Luther Allen is a published poet, so he's been to plenty of poetry readings.
He knew firsthand that with audience members talking, with some poets being better writers than they are speakers, and often with little time to ponder a poem before the poet goes on to the next one, that readings could be frustrating as well as fantastic.
"I had a really hard time tracking the poems," said Allen, who has published a book of poems about life on Lummi Island but now lives in the foothills. "I wanted to do something that made poetry more accessible."
So he began pondering better ways to present poetry with two main goals; to provide exposure for more local poets, and to entice people generally not interested in poetry into giving it a chance.
So five years ago he organized the first SpeakEasy poetry readings at Mindport Exhibits, in downtown Bellingham. Initially he had four or five poets take turns reading for five minutes each before yielding the floor to the next poet. They repeated the cycle several times, presenting plenty of poems while giving audience members helpful breaks along the way.
That attempt to break the mold drew perhaps 15 to 20 people. A good start, but not overwhelming.
Then, two years ago, Allen came up with idea of a Valentine's Day reading. Twenty couples signed up to read poems about their relationships. One coupled pair a poem with a dance performance.
About 80 people showed up for the reading at The Amadeus Project, a performance hall downtown that has since closed. Allen was onto something.
"The readers loved it," he said. "It was really heartfelt; people were crying when they read their poems."
Allen came up with other fresh approaches, including a reading for "road trip" poems, and an "outside the box" reading in which people read a poem in conjunction with another art form, playing the saxophone, for example.
"People were pretty inventive," Allen said.
A hundred people showed up for that reading, too.
Last June, more than 80 people filled the Firehouse Performing Arts Center in Fairhaven for "Poet's Mind." Eleven poets each read one poem and had 10 minutes to talk about their poem and discuss it with the audience.
"It really fleshed things out, without being overly academic," Allen said. "People really want poetry they can understand."
In November, the evening before Veterans Day, SpeakEasy hosted 28 people who read their own or other people's poems about war. One person read his soldier father's poem from World War II. Another SRO crowd at the Firehouse.
All of the readings are free. Donations are accepted to help to pay for the venues.
SpeakEasy is volunteer-run. Allen comes up with the themes and works with people willing to read.
Bellingham poet Judy Kleinberg volunteers to handle publicity, make fliers and proofread materials. She also handles the equipment to project the poems onto a wall inside Firehouse so people can see and read them while they are being presented.
"I like being behind the scenes," she said.
SpeakEasy audiences have grown, and so has the roster of people willing to read aloud.
"SpeakEasy has a strong community bent,'' Kleinberg said. "Each SpeakEasy we get new poets involved."
Allen said he's amazed at how successful the readings have become, and plans to organize more. The next one will be another Valentine's Day reading.
"I'm very appreciative of the listeners who show up, and of the poets' willingness to participate," he said. "Everybody's willing to give it a shot."
Contact Dean Kahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-715-2291.
SpeakEasy 13, Love Uncensored, with be held at 7 p.m. Feb. 13, 2014, at the Encore Room of the Mount Baker Theatre. Couples will read poems about their relationships.
To be added to the SpeakEasy email list, send your full name and email address to email@example.com.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
The Bellingham Herald salutes Whatcom County people who help make our community a great place to live with our annual Ten Who Cared series. If you have a suggestion for an organization we should salute next year, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.