When the traveling circus rolls into a town, the mystique is such that the hot dogs always taste good and the line in front of the bearded lady’s tent never seems all that long. So, what happens when a group of traveling minstrels—who are in fact some of the country’s as well as the state’s most talented poets—rolls into town in a Green Tortoise biodiesel bus? Well, in Missoula, they roast a pig, host a marathon poetry reading, have some local bands play and let everyone camp out in the forest.
The Wave Books Poetry Bus Tour—alternatingly akin to a Phish concert and a traveling carnival dreamed up by Geoffrey Chaucer—will roll into town Wednesday, Sept. 6. When it arrives, Missoulians will have an opportunity to partake of what’s being touted, by the event’s own press at least, as “the biggest literary event of 2006” and “the most ambitious poetry tour ever attempted.”
Wave Books, a poetry publisher founded in 2005, doesn’t make such claims lightly. The bus tour will eventually travel to 50 cities in 50 days, starting Monday, Sept. 4, and Missoula will be the tour’s third stop. Driven by both ambition and veggie fuel, the tour is meant to promote poetry in general and, more specifically, prove that poetry is a viable art form with a large audience across the nation.
“One of our goals with this tour has been to get poetry out there to the different communities,” explains Monica Fambrough, director of marketing for Wave Books. “Poetry has a larger audience than most people realize, and the support for this event has been amazing in all of the communities we’ve approached.”
Unlike most publishers, Wave Books founder Charlie Wright believes poetry can, in fact, be a paying venture for artists. To that end he’s established Wave Books as a for-profit publisher, making it stand virtually alone in a sea of small nonprofit poetry presses. It’s a step that may well be in line with what readers are willing to purchase at their local bookstores.
According to Missoula bookseller Garth Whitson, owner of Shakespeare & Co., “poetry is one of the biggest sellers in my store. I know the stereotype is that poetry doesn’t sell, but I’ve never found that to be the case here.” He goes on to say that, surprisingly, it’s not just the classics that are popular: “New authors sell especially well, and I’ve recently expanded my poetry section by 50 percent to include more new authors.”
Barbara Theroux, owner of the bookstore Fact & Fiction, sees more Missoula-specific poetry sales: “[Poetry] sells well, but it sells selectively. For instance, local poets sell especially well. Every year, when a new crop of students comes into town, I see the sale of local poets rise substantially.”
Theroux adds that the popularity of poetry can also be difficult to gauge solely on the number of books being sold: “It’s such a difficult thing to get a handle on because there’s a whole community of poets who make their own chapbooks that they just carry around and either sell or give away.”
Whether poetry becomes a profitable venture for Wave Books remains to be seen, but their bus tour will, in effect, give local communities the chance to throw their own festivals to promote the form. In Missoula, the Wave Books event will be hosted at Butler Creek Ranch, where local organizers Eric Abbott and Brandon Shimoda plan to build a small stage and roast a pig. The Missoula stop will feature more than 20 poets and musicians, including local writers Michael Earl Craig, Joanna Klink and M.L. Smoker, and bands The JillBillies and Thurniture.
“We’re hoping people bring sleeping bags and tents and camp out for the evening,” says Abbott, who currently lives at the ranch with three other writers and a musician. “The event will last well into midnight, so bring something warm, too.”
“Missoula was always going to be a stop on our tour,” says Fambrough. “It has such a wonderful poetry community and when Eric [Abbott] told us about the ranch and its surrounding forest, we knew it would be the perfect place for our stop.”
In addition to the attraction of Butler Creek Ranch, Shimoda, a graduate of UM’s M.F.A. program and founder of the local New Lakes Reading and Performance series, hopes the event will attract lovers of poetry, music and the arts in general.
“All the poets involved in this event are doing some of the most exciting, innovative work out there, and this event will be a place to hear all those great voices,” Shimoda says.
He also maintains that the event, by sheer numbers alone, will be a first for Missoula: “Let’s say you have two local renowned poets, like Joanna Klink and M.L. Smoker, reading together—that’s a pretty big deal,” Shimoda says. “But this event will have both those poets as well as 18 other artists of acclaim, both locally and nationally…It’ll be one of the biggest poetry events Missoula has seen and will showcase Missoula as a place to attract world-class poets.”
And while on the bus, organizers hope to see poetry generated among the traveling writers.
“This is really about fun,” says Fambrough. “There are so many people who know poetry differently, but for us it’s about getting lots of people involved and showing poetry as well as a poetry reading as a vibrant art form.”
The Wave Books Poetry Bus Tour will stop in Missoula on Wednesday, Sept. 6, from 3:30 PM until midnight at Butler Creek Ranch (10900 Butler Creek Road). The event is free and open to the public. Visitors are welcome to camp for the night.