A “Rebirth of Wonder” at the Colorado Poetry Rodeo

Poets SETH (left), Roseanna Frechette (center) and Woody Hildebrant (right), circa 1992.
Poets SETH (left), Roseanna Frechette (center) and Woody Hildebrant (right), circa 1992. Roseanna Frechette

Roseanna Frechette recalls her friend, late Denver poet Woody Hildebrant, saying often, "Poetry has an aim: absolute human liberation." “He was quoting Malcolm de Chazal of the surrealist movement,” Frechette notes, adding that they're “words that held true then and hold true today. I quite agree with [fellow poet] SETH when he says, 'The Poetry Rodeo perfectly exemplifies that continuous quest.’”

That quest continues for a 32nd year this Sunday, June 20, when the beloved “Podeo" goes down from 1 to 11 p.m. at the Mercury Cafe. More information on the free, all-ages event can be found at the Podeo website.

“For many of us, poetry becomes an inspirational tool for survival in what has always been a mad, mad world,” Frechette says. “But it’s also a beautiful world in a big way. Poetry lets us experience both. In poetic sharing, such as we'll have this Sunday, a great sense of creative relief can be found.”

We had a conversation over email with Frechette about the event, its history, and the creative relief and “rebirth of wonder” that most everyone can use these days.
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Jimi Bernath

Westword: So tell us the story of the Poetry Rodeo. It was a pretty organic thing, yeah?

Roseanna Frechette: "Organic" is a great word for this longstanding community event. It began in 1989 with Don Morreale of KUVO radio putting out a call for submissions, backed by that station's plan to air a range of selected Colorado poets from mid-April to mid-May. I was a budding young poet who will always remember submitting my prose poem on audiocassette, and [being] selected to record at KUVO's studio and aired in a daily rotation that included 42 Colorado poets. Don felt bad not to include more poets, and thus came the idea for a marathon reading at Muddy's Java Cafe.

Hildebrant, a founding member of Poets of the Open Range and an open-mic series at Muddy's, was involved, as were many of us who participate to this day. It made sense to fill Muddy's with an event of epic proportions. Seventy-plus poets, ten-minute spots for all. Noon to midnight and flowing into the next day.

So Woody and company just kept it rolling from there?

After that first year, Woody kept an annual event going around May 1. I recently dug up more early-year posters calling it “Poedeo” and saying things like: “A-muse yourself, hear rhymesters share their lyrical labors, exercise your first amendment rights (while they last)...” and declaring, “Poetry must be made by all.”

KUVO's Don Morreale was there the first year. Muddy's Java Cafe is long gone. Our beloved poet Woody Hildebrant has passed away. And still we gather once a year to celebrate poetry and spoken word until the proverbial cows come home, thanks to various organizing poets and Mercury Cafe.

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Original Poetry Rodeo flyer, 1989
Paul Briggs
KUVO has long had an influence on the Denver Arts scene.

Like so many of us, I've been listening to KUVO for decades. I appreciate commercial-free radio that's clearly there for the listener, the public, the people, and the artists that make the music we most want to hear.

Andy O' is my favorite. He's got a way of paying tribute to the musical artists while sharing stories about playlist choices, stories that include his experiences from growing up in Denver. Also a poet, he hosts one of the very few poetry and jazz shows on American radio, The Nightside With Andy O’, Sundays 8 p.m. to midnight. It seems to me KUVO has an eye, as well as an ear, for community.

Speaking of community, Muddy's is one of those Denver places that's still much missed.

When Muddy's left the 15th Street location with its Left Bank Books, we found new chances to gather, create and collaborate via Paris on the Platte and Muddy's Java Cafe at 22nd and Champa. My greatest memories of Muddy's Java Cafe are of wonder. What a world of welcoming space with so much great food, an espresso bar, books galore, and not one, but two stages — one up, one down. It was there I first learned the power of a black-box theater and began understanding poetry at different levels and depths, ranging from coffee-table conversation to highly staged performance. My fave, fave memory is the open-mic series in that basement theater, where I could truly listen, undistracted, to one after another of our community's super talented writers, to learn what makes great poetry great. And where I gained, in friendly community, the courage it takes to not only write poems, but to share them.

What happened to the event last year? Was it online only, like most events?

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Jimi Bernath
A live Poetry Rodeo did take place last year — with a smaller turnout, for obvious reasons, but we pulled it off. It was the first time we gave it a phrased theme, which came naturally, because we knew we were doing this “for the love.” That flier art as well as this year's came from fellow poet Jimi Bernath. How fitting it was to gather just as the Merc was reopening after stay-in. Colorado Poetry Rodeo is live art. Many of us find that to be the beauty of it. Tangible. Multi-dimensional. Have-to-be-there-to-experience-it. Art. So even though we knew it would be challenging, and only two weeks beforehand, we began organizing a live Pandemic Podeo. We kept it simple. Five to tel p.m. Social distanced tables. Masks in place. Sanitizing the mic between poets. It had a reasonable turnout that felt truly hopeful, and good for our health. Now, one year later, we're still getting through the pandemic, but some things have thankfully changed so we can go ten hours, filled with enthusiastic poets. A reunion, for sure. And a celebration!

Favorite memories of past Podeos?

Being on air [with KUVO] as one of 42 poets is an excellent memory in itself, but being at Muddy's for that first marathon reading was fantastic, surreal, wonderful! The first time Podeo was held at the Mercury Cafe is another outstanding memory, because we now had a space that felt grounding and contained while also ethereal and open. A Jungle Room thrillingly filled to the brim with poets, overflowing with poetry!

When did the event move from Muddy's to the Mercury Cafe? The Merc is often talked about as one of the last great Beat-inspired institutions in Denver, along with the aforementioned Muddy's and Paris on the Platte. It has such a history, and it's pulling such divine weight in Denver still to this day.

[The California Street location] opened in 1990, and Poetry Rodeo migrated to the Jungle Room by ’94. The Mercury's owner/chef, Marilyn Megenity, is a poet herself, definitely on board with celebrating bards and spring as well as workers of the world.

I often refer to the Mercury as the bohemian center of the universe. And it's right here in Denver, where there exists a thriving bohemian underground; the two go together. Denver has had many great gathering places, with more than the Merc having survived through the years. But there's no place quite like the Mercury Cafe.

When I founded Denver Artists for Rent Control in 2016, I was driven by the idea that there is much to save from the wrecking ball along with knowing that humans need places to not only live and work, but to create, express and gather. This truth is evident when witnessing a public mission to keep the Mercury Cafe alive. It's no small feat that our community raised over $100,000 in a crowdfunding campaign this past year to keep the Merc's doors open so we can continue to gather inside those doors! That says so much. Denver needs the Mercury Cafe. It's where countless many of us have discovered and nourished the artists we are. And shared our art with others. While enjoying organic, locally sourced food and libations. In a place that radiates bold creativity.

So what's the schedule for this year's event?

This year's Podeo opens with a Tribute to Poets Past from 1 to 3, which I will host and be joined in by ten comrades reading works of several poets we've loved and lost. From 3 to 5 we'll hear from individual poets, hosted by Ted Vaca and Valerie Szarek. From 5 to 6:30 is Storytelling, hosted by Fbomb curator Nick Morris. From 6:30 to 8:30, hosts Eli Whittington and Philip Tran welcome more individual poets to the mic. At 8:30, Elijah Lynch hosts an hour-long slam. And the event closes out with SETH and Art Compost providing improv jam, where folks can take the mic spontaneously to share words. It's an all-ages event, and all are welcome to flow freely through.

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Roseanna Frechette
Kit Hedman
How woven is poetry into the fabric of Denver, do you think? The Poetry Rodeo is only one aspect of a pretty rich history. What is it about this city that fosters such a thing?

When I moved here in the ’70s, I was inspired by Denver's quaint character and natural beauty from the start. It was easy to feel a creative current. Being a writer, and fan of small press, it wasn't long before I connected with other writers and the river of independent publishing which exists here. Individualistic, free-thinking, spirited people seem to abound in Denver. It's always been here.

Poetry Rodeo hasn't missed a year since ’89. The Erotic Poetry Festival takes place every New Year's Eve at the Mercury Cafe. Open mics abound. Our slam teams are among the best in the nation. Small press thrives. We've got art galleries, coffeehouses, indie-rock venues, street festivals and so much similar space for the like-minded poets to gather. Some of these places have been lost over time, with some recently losing ground. But there are still quite a few and will be more. It's a city that poets want to be in. And by choosing to be here, we help to keep our poetic legacy alive.

The 33rd Annual Podeo will take place at the Mercury Cafe from 1 to 11 p.m. on Sunday, June 20. For more information, check the event website.
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen