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The weekly City Art Reading Series is a lark, a bash, a kick in the pants. It's a potpourri of poets and impostors ranging from established writers such as William Stafford, Ken Brewer and Katharine Coles to that anonymous young man who read rhymes about mayhem, wielded his machete, then fled from the room.

At City Art, blue-haired ladies, spikey-haired punks and university profs with $40 haircuts share the same rows of chairs. "Open Readings" draw 20 to 25 poets who wait for an hour for the chance to read for five minutes.At a time when more and more people feel American poetry has lost its punch and relevance, the readers at City Art are like rip-and-read newscasters, relaying the latest reports from the trenches.

"When we first began back in 1988 we would get only 20 or 30 people to come out," says Sandy Anderson, who bills herself as "City Art Work Horse." "We were meeting upstairs at the Bistro to Go then, but we soon outgrew the place. Now we have about 100 people out to readings.I know in some worlds that's not many people, but in the world of poetry it's a real crowd."

Over the years City Art has had several homes - including an unheated art studio in a Main Street basement, a warehouse for sculpture across from Bandaloups restaurant and - as of yesterday - a new home at the Mount Tabor Lutheran Church, 175 S. 700 East. The organization has come a long way since Mitch Monger drew up some incorporation notes and Anderson, Dave Smith and Stefene Russell agreed to serve on the board.

Russell, a local poet, also serves as the unofficial City Art historian. She sums up the past few years this

way:When the readings began, they ran alongside Cocaine Anonymous meetings and chess tournaments, and from all accounts resembled those more than the present readings. Nervous teenagers . . . silently drinking coffee, then standing every so often to recite a rag-edged poem from a rag-edged notebook. . . .

(Soon) a crackling energy began. Sandy Anderson came to read her Henrietta poems, then came Dee Wolfe with his dulcimer, Craig Crowther with his tooth-pick chewing lines, Scott Preston with his tone drum, Brent Leake with his scrappy, Tijuana-hot-pepper poems, Richard Cronshey with his liquid, spilling images, Brian Staker reading his linguistic freak show, and scores of open readers who often upstaged the featured readers or became featured readers themselves.Needless to say, there have been highlights and lowlights. At one reading a member of one of the musical groups who perform at readings accidently caught on fire. At another, poets stood to read poems that protested the poems read the week before.

But there have been peaks as well as valleys. A reading that featured three Salt Lake ministers caused some shock waves. Then last winter Anderson and others handed out "ballots" and asked the audience to vote for their favorite readers. The result was "The Great Poetry Meltdown," a poetry marathon where 19 poets - ranging from Robert Fredrickson of the Utah Poetry Society to metaphysical-minded Neal Holland - read for four minutes each. ("It was nice," says Anderson. "If you didn't like what you were hearing, all you had to do was wait a couple of minutes and it changed.")

The readings are also attracting more people from the - quote establishment unquote. G. Barnes, literary director of the Utah Arts Council, has always been a proponent of "art in public places." And he's taken the City Art readings to heart as an example of grass-roots writing at work.

"One night I left a City Art reading and headed out to the parking lot behind Main Street," he says. "As I walked along I saw these two guys come out into the open air. They weren't university students. They weren't writers or even avid readers. But they'd just been to the reading and were talking about how it affected them. I mean here were these two guys, standing in a mud puddle in a parking lot behind a clothing store at midnight, and they weren't talking about crime or drugs or beer. They were talking about poetry. I have to admit, I like that a lot."

Adds Anderson: "I'm finding that City Arts is becoming very important to people who aren't poets or writers themselves. They come because we offer a forum for new ideas, new styles, new voices."

With a little luck - and a lot of hard work - City Art will be providing that service for years to come.- Those wishing to "cut their teeth" on a City Arts reading might choose next Thursday, March 12, 8 p.m. at the Mount Tabor Church. Katharine Coles, the resident writer at Westminster College, will read along with Ralph Wilson, a popular and prolific poet at the University of Utah. An open reading will follow for those wishing to showcase their own work. Readings are free (though donations are accepted). Call 277-1510 for information.