s distinguished writer, Josie Turner, the 2011-2013 Tacoma Poet Laureate, whose work has been published in Floating Bridge Review, California Quarterly, and the Blackstreet Review. Like the featured guest poets of months past who have preceded her, she will read her poems for approximately thirty minutes—but don’t leave just yet. If you’ve been here before you already know: come for the distinguished writer and stay for the open mic.
The compassion and sass needed to curate two decade’s worth of Puget Sound Poetry Connection events answers to the name Connie Walle. Standing eye-high to the podium, only the spikes of her white hair and the tip of a pen pecking her line of sight, counting bodies in attendance, are seen over the microphone.
“Who’s over the age of fifty-five?” Connie raises her spare hand above her head, counts, and then asks, “How many students?”
A few arms extend and Connie squeals. “Our grant loves you,” she murmurs through the speaker, referring to the City of Tacoma Arts Commission which has partnered with the Poetry Connection for over twenty years. Housekeeping finishes after Connie tallies the attendees who traveled from outside of Tacoma and hands a plastic donation jug to the audience.
By the time the jug reaches me it’s stuffed with dollar bills. I add one more, a small price to pay for poetry and what I’m about to do. The guest poet is almost finished and hasn’t disappointed. They never have, meaning I never leave these events without hearing at least one poem that links honesty of heart with clarity of mind, and life makes a little more sense because of it.
Connie thanks the distinguished writer for sharing their work and shifts her attention to the sign-up sheet. The bulk of the night’s programming is the twenty or so names on that list—members of the audience who might look familiar because you’ve seen them standing in line for coffee, walking a Point Defiance trail or populating a taproom.
For 353 days of the year they are the everyday men and women of Tacoma. But here, at King’s Books, on the second Friday of the month, they are poets escaped from hiding. On these twelve days of the year there is a stage to host the artist within. If this was a superhero gathering, it would be the one day of the month when Clark Kent reveals his cape and Batman shows off his utility belt.
One by one they approach the microphone and hold up a lens through which their poetry refracts bits of truth about relationships, aging, opportunities lost and gained, the nature of hopes, fears, memories, and dreams. I don’t remember reading my poem, only the warm applause that followed me to my seat when it was over.
True to tradition, Connie reads her poem last. Her confident rhythm is a bittersweet note to end on. Sweet because of her natural wit. Bitter because it will be another month’s wait for the next meeting of unmarked poets, where there’s no cover charge for priceless wisdom.
Puget Sound Poetry Connection Distinguished Writer Series occurs every second Friday at King’s Books, 218 St Helens Ave, Tacoma, WA 98402.
Featured image from Jeff Marsh, Jaquilyn Shumate, & Travis Shumate’s VSCO Cam Tacoma City Guide.