Rhyme and reason

Poetic license: Keith Flynn, who has been part of the local literary scene since before the Renaissance of the 1990s, performs a poem to the music of his band, the Holy Men.

"I write poetry to stay current with myself. I read poetry to stay current with the world," says local poet, Asheville Wordfest organizer and Blue Ridge Parkway poet laureate Laura Hope-Gill. It's her motto, as a writer, but it's also an especially poignant dictum: Lately, Hope-Gill has been writing poetry about Japan and its recent traumas.

"My great grandparents were in a prison camp in China and were freed by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki," she says. She's been haunted by that bit of her ancestry, but the earthquake and tsunami last month helped her to process her feelings and to realize that "I have to live a powerful life to balance out losses elsewhere. That's what drives me." Hope-Gill will share some of her poems about Japan at the Mountain Xpress Poetry Show on Friday, April 8.

Hope-Gill is a featured poet at the show, representing Western N.C.'s rich and enduring poetic and literary scene. She says she's moved to Asheville four times, starting as a child in the 1970s. She was here during the '90s poetry renaissance — the heyday of the Green Door on Carolina Lane, where local poets honed their slam skills and an Asheville team won the National Poetry Slam in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1995.

But much has changed in Asheville in the past decade-and-a-half — along with it the poetry milieu. Many of the key players of the 1990s moved away or became involved in the raising of children and other projects by the early 2000s. "Graham Hackett kept it alive during the slow years, with his Poetix Lounge," says Hope-Gill. "He kept a pulse going. Now that has grown into a thriving scene. I go to the slams and I go to the rooftop, and I keep my eye on all of it because I want include as many parts of it in Wordfest as I can."

Ushering in the next generation

By "the rooftop," Hope-Gill means the Rooftop Poets, a collective that performs readings in venues like the Roof Garden of the Battery Park Hotel. Founders of that group, Matthew Mulder and Brian Sneeden, will also perform at the poetry show.

The Rooftop Poets came together when Sneeden, Mulder and Barbara Gravelle read together at the Flood Gallery. “Our poems seemed to complement each other,” says Sneeden. Last October, the group (along with Cabaret singer Vendetta Creme) held an event atop the Battery Park Hotel. The ticket price included a chapbook of the poets’ work.

While the Rooftop Poets are currently on hiatus, Sneeden says that, in the future, they plan to hold an event every three months, duringthe full moon. The readings will include a published book and introduce at least one new poet.

Also relatively new to the local literary environment is Matt Owens, who co-hosts the Juniper Bends reading series with Mesha Maren (they will also read at the April 8 poetry show).

Owens, who has worked on UNC-Asheville’s literary journal for the past three years, says that it was Downtown Books & News manager Julian Vorus who approached him and Maren about starting a series. The idea for Juniper Bends was to "represent all writers who are hard working" and to draw from prose and poetry writers, new and veteran writers, young and mature writers. "I wanted to demystify what could be seen as a closed-society event," says Owens.

Keith Flynn — who grew up in the area and dates his involvement with local poets back to the 1980s — says something similar about Poetry at the Pulp, an open mic he and Hope-Gill started last September. "I had hoped we could build the Pulp series as a sort of a poetry laboratory," he says. "I can invite very well-known poets to come and read. After the featured poet we have 15-20 people signed up to read, and everybody's very excited about it."

At Poetry at the Pulp, readers have access to Flynn (who created and has edited the Asheville Poetry Review for the past 18 years) and Hope-Gill (who co-founded literary festival Wordfest, now in its fourth year). The event, according to Flynn, also draws some big names: "Charles Frazier stopped by the other night. Lee Smith popped in one night. We even got Wayne Caldwell out of his cabin."

While Flynn is enthusiastic about that monthly event (indeed, his calendar overflows — he says that since National Poetry Month was inaugurated in '96, he barely has a moment to spare during April), his current passion is his new album, LIVE at Diana Wortham Theatre, recorded with his band, The Holy Men, and set to be released at the poetry show.

What’s song and what’s poetry

During Asheville's rock explosion of the 1990s, Flynn fronted rock-soul-poetry outfit Crystal Zoo. The Holy Men (guitarist Bill Altman and percussionist Richard Foulk) is a leaner, jazzier backing band, but the group's mission remains the same: "Trying to blur the boundaries between what's song and what's poetry," says Flynn.

And what sets his sometimes-gospel-tinged-lyric, sometimes-spoken-word apart from other artists (Patti Smith, Jim Morrison, Sekou Sandiata) who have attempted the same marriage of music and verse? "Some of it is sophistication," says Flynn. "A lot of poets would love to do it, but they can't necessarily sing. A lot of singer/songwriters would like to do what we're talking about but they're not necessarily poets."

He attributes much of what works on LIVE (recorded by sound engineer Dann Wojnar during an August 2010 performance) to his years of collaboration (going back to Crystal Zoo) with Altman. Some of the tracks of LIVE, according to Flynn, had never been set to music before. Others which made the cut (the album represents a 110-minute concert edited to fit on a 66-minute CD) were chosen for their intensity. "What's important is to support the architecture of all the words with as much variation in groove, tempo, color and texture that we can with the chord changes and percussion textures." 

Of the 20-minutes-long "Apostrophes," Flynn says, "the percussion is so interesting and inventive and tells so many stories in the context of my voice."

That track is based on a poem that Flynn wrote in 1991. "Blindman's Garden," which the band performed as an encore, dates back to the mid-1980s. "If it worked in '86, it'll probably work in '96 and it'll probably work in 2026," says Flynn. "Really good material doesn't ever let you down."

Hopefully that will be the experience of the 10 Mountain Xpress poetry contest finalists, who will be reading their winning poems at the show. For some, this might be their first time reading publicly. Flynn, who served as the final judge in the contest (the overall winner will be named at the show), suggests that there are reasons why a winning poem won't let its creator down.

"I'm not looking for a hook or a certain style," he says of what stands out during judging. "I'm looking for a mastery of the language, which has a musical component to it. How do the abstract ideas marry to the music of the language? I'm always looking for a rhythmic dexterity."

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

what: Mountain Xpress Poetry Show, featuring the winners of the Xpress Poetry Contest, readings from Laura Hope-Gill, Matt Owens and Mesha Maren of Juniper Bends, and Matthew Mulder and and Bryan Sneeden of Rooftop Poets. Also featuring a performance from Keith Flynn and the Holy Men
where: Masonic Temple (80 Broadway St., Asheville)
when: Friday, April 8 (7-10 p.m., $5, advance tickets at mountainx.com/mxcore/poem/tickets)


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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall has lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. She is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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