"We were thinking when we started the open mic seven years ago how great it would be for people to think of St. Louis as a place to come for poetry, and I think it's starting to happen," says Kent Shaw, poet and co-director of Underwood Poetry (www.underwoodpoetry.org). He goes on to credit the Washington University and University of Missouri-St. Louis Master of Fine Arts programs for their contribution to the pool of poets (which makes sense -- he has degrees from both schools) and the tireless work of our local scribes, but he neglects to mention his own accomplishments. After a stint as an open-mic host, Shaw organized the first Underwood Reading six years ago, a twelve-hour marathon featuring virtually every writer in the area reading work by past and present St. Louis literati, from Mark Twain to T.S. Eliot to the open-mic kids of the day. Next was the Hungry Young Poets Series, a spin-off of the River Styx series, itself a St. Louis institution. Now, as co-director of Underwood, Shaw says that "we've consistently averaged 50 people to each performance" -- big numbers in the poetry world.
But poetry still carries an undeserved stigma. "I think that some people have an instant reaction against it, saying, 'Oh, that new stuff that's being written, I just don't understand [it],'" explains Shaw, who is quick to point out that "there's all sorts of 'new stuff' being written that people approach in different ways. I don't think there are many poets who are interested in producing some inscrutable poem. They're more interested in connecting with people."
The reading of poetry is certainly not a forgotten art, especially in St. Louis, but it is one that stays largely under the radar. Shaw's mission is to bring poetry into the public awareness. "I think that poetry really can touch people's lives," he says. "People are always aware of that to some degree. Maybe their priority checklist doesn't include 'Find literature that touches my life,' but I think once it occurs to them, once they find it, the change is phenomenal."
April -- or should we say "National Poetry Month" -- is the perfect time to transform yourself through the word. There are many, many readings scheduled (check www.stlouispoetrycenter.org for details), and Shaw recommends attending any and all. Should you not have that much time, here are a few highlights: Mary Jo Bang and Susan Schultz read Saturday, April 3, at Beatnik Bob's in the City Museum (701 North 15th Street, 314-241-2489) for $5. Louise Glück (the U.S. Poet Laureate, but don't let that interfere with your opinion of her work) gives a free reading on Tuesday, April 8, at 8 p.m. at Washington University (Forsyth and Skinker boulevards, 314-935-7130). At 7 p.m. on Monday, April 19, River Styx presents Joy Katz and Devin Johnston at Duff's (392 North Euclid Avenue, www.riverstyx.org; $5). And Shaw's own Underwood Reading Series presents Saskia Hamilton and Stephanie Schlaifer on Friday, April 30, at Gallery Urbis Orbis (419 North Tenth Street; free) at 7 p.m., but he's too modest to brag about it, so we're doing it for him.