Steeping in poems

Ash Canyon Poets

Local poet Bill Cowee looks over his own and other people’s poetry at a recent Ash Canyon Poets Gathering.

Local poet Bill Cowee looks over his own and other people’s poetry at a recent Ash Canyon Poets Gathering.

“Going to Ash Canyon Poets is like taking a long hot bath in language,” said Teresa Breeden, who attends the group’s meetings at Carson City’s Brewery Arts Center. “Every week is an immersion in poetry.”

The Ash Canyon Poets meet in a room with a corner bookcase for poetry collections and literary magazines, as well as dictionaries, thesauri and copies of Poet’s Market, all available for lending. “Ash Canyon Poets” is stenciled on the wall, a testament to the group’s stronghold in northern Nevada. They’ve been meeting at 7 p.m. every Friday since 1987, and that means every Friday, unless it’s Christmas or New Year’s Day.

Many members have published their work, and some have even won awards. Ursula Carlson and Timothy Rhoads were finalists in the competition for the Nevada Arts Council Literary Fellowship, and Roy Chavez, Bill Cowee and Gary Short have won the award. Cowee published Bones Set Against the Drift (Black Rock Press, 1997), and Short published Flying over Sonny Liston (University of Nevada Press, 1996). Both have won the Governor’s Arts Award, and Short earned a Silver Pen in the Nevada Writers’ Hall of Fame. Ellen Hopkins has published several children’s books, and her verse novel, Crank (Simon & Schuster, 2004), will make its debut this fall.

The poets have day jobs in various fields: accounting, education, engineering, freelance writing, shipping and medicine, just to name a few. They live in Carson City, Gardnerville, South Lake Tahoe, Reno, and in the case of some traveling members, as far away as Albania. If all 25 ever made it the same evening, they would have to extend the meeting to midnight to get through all of the poems.

Participants who want to share a poem bring 12 to 15 photocopies. They sit in a circle, start with the oldest person, and go around clockwise from there. Each poet reads his or her work aloud while everyone follows along. Sometimes there’s an immediate reaction—laughter or “ohs” and “ahs"; sometimes the group remains quiet for a moment while they study the poem. Then people give feedback.

“There’s an unwritten rule,” said Pam Alvey. “We critique the work, not the poet.”

“We spend time with each poem to ensure that every thought, line and letter gets a high-level critique,” Teresa Breeden added.

It’s all done gently and in good humor.

One night, Chavez, who writes in his native Spanish as well as in English, read a love poem. People complimented his powerful imagery and made some suggestions about word choice. One line read, “Laughter sprouts from your lips.”

“I’m not sure ‘sprouts’ is the word you’re looking for there,” I said.

“Neither am I. What is it, a Chia Pet?” Cowee said.

Everyone chuckled at the joke, including Chavez, and then continued the discussion. Even kind suggestions can be hard to take, though, and sometimes poets defend their lines—any writer knows it’s difficult to kill (or maim) your darlings. But participants can learn from every poem and critique.

“It’s a place to share in knowledge and new ideas and to listen to other voices,” said Alvey.

Cowee said planning to meet once a week was the best decision the group made when they founded Ash Canyon Poets 16 years ago. "If it wasn’t once a week, it was going to be once a month, and then we’d only write one poem a month. This way, we’re motivated to write a poem every week. I’ve written more than I ever would have without Ash Canyon."