by Laurie James
In the early fall of 2000, driving back from a Talking Gourds poetry gathering at Windy Point on the Uncompahgre Plateau, poet Jude Janett proposed that she and I start a poetry festival in Salida. She led a writing circle I had been in for a couple of years and had gotten back to writing poetry after a long hiatus. I had no idea what she was proposing, as I had only participated in a couple of poetry open mikes.
“Sure, why not? Could be fun,” I replied.
As the fall rolled along, we started planning. She made contact with local poets and those from around the state, and the event fell together in virtually no time at all.
Janett had wanted to name the festival the ”Central Colorado Performance Poetry Festival,” but I insisted that was not poetic and we needed a more creative name. One morning as I was leaving for work, I noticed all these little sparrows carrying on loudly on a big vine on my fence. I told Jude we had to name it “Sparrows” (Stories, Poems and Relations Raise Our Winter Spirits), and so it was.
Our first Sparrows was held in the St. Joseph’s school gym, and we used the classrooms for a couple of workshops and video viewing. We decorated a little, set up chairs and hoped for at least a small crowd to cover expenses. We barely broke even, but what a wonderful couple of evenings we had, full of words and camaraderie.
Every year after, it continued to grow. We added Thursdays into the schedule, with wandering poets going from restaurant to restaurant as performing troubadours, and ended each evening with a Poet’s Party at Bongo Billy’s Cafe, a party that became the ultimate open mike. Later we added daytime open mikes at the former Dakota’s Bistro. Our late-night open mikes at the Victoria Tavern are historic in the minds of many poets around the state. Every year, more and more poets contacted us, begging to perform and teach. The organization of the event, a five-month ordeal, became much more complicated, but many local and out-of-area people pitched in and helped with many different aspects of it. In 2005, Janett left the state to attend school and the entire event landed in my lap. I kept at it, and with a lot of help we pulled off three more years of putting poetry front and center during the winter season in Salida.
A move to the SteamPlant Theater in 2004 changed everything and provided the event a more worthy venue. Workshops were held throughout town at different locations: in churches, back rooms and basements, and at the local library. We put together at least fifteen invaluable workshops each year. We begged for lodging for poets, space to hold open mikes, and restaurants to do readings. Our performance nights became more creative and included drummers and dancers, musicians and poets from all over Colorado and New Mexico and even further. Some of it was outlandish, and a few attendees were shocked by the words and ideas shared. It was a “happening” because we never censored anyone who took the stage. Anything could happen, and it did.
After 2007, things fell apart. Differences of opinions and burnout were rampant. It never came together again. But we set the standard for a successful, exciting and valuable event format. Today, because of all the connections made at the seven-year-long Sparrows festival, we have an incredibly strong poetry community across the region that has grown steadily. Sparrows poets, who now all know each other, get together often and have thus inspired other poetry events that keep us all strongly connected. To this day, poets still beg me to do it again, and I wish someone else would. It was the best of the best and we had way too much fun. I still believe poetic words are powerful and can move the world in ways that are for the good. Sparrows moved the world a little, and I doubt that many attendees or participants would argue with that. As we said the last year of Sparrows, “Wage Poetry.” And we still are.