TROY, Mont. – Take a couple dozen poets, some in fishnet stockings, a few others wearing faces jutting with metal piercings. Add an armload of bearded loggers and maybe a couple of disgruntled whisky drinkers. Throw them all together in a tiny bar in a tiny northwest Montana town on a rainy November night.
Things can get downright interesting when poetry salon and saloon mix, as they’ve done here at the Club Bar for nearly 15 years.
“It’s unlike any other literary event on the planet,” said Spokane poet and essayist Jonathan Johnson, who also serves as department chairman for Eastern Washington University’s creative writing program.
Club Bar’s poetry night, which took place Saturday, has become one of the most unlikely literary events of the Northwest, Johnson said. It draws convoys of writers from Spokane, Moscow and Missoula and a few stragglers from as far as Seattle and Salt Lake City. In recent years, it has also become something of a poetry Superbowl for graduate students in the creative writing programs at Eastern Washington University, the University of Montana and University of Idaho.
Nobody seems to have a clear idea of why the event has endured, or why poets drive hours through snow and rain to spend a few minutes in front of the microphone at the Club Bar, or why some local residents who would normally not cross the street to hear verse spend hours sitting quietly on barstools listening to the poems.
“There’s some kind of weird energy that’s there,” said EWU graduate student and poet Mike Steele.
One of the founders of poetry night, David Latham, a weekly newspaper editor and poetry lover from nearby Libby, Mont., said there are many good poets in the thick woods of northwest Montana. “This isn’t the easiest place in the world to live and they say that adversity breeds beauty and creativity,” he said.
But Latham still can’t explain why poetry night draws up to 30 or 40 out-of-town writers.
“None of the circumstance would lend themselves to success,” he said “We’re very far away. Troy, Montana, is not regarded as a place of high culture. Why does it work here? I don’t know. I don’t really know why it’s been successful.”
Most participants, though, say the bar’s unusual location and one-of-a-kind owner might have something to do with it. Since 1974, the narrow, wood-floored tavern has been owned by “Downtown” Tony Brown, a former freight train rider and television cue card writer who loves bawdy jokes, tall tales and most every flavor of spoken word. Brown feeds his guests, keeps the bar’s wood stove stoked and even finds places to sleep for those unable to get a motel accommodations – the handful of rooms in town are usually booked weeks in advance.
Earlier this year, word began to spread that this might be the last year for the Club Bar poetry night, that Brown might have actually sold the bar. The rumors proved correct. When writers arrived Saturday evening, most quickly spotted the piece of paper taped next to the front door: “To our valued customers, we need to get a zero balance on all tabs right away.”
The new owner, John Clogston, said he’s open to the idea of continuing the tradition next year, but many poets worry that a poetry night without Tony Brown would be as fun as a Labor Day telethon without Jerry Lewis, the Three Stooges without Curley Howard, or coffee without caffeine.
It all started in 1991, on Edgar Allen Poe’s birthday, Latham said. Brown advertised the event and Latham stood in front of a small crowd reading from his favorite author’s works. Latham chose to read one of Poe’s shorter works, “Angel of the Odd,” which turned out to be too long for the crowd. “It was a bomb,” Latham recalled. “No one wanted to hear it.”
Brown then stood up and read Poe’s famous poem “The Raven.” Except Brown read the poem as he thought a raven would have read it: by cawing at the top of his lungs and flapping his arms. After 18 stanzas, that too tested the audience’s patience, Latham said. But each year more local poets showed up. The poetry nights created a happy diversion in the long, dark winter, said Latham, who serves as soundman and emcee.
“It’s easy to say it’s boring here,” he said. “But instead of saying that, we create our own events, we create our own culture.”
In 1999, author, playwright and part-time North Idaho resident Denis Johnson gave a reading in Spokane and challenged the city’s “sissy, academic poets” to show their stuff at the Club Bar poetry night, recalled EWU professor Jonathan Johnson. The Spokane poets subsequently invited their colleagues in Missoula, whom Johnson described as equally sissy and academic and also the type of people who “play tennis with the net down.”
The first time Johnson attended the event, he realized it was no ordinary poetry reading. Unlike other readings, where university poets are a dime a dozen, Johnson said the Club Bar’s event includes a healthy mix of “horse loggers, Vietnam vets, timber cruisers, back-to-the-landers and solar-powered granola crunchers.” One year Denis Johnson gave a reading wearing a turban and an eyepatch. He also happened to be wearing welding gloves and reading from one of his books that was on fire. Jonathan Johnson was inspired.
“So the next year I brought a small starter pistol and had the incredibly embarrassing Montana bar phenomenon happen of having it misfiring during my reading,” he said. “I think it took four or five trigger pulls before it finally shot.”
Other recitations have included chain saws, screamings, animal noises and nudity. “Absolutely anything it takes to win,” Johnson explained during a pre-reading gathering of poetry students shortly before Saturday night’s event. In recent years, there’s been a growing competition between creative writing students from Montana and Washington. Johnson stressed that the Club Bar reading is completely unaffiliated with coursework at EWU, but he said the field trip to Troy was full of possible inspiration.
“It’s important to find some wildness in your life to get some wildness on the page,” he said.
The readings took place under a bare lightbulb on a makeshift stage at the back of the bar. The first poem was punctuated when a large, mustachioed man in a baseball cap stumbled through the back door. He looked up at the poet on stage, smiled and shouted, “Get a job!”
The readings continued for more than three hours and included an abridged version of Brown’s cawing and arm-flapping reading of “The Raven.” Sitting at the old wooden bar a few feet away, some locals listened intently while others kept up their conversations. The din included peculiar pairings, like when a woman stood on stage and announced, “This is a poem about a sad pig,” while someone at the bar told a friend, “I need to find a backhoe with an enclosed cab.”
Occasionally, there was loud commentary from the large man in the baseball cap. His name is Bear Bargo, an out-of-work forester and regular at the Club Bar.
“I gotta couple more belches left. You can make a poem out of that,” Bargo joked in a voice substantially louder than the poetry coming from the amplified speakers. Despite his sarcasm, Bargo said he loves poetry night. “Everybody speaks their mind. That’s what we’re about: Freedom of speech. That’s what it’s all about.”
Nearby, a group of poets from Spokane sat in a booth next to the wood stove trying to obey Tony Brown’s command of composing original verse while in the bar. They sat below a smoked-stained wall holding a mounted six-foot blue marlin and a combined 68 deer and elk antler points.
Up on stage, next to a partially disembodied mannequin, a poet from Missoula read his work: “What you thought was a quarter was really a dime and you don’t have enough to park / a U.S. quarter has 119 groves on the edge / a dime has one less / five nickels weigh more than a hummingbird.”
One poet, a dead ringer for Paul Bunyan, clomped up on stage and shouted, “I got a poem for you!” And then he tore off his flannel shirt. This drew loud applause, as did pretty much anything absurd. The crowd also went wild for a poem read by Missoula poet Dan Brooks. The lengthy piece was delivered from memory and in a style as polished as a standup comic, said Latham, the emcee. If there was a trophy on hand, Brooks would have gone home with it, Latham said.
But Downtown Tony Brown was not about to be upstaged at his own party. He had been hearing whispers all night about this being the last of the poetry nights. Near the end of the readings, the wood stove had heated the bar to the level of a pizza-oven. Brown’s forehead was red and beaded with sweat when he walked up on stage and grabbed the microphone.
“Rumors of the death of poetry night are greatly exaggerated,” he shouted. “This is not going to end!”
The crowd went wild. The Paul Bunyan-poet pumped his fist and shouted to no one in particular, “USA! USA! USA!”