Red Sky Poetry Theatre, the Ditto Tavern, 2303 Fifth Ave., Sunday nights, sign-in for readers 6:30 p.m., reading starts at 7 p.m. $2 suggested donation at the door. 329-7936. --------------------------------------------------------------- It's a tight-knit group of regulars that meets each Sunday at the Ditto Tavern for Red Sky Poetry Theatre. They're not afraid to experiment with new poems in front of each other. They heckle each other from time to time. And at an open-mike session a few weeks ago, readers even took turns wearing a silly green top hat during their moments in front of the audience.
For the organizers of the city's longest-running showcase of poetry and fiction readings, the open-mike format is not only a way to find new talent. It keeps the old talent from getting bored with too many rules.
"There's a prerequisite belief in open mike," said Marion Kimes, a Red Sky board member who joined soon after the group's birth in 1981. "The work is uncensored and must stand on its own merit," Kimes said, "bypassing the all-knowing editor. What we're doing is a reaction to that kind of censoring."
Roberto Valenza, who has been with Red Sky for eight years, said, "It's definitely a nurturing atmosphere. If you write a piece of poetry which captures a moment of triumph or horror, if you capture it, it will breathe onto people. Given a microphone and a stage to put it out, you'll know if there's some thread of that present."
As a vehicle for writers trying out new work, Red Sky provides a range of material for an audience to absorb. About half the weekly readings feature a guest artist who gets 20 minutes in the spotlight. Otherwise, each reader gets seven minutes to do virtually anything he or she wants in the name of poetry.
Anything goes doesn't always fly with the audience or the group. "The people that keep disappointing us stop returning after awhile," said Kimes.
As the name Red Sky Poetry Theatre indicates, readers are encouraged to explore the theatrical aspect of poetry reading. Some readers augment poems with the light fingering of a harp or a variety of drums. One performer did a free-jazz saxophone solo without an instrument, calling himself a "Caucasian Catholic with Soul." Last Sunday, a reader encouraged his audience to heckle him off the stage.
Topics range from trying to hitch rides to living with drag queens, from exposing oneself to admiring the Kennedy administration. It all depends on the week.
"It's a challenge to write not just for the page," said Tom Hunley, 22, a poet who performs frequently at Red Sky. "I find myself interested more in sounds now, and one thing it's done is improved my ear experience - I find I can listen better."
Hunley finds the friendships he's forged at Red Sky have led to information about publications and competitions he wouldn't know about otherwise. He also notes the price, a $2 suggested donation at the door, is less expensive than a typical writers' workshop yet works just as well to bring clarity to unfinished poems.
Margareta Waterman, 59, finds that the nonjudgmental Red Sky group allows her the freedom to experiment with her work. She came to Seattle five years ago, and though she didn't know Red Sky existed, she knew Seattle's artsy reputation and figured it would have a weekly reading series in place.
"I felt the openness immediately, and knew this was a place where I could do what I had to do," Waterman said. Waterman, now a board member, was instrumental in bringing a Red Sky side project, a poetry-reading show called "Manifest Arts," onto Cable Access Channel 29.
Red Sky also supports several other vehicles for local writers, including Alternative to Loud Boats, an annual poetry reading that coincides with the Seafair hydroplane races, and Open Sound, a magazine compiled by Red Sky three times a year.
But the open-mike readings are what's central to Red Sky. "We need to give people a chance to try a poem out," Kimes said. "That's where I learn whether or not a poem is finished."