On the second Thursday of every month, the lively spirits of dozens of poets haunt downtown Vancouver. Since its start in 2004, the Ghost Town Poetry open mic series has never missed a month — not even that time when readers arrived to find the building next to theirs up in flames, and they hiked up the road to read in a friendly gallery.
Christopher Luna started the series after moving to Southwest Washington in 2003 and finding a lack of poetry events. “I’m a New Yorker, and it really freaked me out that you could walk down the street in the middle of the day and not see any people,” he said. “So it started out as kind of a sarcastic nickname, and I found out pretty quickly that there was a need that was being filled by this, because on the first night I did it in 2004, we filled the place.”
Luna now co-hosts the series with his wife, Toni Partingon (whom he met at another poetry event), at Angst Gallery —a small, de facto art center, with exhibitions, an art supply store, an adjoining wine bar, and live events of all sorts.
“We’ve been in an ice cream store, we’ve been in a bookstore, and now we’re in an art gallery,” said Partingto. “We’re bringing in somewhere between 35 and 50 people month, which is pretty huge for a regular poetry reading. But I think that when you think of about 60 percent of that amount being regulars, that there’s something both in what happens at the open mic, as well as the relationships that have formed over time between poets that keep them coming back.”
Over the years, the series has attracted poets of all ages, stages, and styles, and Luna runs it with an anarchist ethos: you can read whatever you want for as long as you want. With more than 20 readers a night plus monthly featured poets, the open mic often stretches over three hours, but rarely does Luna have to talk with readers about hogging the mic.
“Before I had the name Ghost Town,” Luna said, “I just had the slogan ‘all ages and uncensored,’ and that was really important to me. I wanted there to be diversity in age, and I wanted people to be free to say what they were going to say. I'm super proud that in our community most the people will stick around no matter how late we go.”
April Bullard, a Ghost Town regular, discovered that even though her rhyming, story book–tinged style differs from the free verse, personal style of many of the other poets, “it was a free and open space, an accepting space, where I could try out my kind of poetry.” She said the feedback and support she’s received has helped her to get multiple books of poetry and stories published.
Bullard’s sentiments are echoed by other series regulars.
“I think we really take our poetry seriously — I’m not so sure we take ourselves as poets all that seriously,” said Eileen Elliot, who has been reading at Ghost Town since its start and has also published several books with the community’s support.
“You can infer what you want to from there about ego or lack thereof, or any of that sort of thing, but I just have a heck of a good time here.”
Vancouver native Erin Iwata found the series from a Google search during a difficult time in her life. “I think I cried through most of the other people’s readings and then stood up and felt very terrified but also very welcomed,” she said.
She returned regularly and had a poem published as part of the Poetry Moves competition that Luna started to get poetry in the C-Tran public busses. Then at the June open mic, she informed the community it would be her last before relocating to Amsterdam, before launching into a tribute poem entitled "Ghost Town":
“Right there in front of you I exploded. Right in front of these doors, I released all of me, expecting not to rise, but I did. And you said, ‘There. There’s your voice. Sing it poet.’ And I want to say, ‘thank you, Ghost Town.’”
To recognize Luna’s contributions to the area’s literary community, Clark County created a poet laureate position and appointed and then re-appointed Luna. He then leveraged the position to do more, such as starting a poetry-in-the-schools program and partnering with C-Tran on Poetry Moves, which rotates every six months between posting poems by adults and students. He also teaches writing classes, including a monthly workshop called The Work at Angst Gallery on the second Saturday of every month.
Luna notes that the boring Vancouver he arrived to in 2003 has transformed into a thriving arts community. “There’s an undeniable energy that’s been created by the artists and musicians and writers who’re down here,” he said.
The next Ghost Town Poetry Open Mic, featuring Oakland Poets Tong Eisen-Martin and Derek Fenner, is July 13 at Angst Gallery.