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Bravery! Risk! All in the name of poetry

The Duluth News Tribune took this photo before the very first St. David’s Day poetry reading back in 1996. Featured poets from that year include (from left to right) Louis Jenkins, Connie Wanek, Nancy Fitzgerald, Ann Klefstad, Kate Basham, Patrick McKinnon, Liz Minette, and Todd White.1 / 2
Paul Lundgren had the honor of keeping the Spirit Lake Poetry Series’ “poetry chair” in 2002.2 / 2

Once a year a group of kindred spirits gather to say goodbye to winter and share their favorite poems. This year marks the 18th annual St. David’s Day Open Reading. It will be held at 7:30 p.m. on March 1, at the Underground in the Depot at 406 W. Michigan St.

The event will include brief readings by noted local poets. But anyone, published or not, is welcome to participate. Jazz ukulele player Hanna Cesario will perform before the reading and during intermission.

“Historically, St. David’s day would be celebrated with choral music and consumption of leek soup. We’re doing a similar thing, but with jazz music and beer,” said Paul Lundgren a member of the Spirit Lake Poetry Series board, which is responsible for the reading.

The poetry activity is a yearly series of readings by local and other poets.

Why celebrate St. David?

“St. David is the patron saint of Wales as well as poetry,” said Louis Jenkins.

The reading is Jenkins’ brainchild. He organized the first reading back in 1996.

The first half of the reading is dedicated to those who wish to read their original work. The second half to favorite poems by other authors. Readers must limit themselves to three minutes in order to give equal time to everyone.

Readers are urged to sign up at the start of the event.

Those who read their own original work will be judged by three random audience members and could be selected as the best reader. It’s traditional that the best reader will receive the “Poetry Chair,” a wooden chair with a small desktop attached for writing, supported by an arm that sports the look of a leek. The chair was designed and built by sculptor Peter Weizenegger, who passed away in 2007. It’s sort of a traveling trophy, held for a year by the person who reads the best original poem. The reigning chair holder from last year is Rocky Makes Room for Them.

“There were a chunk of years when the competition part of the event were shelved and the chair wasn't awarded. A few years ago the chair tradition returned,” said Lundgren.

You may be wondering why the chair arm looks like a leek. When the reading first started, all the readers wore leeks on their lapels to honor St. David.

“It was a Welsh idea to wear a leek for decor. Leeks and daffodils are part of the St. David’s celebration in Wales this time of year,” said Jenkins.

Though the practice seems to have fallen off in the later years. Lundgren, who has been to 10 of the past 17 readings, only remembers wearing a leek during the first session.

“That’s right, I do remember that. Though I only remember it happening once, maybe the first year, that I walked in and someone pinned a leek to my chest,” said Lundgren.

Duluth's first St. David’s Day reading was held on March 1, 1996. The event has happened every year since, except 2001, when it was cancelled due to heavy snow.

“Over the years, it proved to be a really terrific event. It gave people from the community a great chance to read something of their own aloud to a receptive audience. Sometimes it was clear that they had never done this before. Bravery! Risk! All in the name of poetry,” said Connie Wanek, another founder of the event. Wanek read at the first event and many years since.

“It’s just a seasonal thing that happened. It never occurred to us that it would still be going years later,” said Jenkins.

Jenkins is no longer directly involved with reading, but he says he is glad to see it has continued.

Each member has their favorite memory of an interesting poem that was read. Connie Wanek shared her favorite memory.

“I think one of my favorite evenings came about four or five years ago, when the audience voted to give the chair to a woman from Wisconsin who was ‘of a certain age’ -shall we say. I loved that an audience comprised of mostly young people honored this woman, who wrote a very warm and fond poem to her husband of many years. It was a collective kindness,” said Wanek.

What: 18th Annual St. David’s Day Open Reading

Where: The Underground theater at the Duluth Depot, 506 W. Michigan St.

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 1

Cost: Free

Teri Cadeau

Teri Cadeau is a reporter for the Budgeteer.

(218) 720-4176