How to Host a Monthly Poetry Wine and Chocolate Party
A few years ago, while my wife and I were living in the university town of Moscow, Idaho, I fairly regularly attended what was called "poetry night," a monthly Saturday night gathering at which participants brought and read aloud one or more favorite poem and also brought either wine or something chocolate to share. Usually we gathered in the living room of a minister and his wife; sometimes in the living room of a University of Idaho English instructor. Who came was never entirely the same twice.
My wife and I wish we could start a similar monthly poetry party in the small city where we currently live—Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA., but we live in a one-bedroom apartment with a too small for such gatherings living room. I'm optimistically hoping that the creative forces of the universe will inspire someone, encouraged by us, to host poetry parties and start the custom in Kalamazoo and vicinity.
What are the general lessons that my wife and I, and others anywhere who are interested in hosting poetry parties, can take from our Moscow, Idaho experience? These seem to be the questions to pose to oneself:
1. Do you have the time, interest, and intent to make it happen and to keep it happening?
If you don't and if no one does, it won't happen. It's a pleasant responsibility, because 'poetry nights' are pleasant evenings. Consider hosting just one poetry party for starters, to get a sense if it is something you can and wish to do again monthly, or however often, or irregularly.
2. Is there a location in which to meet?
All it takes is a room where as few as three and as many as over thirty persons can feel at easy (or a suitable outdoor space, such as a back yard, in warm, fair weather); some seating, and enough light to read by. Ambiance helps. A large yet cozy living room is ideal. But make the best use that you can of the space available.
3. How many participants is optimum?
My offhand guess is that ten to twenty participants is optimum. I've enjoyed poetry parties with many fewer and with many more guests.
4. Whom to invite?
Whoever you think might be interested among your friends and acquaintances from your neighborhood, work, church, social organizations, and so on, on a person to person basis. It does not seem to me the sort of recurring event to which to invite the public. Assure those whom you invite that they may personally bring or invite additional guests. Start an e-mail group contact list.
5. For a poetry party, should the host(s) provide poetry in addition to asking guests to bring some favorite poems to share?
Yes, because some will forget to bring a poem or will procrastinate till too late. If you don't have a personal library of poetry books, just use the public library. Some anthologies to consider checking out: The Oxford Book of American Poetry; The Oxford Book of English Verse; American Poetry Since 1950; Contemporary American Poetry; Good Poems, edited by Garrison Keillor; Contemporary World Poetry, and New British Poetry. And check out books by your favorite poets and any additional good poetry anthologies that you discover while browsing library shelves.
And zillions of great poems can easily be found on the World Wide Web. Print-out your own perennial favorites and leave them lying where party guests can have a look and maybe choose a poem to read.
6. Is it necessary for the main refreshments to be wines and chocolates?
No, I don't think so. I know from experience that that combination can work very well. It's a combination that adds up to low-key, pleasant socializing evening. And making it potluck—bring some to share—keeps it affordable month after month even for a middle-class hosting household on a budget. Perhaps a variation would work as well? Experiment. Local micro beers? Scotch? Coffees and teas? Try whatever, given your situation, your intuition urges.
A poetry party can also be for women only, for men only, for children only, for whole families, for those who do not drink alcohol for health or religious reasons, and for those who do not eat sweets. Fit the refreshments to suit the guests. A woman in Moscow ID on a strict diet for health reasons hosted a 'poetry night' to which guests could bring wine or chocolate as usual but at which she prepared and served organic vegan dishes.
7. Is it even necessary to ask guests to bring anything?
Moscow, Idaho is one of those towns where people keep finding new excuses to have a potluck. While there I went to interfaith potluck picnics, to an annual city-wide CommUNITY Walk that included a potluck in a city park, and to innumerable church potlucks. A potluck party fit readily into that culture. Having guests bring something to share results in more abundance and more variety than those of us who are far from wealthy could afford to provide out of pocket. And it helps build a sense of neighborliness and of active participation. If you are blessed with the wherewithal and you so desire, by all means provide an abundance of wines and chocolates--or whatever your choices of refreshments--for your poetry party guests.
8. Would it not be even more fun and interesting to ask guests to each bring an original poem?
If you search the Internet on the topic poetry party, you will find that that is a popular type of poetry party. An advantage of mixing original poems and well-known published poems at a poetry party is that the event goes on even if none of the guests has written an original poem lately. If most of the participants at least dabble in writing poems, then make sharing original poems primary and sharing favorite poems by masters of the craft secondary. If, as in the Moscow, Idaho, poetry lovers circle, most of the participants very rarely if ever write poetry, then make sharing favorite poems the primary focus, with hearing an original poem an occasional surprise treat.
A poem I've read, though not as well, at a 'poetry night'
The Origin of Poetry Nights in Moscow, Idaho
The monthly poetry party in Moscow, Idaho, with its circle of those who either frequently or sometimes attendeded, had already been well established for several years when my wife and I moved there in summer 2006. Moscow is a university town, home of University of Idaho. A few months after our arrival in town, we heard by word of mouth about the monthly gathering that locals called "poetry night," and we asked to be added to the e-mail contact list. After we began attending, we in turn from time to time told someone about 'poetry night' or brought an acquaintance as a first time guest.
There was no attempt to limit or control who or how many could come, yet it all worked out. For those not on the e-mail contact list, finding out about 'poetry night' was by word-of-mouth.
Usually 'poetry night' was hosted by a couple who were each active in the community both professionally (he was a minister nearing retirement) and in volunteer activities. I'll call them Adam and Zoe. The story they told about the origin of having a monthly wine and chocolate potluck poetry party was that their son while home for a visit told of experiencing such a poetry party and urged them to try it.
Specifically, he suggested that Adam and Zoe invite some friends and acquaintances over for a Saturday evening and ask each to bring from one to a few poems that they like (or, if they wished, original poems), plus a bottle of wine or anything chocolate to share.
They tried it, and it was such a pleasant success that they made 'poetry night' a monthly happening. Zoe took charge of maintaining an email contact list.
Certain fluctuating Saturday evenings were most convenient for partying for them because of the vicissitudes of their schedules. Zoe would send a group e-mail saying which Saturday evenings in the coming month were possibilities and polling the preferences of those on the list. Then she and Adam would choose on which Saturday evening that month they would host 'poetry night', and she would send an e-mail announcement. A 'poetry night' started at 7PM in the winter and at 7:30PM in the summer.
Sometimes if Zoe and Adam were going on a trip or if they just wanted a break from hosting, Zoe would ask by e-mail if another household in the 'poetry night' circle would host that month.
Zoe has said that in her years of hosting monthly poetry parties, no two of them has had the same people attending and each has had its unique character.
A Poetry Reading
The video below shows a scene similar to those that I saw and heard at poetry parties, though I don't recall anyone wearing yellow pants. You'll meet a variety of sorts of poems and of people at a poetry party.
A Typical 'Poetry Night' Hosted by Adam and Zoe
On a Saturday when Zoe had scheduled a poetry party, earlier in the day I would buy a little bag of bulk chocolate candies, or if my wife was free and inclined to come, too, she would choose a bottle of wine for us to buy and bring. Then back home I would go online and find three or four poems I liked and would print them, or I would bookmark a few poems in my copy of the 1950 edition of The Oxford Book of American Poetry.
If going on my own, I would stroll the half-mile to Adam's and Zoe's house, my selection of poems, my chocolate candy, and my water bottle in my backpack. I soon learned to not arrive on time. No one else did, and Zoe would put me to work helping with her last-minute preparations.
The living room couch and an assortment of arm chairs and ottomans would be arranged in a semicircle facing the fireplace, with dining chairs and folding chairs added if and as needed. On a coffee table in the middle of the circle Zoe would pile poetry chapbooks, collections, and anthologies that she and Adam had accumulated through the years.
On a table off to the side she would set napkins, small plates, forks, perhaps a cheese and gourmet crackers plate, wine glasses, and a bottle each of white and red wine, with ample space remaining for the wines and chocolates that guests would bring.
In the winter Zoe would line the outside walkway up to the entrance door with luminarias and turn on the porch light. On warm, fair summer evenings, the poetry party would begin in the back yard, and after dusk we would use flashlights to read by.
In fall, winter, or spring, if I came early, before long others, alone, as couples, or with a friend or two, from young to elderly and in between, men and women, arrived, most bringing either a bottle of wine or something chocolate. One might bring a complex and delectable baked chocolate creation. Another might bring brownies or double chocolate cookies. Most who brought chocolate brought some variety of chocolate candy. A 'poetry night' was a three-in-one wine sharing, chocolate sharing, and poetry sharing party. Occasionally someone brought something that goes well with wine and chocolate, such as strawberries.
In winter, arriving guests tossed their outerwear on the main floor bedroom bed. A few wine bottles at a time were opened. After half an hour or more of arrivals, greetings, chitchat, and getting settled, everyone would find a seat, and the poetry readings would begin. Latecomers were casually welcomed.
The Oxford Book of American Poetry, a core resource in any poetry party host's library
I highly recommend this poetry anthology. The 2006 edition contains the best poems of over 200 American poets, from colonial days to contemporary. I always brought to "poetry night" my copy of an earlier edition, finding it an invaluable resource due to the breadth and variety of its poetry. Poems by Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and W. H. Auden were among my favorites.
There was no order as to who would read first or next. The group would sit in quiet, patient expectation until someone had the nerve and initiative to say that they would like to read a poem. Everyone would give full attention to that person, who, staying seated, would read aloud a poem from a book or printout.
The custom was to not interpret, analyze, critique, deconstruct, or pontificate on the poems but rather to just listen, enjoy, and be moved, amused, bemused, awed, or inspired by them. After someone read a poem, there would be a few spontaneous comments like, "That is so beautiful!" or "He's one of my favorite poets!" Then the group would sit in quiet, patient expectation again until someone else said they were ready to read a poem.
During the years that I attended, attendance at the monthly poetry parties ranged from a handful to over thirty guests. Attendance was usually in the range of fifteen to twenty-five persons.
Hafez might be followed by Maya Angelou, John Keats by Billy Collins, Rumi by Robert Frost, William Shakespeare by Sylvia Plath, Langston Hughes by Robert Burns by Alice Walker by Dylan Thomas by Mary Oliver. A poem from ancient Greece might be followed by a poem in the latest New Yorker. Some poems were heart-wrenching, some silly, some lovely, some sentimental, some both passionate and profound.
Occasionally someone would read an original poem, and it would be listened to and appreciated equally with the famous poems. Some fairly frequent participants seldom read a poem, preferring to just listen, but the atmosphere was so relaxed and low key that even the very shy and self-conscious felt at ease enough to sometimes take a turn reading a favorite poem.
I would count five or six readings between when I took a turn. Some poems that I recall reading were "Divine Image" by William Blake, number 7 from "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman, "Happiness" by Carl Sandburg, "Lullaby" by W. H. Auden, and "The Brain Is Wider Than the Sky" by Emily Dickinson, to mention a few.
Eventually Adam and Zoe would agree it was time for a bathroom break. For some minutes participants would refill their wine glasses, select more chocolate treats and other nibbles, and stand around conversing. Zoe would make decaf coffee, hot water for regular and herbal teas, and, if wintertime, hot chocolate, for those who wanted to switch from wine.
Soon the poetry readings would resume. After some time, those who needed to do so would leave early. Later, more and more of the guests would say their good-byes. Finally, getting near to 11PM, we last stragglers would leave.
Would you like to participate in a poetry party?
© 2012 Brian Leekley