Possibly the Rocky Mountain Poetry Festival started unofficially in 1982 with a poetry reading staged at the Stanrod House, an impressively elegant "pioneer" mansion once used by the community for public events. With its wide wooden floor, ornate rooms and stairway, one could feel the ghosts from time past.
Bill Studebaker was the featured poet but a number of writers and spectators crowded the spacious front room to hear new poems from a variety of writers: Gino Sky, Gerald Grimmett, Steve Puglisi, Bruce Embree, Harald Wyndham, Kim Stafford and others. There was a feeling of community and camaraderie in the room that night, without any professional rivalry that can mar public readings. Bill Studebaker recalls a rapport with the audience, that the entire evening "had a sensitivity to it that has become a model for other events in Pocatello."
One writer who made a vivid impression was the blue collar poet, Bruce Embree. Wearing jeans and a cowboy hat, he sat with his profile to the audience and read from a soiled yellow notebook. His poems described work on the railroad, financial ruin, asylums, nights of drinking, suicidal despair and stolen moments with "bar hogs." The poems employed profanity for a shocking but comic effect. Embree finished with a poem called "Your Fate," describing a "twisted shore" where the only currency is oral sex. Harald Wyndham delighted the audience with a humorous poem about Walt Whitman's brain. Today, among surviving writers who attended that first reading, the Stanrod House reading has assumed mythical status.
Other public literary presentations at various locations continued. Rick and Rosemary Ardinger of Limberlost Press participated in "guerilla" readings at the Bistro Bar (which later became the Dead Horse Saloon). "Those readings in the bar really ignited something," says Rick Ardinger. Along with music and shuffle board, "the original Bistro and Dead Horse were just great for poetry." Bert and Sharon Flume hosted local writers at their restaurant. From time to time, Leslie Leek and Margaret Aho also helped organize readings. English professor and poet Ford Swetnam read from his last major collection at the First National Bar. Despite these venues, however, Pocatello writers considered themselves literary "boat people."
In 1990, Will Peterson, owner of the Walrus and Carpenter Bookstore in Pocatello, started the annual Rocky Mountain Poetry Festival. The old bookstore was across the street from the historic Whitman Hotel. Recently in his new store, a classical guitar nearby, Peterson discussed details about the beginning of the festival. For him, 1990 was the "golden age" of Idaho writing.
"Ford Swetnam and Bruce Embree were alive; we had more good writers in Pocatello than could read in one night so we decided to have a two-night reading in January and invite people like Rick Ardinger, Gino Sky and Bill Studebaker from the west side of the state, as well as writers from Utah. It was held in the upstairs mezzanine of the old Walrus and Carpenter Books and listeners would spill down the stairs and into the bookstore proper and out the front door."
Harald Wyndham, who founded the Blue Scarab Press, agrees, remembering those nights "with readings upstairs in that small loft full of movie seats, crowded to the gills with folks huddled all up the stairwell. Those were great events and some of the really powerful poems were introduced--Ford's '301' and Bruce Embree's 'All Mine,' for example." "All Mine" is ironically a long rant about what the poet doesn't have or need. It begins:
"This madhouse is all mine/
Beercans, dirty dishes and all/
Embree's poem ends with a mock prayer to God asking the Almighty to deliver help or perform an impossible sex act on Himself.
The original Walrus and Carpenter Bookstore had an intimate feeling; the performer felt "onstage," reading until Will's ghostly voice from below announced the next writer. Audiences supported this tight community of writers and their reactions often indicated the work's merit.
"The Rocky Mountain Festival feels like an organism to me," notes Bill Studebaker. "There is a vital life force that permeates participants, writers and listeners alike. It's primitive, that way. Then there is the sophistication engendered by substantive minds like Will Peterson, Ray Obermayr, Rick Ardinger, and once upon a time, Ford Swetnam. All this is underscored by a friendship among many of the writers and folks who come by to talk and listen."
Though Ford Swetnam and Bruce Embree are now gone--Ford of prostate cancer and Embree a tragic suicide in 1996--the Rocky Mountain Festival continues over six nights at different locations to accommodate writers from separate groups: Fort Hall Shoshone poets, student writers from the ISU magazine, Black Rock and Sage, high school poets and the Caldera Writers, who celebrate the late Dana Meyers. There is the Ford Swetnam prize awarded to a new promising poet. Friday features select writers at the Main Street Coffeehouse and the festival ends on Saturday with out-of-town authors performing at the Westside Player's Warehouse.
"The bookfair is also at this venue," Peterson says. Here, publishers can hawk their new books on the final night.
The list of artists over the years is impressive. Will Peterson has occasionally read with collaborators, including Doug Airmet. The poetry festival includes prose writers. Ford's widow, Susan Swetnam, often reads from her essays along with Leslie Leek, another prominent short story writer. Other women writers have included Janne Goldbeck, Jackie Johnson Maughan, Ann Mullin, Penelope Reedy, Florence Blanchard, Kirsten Fletcher, Mary Alice Boulter (also an accomplished actress) and Carlyn Donovan. There have been guests like Ken Brewer, Utah poet laureate Michael Sowder and Charlie Potts, traveling a considerable distance to attend the event.
Studebaker described the festival as "diverse, and that is an essential part of its life."
Using this talent, Harald Wyndham began publishing chapbooks called the Pocatello Blend Series: two writers, five pages each and a coffee title. In years to come, these chapbooks may provide a capsule history of Pocatello writers. To date, there have been 20 chapbooks featuring 40 poets.
Will the festival ever produce a nationally renowned poet or start a movement like Allen Ginsberg's first reading of "Howl" in 1955? A few writers have built a local reputation, like Marty Vest. Margaret Aho recently published in a national magazine and recites rather than reads her work, often to a stunning effect. Bruce Embree has a "poetry rock" along the greenway that contains some of his more delicate lines. Future scholars may analyze Ford Swetnam's Ghost Holders Know which contains "301," a complex poem about a dart game. Perhaps it's only the work that counts and, as T. S. Eliot says, "The rest is not our business." If it's any indication, a director of the Log Cabin Literary Center recently attended a reading of new chapbook poets and appreciated the warm reception they enjoyed from a crowd at capacity.
"The upcoming festival will run from March 27 to April 1 or April Fool's Day--perfect for writers and poets," Peterson adds. He is also stepping down as the organizer of the festival. "It's time for some new blood. I made some mistakes in the past. I didn't like the idea of getting art funding that treats writers differently, but now I wonder if that was an old fashioned idea." Rick Ardinger insists, however, that "Will deserves an award for all he's done over the years."
Funding may not be necessary, since the annual event demonstrates a community labor of love. Bill Studebaker may have summed it up best when he said, "The festival feels right from dinner to reading to post function."
For more information on the Rocky Mountain Poetry Festival, call Will Peterson at the Walrus and the Carpenter at (208) 233 0821.
Blue Scarab Press, edited by Harald Wyndham, published All Mine by Bruce Embree and Ghost Holders Know by Ford Swetnam. Rick Ardinger's Limberlost Press has published many regional writers, including Greg Keeler, Bruce Embree and Gerald Grimmett as well iconic writers like Bill Studebaker, Ken Brewer, Margaret Aho and Allen Ginsberg.