“Getting” poetry: River and Sound Review makes it fun

  • Wed May 28th, 2008 8:00am
  • News

Charles Toxey and Jill Johnson in front of the Kangaroo House

tKangaroo House owners bring another Artsmith project to Orcas Center May 31

Perhaps you remember or have read about families gathering around the wireless in the evening to hear radio shows bringing music, laughter, and literature into peoples’ lives. Members of the home audience could close their eyes, and for a moment it would be as though they were there in the theater. Orcas Islanders will have the opportunity to be part of the live audience when Orcas Center and the local non-profit Artsmith bring “A River and Sound Review” to the Orcas Center on May 31, and later part of the home audience when the performance is made available by podcast.

A cross between the classic radio show “Author’s Playhouse,” and the popular “A Prairie Home Companion,” River and Sound Review is a literary variety show that showcases top writers along with promising new voices in literature. It includes musicians, as well as audience interactive features like “Name that Book,” and the continuing saga of “As the Publishing World Turns.”

Writers to be featured in this Saturday’s show include the poet Marvin Bell, and winners of the Artsmith 2008 literary contest: Derek Mong, Timothy Kelly, and Annie Lighthart. Plus, the Olga Symphony will delight the audience with their eclectic songs and ever-evolving array of instruments, which might include anything from a fiddle to a cello to a sweetly warbling saw.

Once the live performance is recorded, it will be broadcast through today’s modern equivalent of a radio signal: the Internet, where listeners can download the mp3 recordings and listen to the show.

The show’s lively format combines readings, music, humor, and often a game-show style feature such as the Head-to-Head Shakespeare Trivia Challenge. After the show, Jay Bates, creator of the show, will host an audience question and answer with Marvin Bell, to be followed by a reception in the lobby with book-signing, wine, desserts, and coffee.


Jill Johnson and Charles Toxey, owners and innkeepers at Kangaroo House B & B in Eastsound, started ArtSmith in the fall of 2006. ArtSmith’s mission is to support the arts locally and “beyond” through education and the creation of new works.

It has sponsored artist-in-residencies at the Kangaroo House, poetry contest, workshops and literary salons. “With every mix of genre of forms and artistry, the more we’re inspired to do more. We’re driven by the elation of getting our feet wet and having it work.”

“We’ve taken baby steps, and wish we could do more. Everything we do has come from membership funds, and unsolicited donations. Because we’re trying not to define our goals too tightly, but find ways to support artists as they create work – they’re really the ones with the vision.”

“Getting” poetry

Johnson met Bates when they were both students in the Rainier MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. She says, “Most dedicated writers are those who can’t help themselves. I knew from elementary school I wanted to be a writer and realized how difficult it can be to make a living from it. And although I enjoy writing fiction and non-fiction, the last several years I wanted to devote myself to poetry, to give myself time to develop some level of mastery, I need to make a focused attempt to understand and learn it. Plus it’s a wonderful basis for any writing.”

“Poetry has the opportunity in a brief span of space to bring light to some of the most poignant and significant experiences we have as humans in a very meaningful way. It’s a challenge to pack meaning and sensitivity in a very small space – a little puzzle.”

To those who feel uncomfortable with the idea of poetry, who say it’s obscure or intimidating, who don’t “get” poetry, Johnson responds with mild puzzlement. “People don’t say that about songs or movies or about books – and you invest more time in those than in poetry.

“Poetry can be very layered and symbolic; I wish people would take the same approach to it as they do to other art forms – maybe we’re more and more a visual culture, and people think poetry is work, but I wish people would let it wash over them – and that’s ‘getting’ it.”

Marvin Bell

Marvin Bell has long been one of Johnson’s favorite poets “His poetry opened my eyes to how incredibly rich and layered poetry can be.” She cites the Bell poem, “Leaves Green Going to Yellow,” saying “I come back to it the way people come back to favorite songs or movies, and get more out of it every time, depending upon my maturity level. I really admire someone being able to write with so much depth of emotion and honesty of observation that it would endure for two decades.”

Bell’s writing has been called “ambitious without pretension.” He was for many years the Flannery O’Connor Professor of Letters at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and served two terms as the state of Iowa’s first Poet Laureate. He now divides his year between Iowa City, Iowa, and Port Townsend, Washington. The Harvard Review wrote, “Marvin Bell has the largest heart since Walt Whitman.”

Jay Bates

A River and Sound Review is the creation of Puyallup High School Teacher Jay Bates, who was casting about for a way to expose his students to fine literature and the current literary scene while making it fun. His goal, says Johnson, is “to give kids a passion for literature that they’ll have their whole life.” Another major impetus for the show is to help his students use modern technology in performance production, and podcasting a show.

Bates writes fiction and humorous essays. He is a graduate of the Pacific Lutheran University Rainier Writing Workshop Master of Fine Arts program (where he met Jill Johnson) and a Washington native.

Tickets to River and Sound Review are available at www.orcascenter.org or by calling 360-376-2281.