As the fifth anniversary of the Iraq War approached in March 2008, Eric Scott Sutherland was frustrated and angry. So he fought back the best way he knew how: with poetry.
The writer organized Poets for Peace, a protest reading in the newly reopened Al's Bar at the corner of North Limestone and East Sixth Street. The event featured an all-star lineup of local literary talent, including Jane Gentry Vance, who was then serving as Kentucky's poet laureate. Nearly 100 listeners packed the house.
"It was just electric," Sutherland recalled. "You could sense it."
Sutherland had tapped into more than public outrage over a tragic, costly and unnecessary war. People seemed hungry for poetry and a venue for self-expression.
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"There was pent-up demand for what this guy was doing," said Josh Miller, one of the bar's owners. So Miller's brother, Lester, asked Sutherland if he would organize an event like that at their bar every month.
The Holler Poets Series was born.
The series celebrates its five-year anniversary, and 60th session, on Wednesday. The free event will begin, as always, with an open microphone for any writer wanting to share his or her work.
Then there will be the featured writers. This month's are Frank X Walker, Kentucky's current poet laureate, and his fellow Affrilachian poet, Mitchell Douglas. The evening concludes with a musical act. This month's is Christian hip hop artist Justin Long, who performs under the name JustMe.
Holler's format has changed little since the series began in 2008 with the award-winning poet Maurice Manning, who now teaches at Transylvania University. Since the beginning, events have been promoted with unique posters created by artist John Lackey, whose Homegrown Press Studio is a couple of doors down from the bar.
About 80 writers have been featured at Holler, including other well-known Kentucky names such as Nikky Finney, Silas House, Richard Taylor, Erik Reece, Ed McClanahan, Gurney Norman, Crystal Wilkinson, George Ella Lyon, Rebecca Gayle Howell, Bianca Spriggs and Leatha Kendrick.
Lexington's poetry scene has flourished in recent years. Holler Poets — some of whom were born in mountain "hollers" or like to speak loudly — is a big reason why.
Since the beginning, Holler's goal has been to both raise the profile of experienced poets and encourage the development of new ones. "The open mic has inspired a lot of people to develop their craft, given them something to work toward every month," Sutherland said.
"Holler Poets has been extremely important in encouraging new voices to emerge, to go from writing for themselves to writing for an audience," said Katerina Stoykova-Klemer, a Bulgarian-born poet, WRFL radio host, and owner of the Lexington poetry book press Accents Publishing.
"I thought I would go and mingle with like-minded people," said Tina Andry, who had written poetry all her life but mostly kept it to herself. "Everyone was so welcoming, and the next thing I knew I was publishing a book."
The Poets for Peace event on March 30, 2008 was followed a year later by Peace in the Mountains, where writers decried what environmentally destructive methods of surface mining for coal is doing to Kentucky's land, water and air. Holler readers frequently critique an American society that values money more than people. Several of the events have been fundraisers for peace and environmental groups.
"For me, everything is political," said Sutherland, 41, a Shelbyville native who studied natural resource conservation at the University of Kentucky and has earned his living as a baker and arborist. "It has been rewarding to use art as a way to inform people about what's going on."
Sutherland has been surprised by Holler's popularity. He can't remember an event where Al's Bar wasn't filled with people.
"I knew that our literary heritage would support it and that it was needed," he said. "But I didn't know it would catch on. I think the time was just right."
Sutherland knew he had arrived when, at Holler's three-year anniversary, Lester Miller surprised him on stage with a fancy certificate proclaiming him as the poet laureate of Al's Bar.
Accents Publishing will soon publish Sutherland's fourth poetry collection, Pendulum, inspired by his experiences working at the lobby café of Lexington's downtown Central Library. Books are important, but Sutherland thinks Holler shows that performance can make poetry a more powerful artistic medium.
"When you hear people up on stage baring their soul, which takes a lot of courage, it ignites something in the listener," he said. "I think people yearn to feel connected to other people. Poetry is really the last vestige of a direct expression of humanity."
If you go
Holler Poets 60 : Five-year anniversary
When: 8 p.m., May 29
Where: Al's Bar, 601 N. Limestone
Who: Affrilachian poets Frank X Walker and Mitchell Douglas, hip hop performer JustMe. Open microphone for other poets, with sign-up beginning at 7 p.m.
More information: EricScottSutherland.com