Tuesday, November 10, 2015

How I Learned to Love (and Loath) Open Mics

     Second to mailing (and now emailing) your poems out to an invisible editor or editors, the best way to share your work with others is to read at an open mic. I cannot remember the first one I went to. I have written poems since elementary school, but I was slow in assuming the persona of a "poet." In high school I was on the staff of our fine literary magazine, Pegasus, and wasn't shy about expressing my misgivings about submitted work. When it came time to present something of my own, though, I always had a friend read it aloud for me. Poetry was too sacred, too personal an exposure for me to offer up without fear.

    When I went away to college, I continued to write, and for a short time even joined the literary magazine staff there, which had a tendency to dissolve and reconfigure itself semester after semester. I  was becoming more comfortable, more confident about my poems, and began to value them as my chosen mode of artistic expression as well as cheap therapy. I wrote my way through a difficult marriage and divorce, all the way to independence and sanity of a kind.

    After college, I saw an ad in the Shadwrapper (the local newspaper) for a poetry group that met twice a month at the nearby Stone Ridge Library. The Stone Ridge Poetry Society, founded by Shirley Powell, was my first adventure in poetry outside of academia. I made friends that are still friends thirty years later. Meetings combined workshopping poems with one or two featured readers. It was probably here, in the cozy living room-like space where the group met, that I had my first feature.

    Woodstock, the REAL Woodstock, New York had always been a welcoming place for artists of all levels of accomplishment. The open mic at the Tinker Street Cafe', hosted by Dean Schambach, was a challenging atmosphere for a twenty-something female, let alone a poet. There was alcohol, there were sometime fisticuffs. Dean was and is a contentious character with both champions and enemies. I myself had nothing but the most genial interactions with "Gungha Dean," as he is sometimes known by the locals because of his stirring rendition of Kipling's classic poem. Hecklers at the bar were something else again, but I still consider it a personal accomplishment to have survived the readings at the Tinker Street Cafe' relatively unscathed.

    One of the highlights of living in Albany was the longtime open mic hosted by Tom Natell at the legendary QE2, now both departed. I sometimes think I should have spent more of my student loan there instead of on tuition, but what's done is done. Since then, I have spent a lot of time commuting back and forth between The Emerald City and the Hudson Valley for readings there. There is an attitude of respect that rarely wavers-- for the audience, for one's own work-- that I find to be rarely matched. Readers don't often take advantage of the mic, or apologize in advance for the work they're about to impose on you. Time limits are clear and rarely violated.

    When my Roommate and I connected, I was running from one open mic to another almost every night of the week, and hosting an annual event called The Sylvia Plath Bake-Off, which at its height attracted 50 or more attendees in a single evening. Since that time, I have become more particular about which readings I attend. If a reading is poorly managed, if egos are allowed to run amok and hog the mic, if the open mic list is either endless or absurdly restricted, I will probably not be back soon. And I may or may not be missed. I'm OK with that.

    Unlike other artists, poets can be reasonably certain that there is no "Big Time" level of achievement for them to aspire to. It's one of the things I like about being a poet. It's a sort of exclusive club that, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, few would want to be a member of. But when all have gathered to share work, philosophies, secret details they may never tell their partners or families, and when they are sincere, I feel privileged to be in their presence. The Internet can at times echo some of that intimacy, but it's not there yet. The Open Mic, at its best, has yet to be equaled in the age of chat rooms and e-zines.

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