Poetry's Roadshow

Timothy Schaffert
From the September/October 2006 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Fueled by equal parts biodiesel gas and small press ambition, the Wave Books 2006 Poetry Bus Tour is scheduled to roll through forty-nine cities during the next two months, beginning in Seattle on September 4. Though the reading tour is ostensibly a marketing campaign for Wave Books and its list of approximately thirty authors—including Noelle Kocot, Anthony McCann, and Mary Ruefle—the independent publisher hopes it will help promote poetry in general: The tour's organizers expect over two hundred poets to participate in readings that will take place in communities throughout the United States and in Canada. The press is touting it as the "biggest literary event of 2006" and the "most ambitious poetry tour ever attempted."

Throughout the fifty-day schedule of poetry readings, the bus—which was rented from the Green Tortoise Travel Company and sleeps thirty-eight people—will pick up poets in some cities and drop them off in others. Joshua Beckman, a poet and editor at the independent press based in Seattle, says the vehicle will serve not only as a means of travel but also as a space for creativity. "Most of this is a public venture in that we're going out there and trying to do things and get involved with lots of people, and at the same time we're viewing the bus as a really generative space, a space where people are going to write poems and talk to each other."

Among the poets scheduled to participate in the tour are Thomas Sayers Ellis, Bob Hicok, Tyehimba Jess, Eileen Myles, Cole Swensen, Vijay Seshadri, Juliana Spahr, Arthur Sze, James Tate, John Yau, Dean Young, and more than a hundred others.

Wave Books was founded by Charlie Wright (no relation to Charles Wright, the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet) after he purchased Verse Press, a small publisher of poetry in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 2005. Wave Books continues to publish Verse titles—including Given (2002) by Arielle Greenberg and A Green Light (2004) by Matthew Rohrer—and is set to follow Verse's example of organizing innovative poetry events, such as the coordinated readings for the anthology Isn't It Romantic (Verse Press, 2004) that took place at several venues across the country on Valentine's Day last year.

"When Wave Books began," Beckman says, "part of our initial marketing and publicity plan was that if we can convince everyone, absolutely everyone, that poetry is something that can be of value to them, can be exciting and interesting to them, [then] eventually that will come back to us, and eventually we'll sell some books. Actually trying to go out and convince everyone to just buy our books is a bad idea. What really needs to happen, and what seems possible right now, is that a lot of interest can grow around poetry, not specifically Wave Books."

To achieve that goal, Beckman and others at Wave Books enlisted the help of local organizers in the cities on the tour who helped them plan events that would take advantage of each location. "So consideration ranged from ‘What's the best, most exciting venue in your town for poetry?' to ‘What's the place in your town where poetry never happens, where it would be great to have a poetry reading?'" Beckman says.

As a result, poets will read in locales such as the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County; the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland; the Green Mill jazz club in Chicago; the Space Needle in Seattle; and the Roden Crater, an extinct volcano in the Painted Desert of northern Arizona, typically closed to the public.

Monica Fambrough, the director of marketing for Wave Books, says she has been surprised by the level of interest in the tour and in poetry in general. "There hasn't been a town too small for us to find a community of people who are really excited about the tour."

Beckman says he first started thinking about a bus tour several years ago, when he heard about a reading tour that poets took by train through Europe. When Wave Books was founded in 2005, large-scale projects like the bus tour were built into the publisher's budget. "We could publish a certain number of books and do all the things surrounding those books," Beckman says, "or we could publish fewer books and each year or every couple of years, depending on the scope of the project, do bigger things like this."

To lower the cost of the tour, Wave Books is not paying participating poets or reimbursing any traveling expenses. Most of the local organizers have made arrangements to feed and shelter the busload of poets during their brief stops. Wave Books hopes to collect cash donations throughout the tour as well.

Beckman says the press initially considered buying a bus, but in the end they decided to rent one that ran on biodiesel, a cleaner-burning fuel derived from vegetable sources—for "political and ethical" reasons. The press estimates that over fifteen hundred gallons of fuel will be required for the trip. Finding biodiesel stations will be another complication for an already complex tour path that was plotted with a large map, pushpins, and the help of Yahoo.com.

Though the title of the bus tour suggests the road show might be an annual fixture in the poetry community, Beckman makes clear that the demands of the tour have precluded any future plans. "We're absolutely not going to do the bus tour again," he says. "I wish I could say ‘maybe,' but not a shot. We have lots of other ideas."

Timothy Schaffert is the author of two novels, most recently, The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God (Unbridled Books, 2005).

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