What happens when the ancient art of poetry ventures out on the Internet? Verse goes viral.

About six months ago, Michael Rothenberg, 60, a poet and website editor who lives in a cabin on a wooded hillside at the edge of Guerneville, had an idea.

He wanted to use the Web to instigate a loose aggregation of poetry readings all over the world, all devoted to fostering peace and protecting the planet.

At random, he set the date as Saturday, Sept. 24, and he called this global, virtual gathering "100 Thousand Poets for Change."

"I created an event page on Facebook. I had 4,000 friends on Facebook," Rothenberg said. "I started getting answers back right away."

The numbers have grown dramatically, with 700 events now scheduled in 550 cities in 95 countries. Many are new events and some are readings added to existing festivals.

Rothenberg got the 100,000 number the same way he got the Sept. 24 date — he picked it out of the air.

"There probably are easily a 100,000 poets in the United States. Then we found Internet articles that somehow concluded that there are 6 million poets in the world. They're out there," he said.

Rothenberg brings some serious credentials to this new endeavor.

"I've been writing poetry and publishing poetry for 35 or 40 years," he said. "In &‘86, I started Big Bridge Press. In &‘94, I started Big Bridge as an online magazine, so I moved from print to digital. It's one of the older and well-known literary magazines online."

The Big Bridge website gets as many as 40,000 hits a month, and like the Facebook event page Rothenberg started, it has become an information and communication center for Saturday's worldwide poetry celebration.

A Miami native, Rothenberg first moved to California in 1976, when he co-founded the Shelldance nursery in Pacifica, which he still co-owns. He moved to Guerneville with partner Terri Carrion, who helped him start "100 Thousand Poets for Change."

"We created a framework. Each local group can develop its own local event based on its own local issues. Beyond that, some people may never even let me know they did it," Rothenberg said.

"I'm not speaking for other people in Madison or Cairo or Tel Aviv. I'm speaking for myself," he added. "We have a common goal. I'm not the elected head of this organization. It's inclusive and decentralized. And I think that is its beauty."

While he can't claim to control what happens next, Rothenberg is proud of his achievement.

"This is the creation of the largest poetry community in history. We're a global infusion," he said. "Now we have a mission. We know how to organize and we know each other."

For a local taste of this global event, attend Northern California poet Francisco X. Alarcon's 12:30 p.m. reading at Saturday's free Sonoma County Book Festival, running from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Santa Rosa's Old Courthouse Square.

For more information on "100 Thousand Poets for Change":

http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=106999432715571

http://www.bigbridge.org/100thousandpoetsforchange

For more on the Sonoma County Book Festival: socobookfest.org.

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. See his ARTS blog at http://arts.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.