On a Saturday evening in mid-April, about 40 people filled the downstairs gallery at Village Books.
The attraction wasn't a famous author. Instead, they came to hear six Whatcom County poets read to celebrate National Poetry Month.
"We regularly get 40 people or more at poetry, which is actually quite a bit," says Christina Claassen, events coordinator at the bookstore in Fairhaven. "We have a strong community of poets who spread the word and support each other."
A month later, with a soft evening breeze nudging sailboats on Bellingham Bay, more than 150 people packed the upstairs meeting room at Bellingham Cruise Terminal to hear 25 winning poems read aloud at the seventh annual awards ceremony for the Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest, a local competition.
"Reading poetry in a setting like this gives poetry its proper stature," remarked emcee Jim Bertolino.
At 8 p.m. the following Monday, despite another warm, gorgeous evening, nearly two dozen people attended the weekly Poetrynight session in downtown Bellingham. Some came to read their own poems in public; all of them got to hear Jade Sylvan, an award-winning Boston poet on tour.
"It is widely known that Bellingham is a great poetry town," says Kathleen Flenniken of Seattle, who has been a judge for the Boynton contest and was recently named Washington's poet laureate. "It's pretty remarkable for a small community."
From the academic study of poetry to open-mic sessions, from readings at bookstores and galleries to people writing poems at home and submitting one to the Boynton contest, poetry is being written and enjoyed in a wide variety of venues in Whatcom County.
"It's another dimension of what makes this a rich and worthwhile place to live," says Judy Kleinberg, a freelance writer and poet who moved to Bellingham seven years ago. "Poetry is another layer that enriches the community."
Flenniken says one reason for the lively poetry scene is that faculty members at local colleges contribute. For example, Nancy Pagh and Oliver de la Paz from Western Washington University have been judges for the Boynton contest, and they and other faculty poets read at local gatherings and encourage their students to attend off-campus poetry events.
"I can't think of any other place this size that has a poetry scene that compares," Pagh says.
High school and college students are often part of the younger crowd at Poetrynight readings, which began in the mid-1990s at Stuart's Coffee House and have continued despite having to move to several downtown locales through the years.
In addition to hosting readings, Poetrynight introduces poetry to students at local schools, and has a new fellowship program, in honor of deceased Bellingham poet Ken Warfel, to support people who contribute to poetry in their community.
"The readings are fantastic," says Robert Huston, the droll and witty host of Poetrynight for nearly a dozen years.
Local poets uniformly praise Village Books for its support. Along with presenting several poetry readings each month, the store hosts a poetry writing group that meets monthly, an open-mic session for poets and other writers, and a poetry section with a hefty selection from local poets.
"They love to write and we try to support them," Claassen says. "It's one of more successful genres."
Almost 20 years ago, Bellingham resident Carla Shafer organized a monthly gathering where writers could read their works aloud. Chuckanut Sandstone Writers Theater ran for five years, took a hiatus, then sprang back to life nine years ago.
Six years ago, Chuckanut began an unusual collaboration with Bellingham Repertory Dance. Repertory members pick poems as the basis for choreographed performances that attract people from as far away as Seattle.
"They can't believe we can do such amazing work," Shafer says. "The dance company is really the heart and soul of it."
Mary Gillilan led a writing group in Lynden and one in Bellingham decades ago. Four years ago, she began running workshops at The Independent Writers' Studio, in the Clover Building downtown.
Out of that has come "Clover, A Literary Rag," an annual journal of poems, essays and short fiction. The third volume, released in June, includes a dozen writers from afar along with more than two dozen from the Northwest. Future issues will remain rooted in the region, she says.
"That's our base, so that will be a natural," Gillilan says.
Nearly a decade ago, Jim Bertolino, who is retired from teaching poetry at Western; Anita Boyle, a graphic artist and poet; and Sue Erickson, a retired paralegal who became a poet after taking classes from Bertolino, organized The Poet As Art, a series of public readings at Lucia Douglas Gallery in Fairhaven.
That's one reason George Drake - a retired WWU administrator and a Johnny Appleseed when it comes to community projects - turned to the threesome when he came up with the idea of a community poetry contest to honor Sue C. Boynton, a Bellingham poet and civic activist who died in 1981. Early on, the contest received some grants, but it now supports itself through donations, fundraisers and workshops.
The contest attracts upward of 300 poems written by county residents, from schoolchildren to grandparents. Fifteen "merit" winners are displayed on bus placards, and 10 "Walk Award" winners are displayed in buses and on plaques mounted outside Bellingham Public Library.
All of the winning poems are published in an annual chapbook. Two years ago, winning poems from the contest's first five years were published in a book, "Poetry Walk," that became a popular local seller.
"I'm glad it got going," Drake says. "We've obviously touched a cord."
Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest: boyntonpoetrycontest.wordpress.com
Chuckanut Sandstone Writers Theater: chuckanutsandstone.blogspot.com
The Independent Writers' Studio: independentwritersstudio.com
The Poet As Art: whatcompoetryseries.org
Village Books: villagebooks.com
Reach DEAN KAHN at email@example.com or call 715-2291.