The Mouth and Thistle reading at Satchel's Grill last Saturday night was a bang-up literary event. Satchel's Grill owner, Dominic De Laquil, says that for three years Satchel's has been a cultural gathering place for events like this. An enthusiastic crowd of more than 60 people sat rapt as Boise State's Ruth Salter and Elizabeth Lester-Barnes controlled everyone's attention with a tasty and provocative menu of poetry and creative fiction.
Salter teaches English at the Boise State, and her short narrative poems are chock- full of concrete imagery and symbolism. She appeared to hold the listeners' emotions on a string, one she could pull at will to evoke a sigh, a laugh or stunned silence. Replete with images of coyotes, cattle, ranchers, sagebrush landscape and raptor-filled heavens, Salter's poetry investigates humankind's place in the natural environment on a very personal level and frequently speaks through intimate conversation pieces that involve the audience in her own quest for knowledge.
Paired like a full-bodied wine with the second course, Salter was followed by Elizabeth Lester-Barnes, a second year participant in the Boise State Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. With a lively and engaging style, Lester-Barnes read stylized prose that resembled poetry. Her work also showed workman-like attention to the elements of successful prose: well-defined characters, a very visual setting, believable dialogue, powerful rising action that created an almost palpable tension and an epiphany as smooth as the surface of fine china. Her story was hemmed in by the darker aspects of humanity, but Lester-Barnes sprinkled in hefty amounts of humor, quirky thoughts, and absurd dialogue that fit perfectly with the mood of the piece.
We asked Salter and Lester-Barnes about the influences on their writing. Salter, who owns 16 pets, likes her poetry accessible. She cites Billy Collins and Catherine Wagner as poets she admires, and often writes poetry as a form of therapy, an expression of her compulsive desire to compose. She jokingly called poetry "a weapon" before reading a piece about her husband driving too fast through Yellowstone.
Lester-Barnes delights in the possibilities of imagination that exist in the realm of creative writing. She composes lengthy short stories, young adult literary fiction and also teaches. She relishes anything by short story writer and essayist Barry Lopez, black-mooded humorist Kurt Vonnegut, and nationally acclaimed local author Tony Doerr, whom she especially cites as a strong influence on her work.
The Mouth and Thistle Reading Series is labeled by its organizers as "the only reading series in town that guarantees no question-and-answer sessions." This motto indicates a sense of its informality; as the series that allows writers to merge with their audience in a relaxed and casual off-campus atmosphere.
Founded two years ago by Boise State MFA students Tyler McMahon and Adrian Kien, Mouth and Thistle began as a venue for MFA students and the program's graduates. Kien and McMahon had been involved in other reading series prior to arriving in Boise and understood the value of the spoken word. After success at the Satchel's location, they have expanded participation to include MFA professors, friends and community writers. Readings take place monthly from August through May on either the first or last Saturday at 7 p.m.
McMahon says that students of writing are "subjected to almost constant criticism ... by a tight circle of peers and professors. The readings are nice because they let authors experience a sense of finality to their writing. It's a chance to suspend my critical faculties for an hour, and listen to the writing of my friends and peers purely for the enjoyment--a rare opportunity in academia."
McMahon adds that the readings offer writers the opportunity to receive feedback and criticism from a wider universe that what they get at Boise State--including complete strangers from a more general public. But it also gives fellow students the opportunity for additional exposure to the literary world as well.
Hannah Monahan, a freshman student studying creative writing at Boise State, said that as she listened to the authors, their skill and impact were humbling. Along with the rhythmic nature of the work they presented, Monahan appreciated their ability to control the audience with both prosodic power and humor.
The next Mouth and Thistle event will be on Saturday, Jan. 20, 2007. Featured readers will be poet Erich Schweikher and prose writer Jason Appelman. Call (208) 340-2104 for more details. Satchel's Grill is at 705 Bannock St., Boise. To find out about other events at Satchel's Grill, call (208) 344-3752.