Wandering Brews

Joshua Beckman Hopes a Tractor Poetry Reading is better attended than Rosh Hashanah services

"I think there's some stigma to poetry readings, that they're insanely uptight and incredibly boring," says Joshua Beckman. He should know, since he writes, performs, and publishes the stuff. (He's an editor at two-year-old Wave Books, owned by local arts benefactor Charlie Wright.) Serve booze, on the other hand, and a reading becomes more like a regular night out. Poetry is a tough sell, as Beckman and I discussed over drinks recently. It's hard enough to gather poetry enthusiasts in Seattle, as they're probably a smaller minority than the city's Jews. But then to combine the two? How marginal is that? But that's exactly the plan from Nextbook, the program of Jewish literary events, which, building on the success of past author appearances at over-21 venues, is bringing Beckman to the Tractor. The hope is to avoid the dull, "do I hafta go?" desperation of your typical bookstore reading, with its empty rows of chairs, unused Sharpies lined up for signing, and a publicist counting the minutes until she ferries the author back to Sea-Tac, never to return. "Giving this reading is gonna be fascinating to me," says Beckman of the April 12 event, when he'll share the bill with San Diego poet (and attorney) Ilya Kaminsky, a Russian Jewish immigrant who's previously read in Seattle. "There are people who are interested in what it is to be Jewish in this city. I don't feel at all like I have the answers." During his very first week here, he recalls, in this very bar (Charlie's on Broadway), a woman walked up to pointedly ask, "Are you Jewish?" So was she, Beckman laughs, but that wasn't the kind of conversational opener you typically encounter back in the Tri-State area where Beck is from (unless you're being approached on the street by a bunch of Chabadniks looking to woo you into their tefillin truck). After settling onto Cap Hill, Beckman recalls, he decided to invite a few new friends over for a Passover seder—just a small gathering in his apartment. Then, the private evening kept growing as they asked, "Can I invite these other people? Because they would like to come." It was an eye-opener into both latent demand and what might be called congregation patterns. As with a lot of newcomers to the area, lacking roots in the local Jewish community, he generally flies back home (Connecticut) for the high holidays. Here, Beckman adds, "Most of the Jewish people I see in bars. I go to bars more often than I do a synagogue. Which brings us back to the Tractor. Beckman has read before at Barça and other booze joints, and he sees the Nextbook event as being somewhat analogous to Wave Books' extrapublishing endeavors. In other words, poetry, like religion, is not just a private experience to be locked up at home. As Wave prepares to publish its second list of a half-dozen titles this year, Beckman explains, "We do quite a lot of stuff beyond that." The best example was its successful Poetry Bus project, which began at Bumbershoot last fall and traveled 1,500 miles in 50 days for 50 reading events in different cities. All of it was podcast, of course, for the benefit of over 100,000 site visitors. "We've had more people go to our Poetry Bus Web site than we've had buy our books." Wave is a for-profit publishing enterprise, of course, but like Nextbook it has to embrace the MP3 culture we're living in. Though trained as a fine-arts bookmaker, one who's also tilled the soil as an organic farmer while writing and traveling his way around the globe, Beckman recognizes how poetry has to change to suit the times. "My iPod has, like, Walt Whitman on it. That's ridiculous!" He tells me how old reel-to-reel tapes of vintage performances by Allen Ginsberg and company are steadily being converted to digital. And he likes the idea of eventually incorporating such elements into traditional publishing—as when a deluxe Criterion Collection DVD includes a book along with the movie. Anything to shake up the staid old poetry scene—booze and verse, Jews in bars, downloads mixed with hardcovers. For our literary culture, says Beckman, "it creates torque." bmiller@seattleweekly.com

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