The Holler Poets don't shout, but they sometimes lean into the microphone to be heard over the noise of the bar.
Yes, the bar. Al's Bar, the seedy-chic establishment at Sixth and Limestone in North Lexington, features live music, a great jukebox, possibly the city's shortest beer list and literary enlightenment.
About once a month for the past year, Kentucky writers of poetry and prose — some of whom grew up in hollers — have gathered at the bar to read from their works.
The first event, marking the fifth anniversary of the Iraq war, was called "Poets for Peace." The next, on Wednesday, is "Holler 11: Poets for Peace in the Mountains." In this case, "peace" would mean an end to the blasting that takes off the tops of mountains to get to the coal below.
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Among the authors who will be reading: Silas House, Erik Reece, George Ella Lyon and Jane Gentry Vance.
House said last week that he probably will read from Something's Rising, a soon-to-be-published collection (with co-author Jason Howard) of oral histories from people who are fighting mountaintop-removal mining.
"It's sort of investigative journalism with a lyrical spin, we hope," House said.
Reece will read from "Ode to the Appalachians," an article he wrote for Oxford American magazine. He said he also might discuss last week's New York Times editorial that called on the Obama administration to end mountaintop removal. "I'll talk about how a real window has opened to this kind of stuff," he said.
Reece said he knew about the Holler Poets series at the bar before being asked to participate. "I think it's really exciting, what's going on at Al's Bar," he said. "Eric Sutherland has really revived the oral tradition."
Sutherland, 37, is the creator of the series, which also includes music and an open mike. Tying mountaintop removal to the series is a natural for Sutherland, who grew up in Shelby County with frequent visits to his grandparents' farm there.
He has a natural resources conservation degree from the University of Kentucky, and works at Good Foods Chapter 2, the small café at the Lexington Public Library on Main Street. He's been involved with several environmental groups. He also is the author of incommunicado, a 2007 collection of poems that, he jokes, "has sold 200 copies, at least."
The first "Poets for Peace," on a Sunday night last March, featured Vance, the state's poet laureate, Sutherland and others. "The place was packed. It was just crazy," Sutherland said.
He talked with the bar owners about making readings a regular feature. And thus the Holler Poets Series was born.
The title was something that had been on his mind for years. "I love the imagery of it because it's very Kentucky," Sutherland said. "But when you say holler, people think of vocalization, so it's a perfect word for poetry from Kentucky."
John Lackey of Underground Press agreed to do posters for the events. This week's poster will be a limited edition linoleum block print, with half the proceeds going to the environmental group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.
Getting writers to sign on has been easy, Sutherland said. Ed McClanahan, Gurney Norman, Lyon and Crystal Wilkinson are among those who have taken the stage.
Sutherland said he likes to pair established writers with lesser-knowns. In the case of someone such as Norman, who will become the state's poet laureate next month, he feels as if he's introducing a legend to a new generation. Norman appeared last October with Candace Chaney. He read from Divine Right's Trip, the story of a counterculture stoner that was first published in the margins of The Last Whole Earth Catalog in 1971.
Norman waxed, um, poetic when asked about the series last week.
"These are archetypal events, in the spirit of ancient times when the tribe or clan or family would gather around a fire and listen to the storytellers and chanters and singers who offered some of the effects of the shaman, weaving a tribal story into a narrative in which each individual had a place."
He also described it as "like being at a big family gathering."
Wilkinson said it reminded her of the times she has appeared with a group called the Affrilachian poets. But she admits to being a bit surprised to show up for a poetry reading that started at 8 p.m. and told she wouldn't go on until 10:30 or 11. "It was past my bedtime, but I had a good time," she said.
Most of the poets series events have attracted about 100 people to a bar that holds 125 or so, said Josh Miller, a co-owner of Al's. It attracts "a pretty diverse crowd" that's not much different from those who come for the live music or other entertainment that has included belly dancers and puppet shows.
"One of the reasons we've had success is we kind of captured people's imaginations," Miller said.
The Holler Poets Series is free. Pat Gerhard of Third Street Stuff helps with money for the posters, Sutherland said, but the writers and musicians are unpaid.
"That makes it kind of hard when I ask musicians to come in or I ask a bigger-name writer who is used to getting something," Sutherland said. "But everyone understands it's a grass-roots thing."
He said he might be able to charge a small cover and make money, but that's not what he's after.
"It wouldn't be open anymore," he said. "I want people to come and enjoy it."
There was another edition of Poets for Peace last September, but Sutherland said he might start spacing those out to once a year "because I feel there is some momentum for peace right now, in Washington."
He's hoping that this week's Poets for Peace in the Mountains, which brings together his interest in environmental issues and poetry, will be huge.
"I expect people to be hanging out the doors," he said. "Maybe people will be out on the smoking deck, trying to catch an ear."
The Holler Poets Series posters, by John Lackey, are works of art in themselves. Posters from Holler 2 and 10 are above; see the whole series on LexGo.com. Also, watch video from past Hollers.