In poetry and music, Chris Cook knows how to produce a solid rhythm
Sun., June 12, 2016
It’s a Wednesday night at Neato Burrito, the downtown location of the weekly open mic poetry showcase known as Broken Mic. The place is flirting with its 79-person capacity, and most of the booths are packed with patrons too young to legally order the dollar beers on tap.
Early in the evening, host Devin Devine recites the same introduction she gives to all the poets: “Please welcome, all the way to the mic … Chris Cook.”
There’s wild applause, hoots and hollers.
In his collared shirt and slim spectacles, Cook, 57, is more than a little conspicuous in a room full of high schoolers and tattooed 20-somethings.
He informs the room, “I’m going to need some audience participation on this one,” and he launches into “Hippopotamus Love,” a poem he’s performed many times before.
Cook’s circuitous path to becoming a celebrated Spokane wordsmith would be right at home in one of his own poems, which often make unpredictable detours between points A and B.
Though he was born in Salem, Oregon, Cook considers himself a hometown boy. His family moved to Spokane when he was a teenager, and other than his time attending the New England Conservatory of Music, he’s lived here his entire adult life.
Cook has worn a lot of hats over the years, some more unusual than others. Right now, he’s focused on his poetry, releasing a second published collection of poems titled “Damn Good Cookie” later this month. He also hosts 3-Minute Mic, a monthly poetry open mic at Auntie’s Bookstore. He was once a champion foosball player, a renowned yo-yo trickster and a ventriloquist. His résumé could supply material for multiple articles.
“When I enjoy something, I dig pretty deep with it,” Cook said. “But those are all just weird anecdotes. I’m just happy to be considered a poet, not necessarily dabbling in it until the next thing comes along.”
Cook is also a trumpet player and music instructor at Gonzaga University, and he’s performed with the Spokane Symphony for the last 35 years.
“It was my first job out of school, and I’m still sitting there,” Cook said. “But it’s always changing, it’s always fresh. I’ve gotten to play the blues with Ray Charles. I’ve gotten to play country-western with Johnny Cash, classic rock with the Moody Blues at the Gorge. … If you’re getting tired of it, you’re doing it wrong.”
Cook didn’t start actively writing until about 15 years ago, but he’s never really been without poetry. His grandfather, Don Grant, wrote poetry and was a close friend of William Stafford, a National Book Award winner and former U.S. and Oregon poet laureate.
“He’d take me back to the den and read me his newest poem, or something Stafford had sent him,” Cook said. “And he just came to life. I remember the childish glee in his eyes, so I always thought poetry was pretty transformative.”
After formulating some limericks and rhyming quatrains, Cook first performed at a poetry slam at Mootsy’s in the early 2000s.
“I remember being pretty shaky,” he said, “probably watching the paper flutter more than the words that were on it.”
The poetry scene was a bit spotty then, and Cook says he often found himself at open mic comedy nights for lack of a better venue. He’d later migrate to Broken Mic, which occurred every week at the now-defunct Empyrean Coffee House.
“He basically got dubbed ‘animal poem guy,’ ” said local poet Kurt Olson, who’s still a fixture at Broken Mic.
“He made a name for himself, at first, with these heartwarming, comical pieces,” said Broken Mic founder Mark Anderson. “There were silly pieces about animals falling in love. You’d have two tadpoles, one’s missing its left leg and one’s missing its right. And then Chris comes in and directs them near each other, and now they can finally swim straight.”
When the Empyrean moved locations and eventually shuttered in 2011, Broken Mic migrated to Neato, though Cook didn’t immediately follow. He still remembers walking into the new venue for the first time.
“It was that door,” he said, pointing to the restaurant’s back entrance on a quiet Thursday afternoon. “I remember stopping in the middle of the doorway and looking around and thinking, ‘I might not belong here.’ ”
“He showed up, and I remember thinking, ‘There’s one of my favorite poets from the old days,’” Anderson said. “Since then, he’s evolved a lot as a writer and a poet.”
“Now I grieve if I can’t be here on a Wednesday night,” Cook said.
Anderson, Olson and Cook would later be teammates at the World Poetry Slam nationals in 2013. Cook was also on the 2014 team, and he represented Spokane in the Individual World Poetry Slam that same year.
“It was thrilling,” Cook said. “But the lifelong friendships you make with other poets – that’s what it’s really all about.”
“Damn Good Cookie” (Korrektiv Press, $15), which hits shelves on Saturday, is Cook’s second book of poetry, following 2014’s “The View from the Broken Mic.” It features 42 poems, all of which Cook has performed for audiences. Some of them are relatively new, while others have been in his repertoire for more than a decade.
“I’m pretty proud of this one. It shows a more complete writer,” Cook said. “We’re always learning, but I think I felt a little self-conscious about the limitations of the first one, and that I played it safe with mostly ballad verse.”
A lot of Cook’s poems are defined by their playful rhyme schemes, recalling Shel Silverstein’s more adult-oriented writing and the work of Dr. Seuss, himself the subject of Cook’s signature poem “The Geisel Revisal.” Cook also points to musical satirist Tom Lehrer and the records of British comedy duo Flanders and Swann, whose “Hippopotamus Song” is an obvious inspiration to Cook’s animal poems.
“That’s the kind of poetry we all grew up with, and I think adults still identify with that,” Cook said. “As a musician, I enjoy the challenge of working with meter, with rhyme. I feel like I’m attuned to the rhythm of words.”
But the poems collected in “Damn Good Cookie” often break from the sing-song meter that defined Cook’s previous collection. There are plenty of quatrains and limericks, but the book also contains narrative and free verse. Some of it is humorous; some of it is sobering.
In “911,” which recalls one of Raymond Carver’s dramatic microcosms, a neighbor with dementia escapes his home. “Tortoise Time” is, as Cook describes, “a parable about love and our perception of time.” “Goodnight Fred” is a gentle paean to Mr. Rogers. The semi-autobiographical “Fert” is about a friendship that blossoms between the new kid in school and a girl who is bullied.
Her real name was Debbie Johnson.
She was tall, blonde, looked a little older than the rest of us,
and she had deep, sad eyes.
On the playground, whenever she got too close,
everyone screamed, “Eww, Fert!”
and ran away.
That last poem has stuck with Olson, who describes the poem’s ending as a “stunning moment of humanity.”
“The honesty it takes to reveal that about your own character is what makes art worth it,” he said. “I cried the first time I heard it. I still cry whenever he reads it. … He has this weird courage about his writing.”
“He does take a lot of people by surprise,” Anderson said, “because they’re not used to seeing rhyming poetry that’s so relatable and down to earth.”
But Cook’s primary goal is to be unpredictable with his verse, to mine emotion from unexpected places and to zig when the audience expects him to zag.
“If I sound like a greeting card or if anybody can predict my rhymes, then I’m doing it the wrong way,” Cook said. “I try to keep it fresh and I try to stay one step ahead of the audience.”
“Hippopotamus Love” begins, as many of Cook’s poems do, with two animals meeting in the wild and falling head over hooves for one another. It starts out as a sort of Seussian jape:
“As she rose from the shallows, she glistened with mud / Although chubby, she moved with finesse / When he saw that some algae was caught on her ear / He remarked to himself, ‘Oh God, yes.’”
Midway through the poem, Cook’s verse shifts unexpectedly into more introspective territory: What began as a cute bestiary romance develops into a powerful ode to self love, as the two hippos, initially concerned about their combined body mass, learn to embrace their enormity:
“Hippopotamus love is what shows us the way / It is free of pretensions, you dig? / When it’s open and honest and true to itself / Then you know it’s just got to be big.”
The crowd is silent, save for a few snaps, which indicate affection in the poetry world.
And when Cook asks, “Do you think I could get an ‘amen’?” the audience happily obliges.
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