“Boulder Poetry Whac-a-Mole” by Jonathan Bluebird Montgomery

Geez, has anyone seen the Boulder Poetry Scene Calendar (faithfully curated by Eric Fischman) lately?! There’re so many lit events right now in the ya know (waves hand) uh greater Boulder, Denver, Fort Collins uh area or whatever (for some reason I have an aversion to calling it ‘The Front Range’ like I guess you’re supposed to), keeping up is like a game of whac-a-mole – as soon as you bop one event three other new ones spring up to take it’s place.  As a 42 year old with energy-consuming job and small cute dog to parent, my lit-event-going endurance is not what it used to be, and I often find myself mallet-whiffing at many of the literary ground-mammals I earnestly intended to wallop. When I first started this site back in 2013 it seemed easier to have my finger on The Pulse of things. I once earned the distinction from former Lunamopolis editor Joe Braun as ‘A Guy Who Always Shows Up,’ and if I couldn’t attend everything I at least knew who was doing stuff. But now there are so many new people starting new things sometimes I barely recognize the scene anymore. Which, ya know, seems like kinduv a problem for an editor-in-chief of a media operation aimed at publicizing that scene.

At this point the poet, Ani Sirenflower, who is expecting me to write an article about her new monthly poetry series at The Coffee Stand in Boulder, might be starting to wonder where I’m going with this. I figure she’s expecting me to promote her new event in a straightforward and supportive way, and I will get to that, but she might not know that pretty much every article I write for this site these days is about me as much as or more than the actual subject of the piece. Look, it’s just that I’ve got a lot of psychological shit that’s accumulated over the years in regards to my creative life, and this seems to be a way to sort thru it. And someone like Ani being brand new to the scene is precisely the shit I need to work out right now.

Let’s just put it out there: There is a part of me that hates when new people start new poetry shit here. I see their fresh go-get-um energy and their spiffy fliers on my take-your-pick social media feed, and I involuntarily start muttering things to myself like ‘who the hell do you think you are?’ and ‘you gotta pay your dues and offer tribute to the elders of the scene before creating your own thing here,’ and ‘ooh, ooh, ahh, gorilla snort, growl!’ I believe this is an ugly part of me, but it can be hard to control. Perhaps thru some kinduv pre-human instinct I feel protective of my territory from outside invasion. Or perhaps I just want to freeze things at some kinduv Golden Age moment of the scene that exists in my head, from, I dunno, maybe like 2008-2014, no matter how absurd that is in the face of nothing-is-permanent reality. Or perhaps I just want to feel important to the scene (okay maybe indispensable), and somehow this threatens that.

This Boulder Poetry Scene project for me tho has always been about overcoming, or at least counterbalancing, these shadowy urges: cuz I’m obsessed with receiving attention for myself, I use this to give attention to others… cuz I feel slighted by the general writing world, I use this to give opportunities to others… cuz I can be horribly envious of others’ success, I use this to celebrate them instead. So rather than mindlessly falling into this nativist ‘keep out’ bullshit, I will further explore here and try to embrace Boulder’s ‘new lit event’ phenomenon.

Boulder is a college town ecosystem that runs on fresh blood. Every year thousands of students graduate and leave and get replaced by thousands of new students. Similarly there is also a steady exodus and incursion of young artists (whether students or not). Some of it is just the nomadic nature of bohemians, who eventually get bored and feel like some greater adventure awaits somewhere else. Some of it is just people growing out of their artist phase to concentrate on careers and families. Boulder is also a hard place to afford, and at some point the economic reality sets in, and if you don’t already have some money or get lucky or find new footing somewhere cheaper like Longmont or Denver you’ll probably be outta the scene altogether in a few years. So as one of the rare ones that sticks around long term it means often feeling like a rock in the middle of Boulder Creek with dear old allies always flowing away behind you while unfamiliar new strangers constantly rush toward you. And rocks like that can’t help but get worn down over time.

There are steady and reliable institutions in local poetry, centered around the universities – CU and Naropa – or well established series like the 35-year-running So You’re a Poet reading. There have also always been people who break off and start their own readings, events, workshops, writing groups, presses, etc… Tho it feels like right now this is becoming even more of a trend, and with seemingly less awareness of what else is already going on. I dunno, probably something to do with the individualism cultivated by social media, and/or the unprecedented access to DIY resources, and/or the realization that institutions in general are typically biased against anyone not white/male/straight. Plus add in the void left by the closing of Innisfree Poetry Bookstore and Cafe, and probably a surge of post-pandemic energy people are feeling after being cooped up for so long. But whatever the reason, the result is more decentralization with more organizers organizing smaller literary tribes, and it can be tempting to imagine an unsettling future scene in which everyone has their own reading series attended solely by themselves.

What’s weird about my distaste for this is that in some way this is exactly the kind of cultural vision that was encouraged at and I have embraced ever since I first attended Naropa’s Jack Kerouac School (gawd, it will be 20 years ago this year). The Outrider lineage the founders of the program identified as is all about creating your own institutions out of a dissatisfaction with the literary status quo. Our goal was always to empower the marginalized, the oddballs, and the underdogs, and maybe even out this rigged American playing field to some extent. The school tho was formed and I attended in an era in which, due to the higher cost (in money, sweat, etc…) of DIY projects, only a freaky few would actually be motivated enough to invest in this. But what happens when it seems like everyone, including the normies, have gone DIY? What happens when it no longer feels like a cool act of rebellion but instead just the way things are done? What happens when you no longer feel special for being totally underground?

This has led to a lot of artistic soul-searching for me lately. And I find myself trying to turn to another Naropa tradition – the challenging of your very notion of self and the ego’s need to feel special, in light of the fact that we will all one day be worm food. If your goal in art is to feed your own sense of self-importance then it’s a road that inevitably leads to suffering. A more enlightened goal would be to just help the world create more art. No matter who. No matter how expert or amateur. No matter how long they’ve been in town. No matter if you perceive them as part of your tribe. More art period. You don’t even need some ‘art feeds the soul’ platitude to justify it; it may be just as arbitrary as any other goal in this short&sweet existence, but at least it helps make yourself and other people feel more at peace. And if that’s the goal then every time you see someone creating art you’ll see it as a win. There can’t be such a thing as too many lit events by too many people who are too new. In fact, there can never be enough. You will live in a permanent state of celebration.

So finally this brings me back to Ani Sirenflower, who recently hosted the debut monthly open mic at The Coffee Stand in Boulder (corner of Arapahoe and Broadway where the old gas station usta be). She is pretty much brand new to town (originally from Jersey, went to school in PA, also spent time in Boston), and was drawn to move here this fall for the “nature and robust artist and spiritual communities.”

Ani Sirenflower performs at The Coffee Stand open mic January 20, 2023

Ani, who has been writing since she was 12, went to school for creative writing and after some discouraging moments was re-inspired by attending the popular open mic at the Cantab in Cambridge. Her vision is to “create a space just as inspired and passionate and welcome to all experiences – through sharing my own work, and holding the space that allows everyone performing to unleash their raw experience.” She also told me that, “I don’t want this to only be about poetry either; this is a place for song, improv, and experimental intermingling that crosses genres. I hate boxes. I’ll continue breaking up the night with improv games and writing exercises as well. I would invite any writer to come here to have fun, meet other cool artists, and express yourself fully.  If you love theatre, you’ll love this.”

Ani reached out directly to Boulder Poetry Scene to get the word out about the first event, which was a good move, but I could’ve easily ignored it in one of my more defensive moments. I was in another kind of moment tho in which I took it as an opportunity to continue to reimagine my relationship to new readings. Viewing it as generously as possible, I made sure to attend and rally a few other established community people to join me. And ya know what, I enjoyed it. The space is great, transforming the old garage into a hip hangout with comfy couches and good beverages and pastries. And Ani kept things interesting by guiding the night into different phases – her own featured reading, an open mic, piano music, and improvisation games. Squids the sax player even showed up and accompanied performers.

My favorite part of the night tho was at the end when some of the scene veterans like Eric Fischman and Maggie Saunders went up to compliment and thank Ani for organizing and hosting the event, and they also let her in on some of the other great poetry things going on in the area. I don’t know if they have the same baggage to overcome about new readings like me (evidence probably points to them being just better fucking people than me), but it was nonetheless a great model for how we should approach them. Welcoming and embracing the stranger, focusing on common interest, and seeing how we might combine our forces together. It makes me feel like the scene is in great hands, whether I’m able to keep up with the whac-a-mole or not.

And Ani and anyone else who wants to start new shit here, forget everything I have said here about ever hating that. If you’re called to do it then do it. Don’t worry about the grumps. Our bitterness is not your problem, and you are going to make this scene even better.

As for The Coffee Stand, the mic will be held monthly, every second Friday, 6-9pm, with the next one taking place February 10th. There is a $5-10 sliding cover, but this is waved for anyone who shares the event online through social media. (Tag Ani so she knows.) You can follow her on Instagram @ani_sirenflower or her Facebook page @ani.sirenflower.art for updates and event pages. 

And keep checking in with the Boulder Poetry Scene Calendar to find all the new events so you can feel the pleasure of welcoming and supporting them too! 

Jonathan Bluebird Montgomery is the creator and Editor-in-Chief of Boulder Poetry Scene. The author of Pizzas and MermaidThe Reality Traveler, and the recently released Nine Books (at Once!), he’s been on the Boulder poetry scene since he went to get his MFA at Naropa’s Jack Kerouac School in 2003. You can find more of his work at jonathanbluebirdmontgomery.com