You walk into the pub, or community center. You’ve been there before, but tonight the place is full, young, old, professionals, students. Some clutch fat binders bursting with loose pages. Others carry romantic-looking journals. A few have published volumes of their own work, but they’re in the minority. Still others seem to have their hands completely free, but will later, standing at the microphone, pull a sheet or two from a hidden coat pocket like a magician’s dove. You’re at your first open poetry mic, one of many held all around the Hudson Valley each month.
Open poetry mics are an opportunity for poets to share their work with other poets and poetry lovers, and to receive immediate feedback. Bob Wright, who now resides in Athens, was president for two years of the Stone Ridge Poetry Society and six as president of the Woodstock Poetry Society, until 2004. Wright recognizes that open mics are “a good chance for the local poetry crowd to schmooze, get caught up on who would be reading where, and maybe convince some attending poetry host that they, too, deserved a gig.”
By ‘gig’ Wright means a featured reading. Many open mics offer one or two features per evening, poets allotted fifteen or twenty minutes to read several pieces instead of the more common five minutes or less allowed to those who sign up that night.
Mike Jurkovic, co-host of the ‘Calling All Poets’ reading series at the Howland Center in Beacon, points out another purpose: “It allows for free discourse. It allows conversation, a free flow of ideas not found anywhere else.”
Jurkovic is also the founder of the annual Hudson Valley Poets Fest, held at the Widow Jane Cave on the A.J. Snyder estate in Rosendale, started in 2003 in response to the more exclusionary Woodstock Poetry Festival.
The types of people who attend open poetry mics are varied. “It’s an across-the-board thing,” Jurkovic says. “I’d have to say that maybe 25-30 percent of an audience on any given night are regular non-poeticos.”
Robert Milby of Florida hosts four different open mics at the moment, and dozens previously across Orange, Sullivan, Ulster and Dutchess counties in his thirteen years ‘on the scene.’ He believes maybe five percent or less of his audiences these days are new readers.
“As a host, I know I’d like to see more new faces,” Jurkovic says. “The novice learns from the published or experienced writer, and the experienced writers learn from their peers.
“In Beacon we get folks from all over: Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, Middletown area, New Paltz, Wallkill,” he adds. “At the Howland Center we get hardly any locals. It’s very strange.”
William Seaton is the host of the longest running reading series in the Hudson Valley, Orange County’s ‘Poetry on the Loose’, running since 1993 and recently relocated to Baby Grand Books in Warwick. “The glory of the live poetry scene is in its diversity,” Seaton says. In his experience, “audiences really do cover the spectrum: male and female, all ages, various ethnic groups, high school students and dropouts and college professors, gay-friendly.”
‘Poetry on the Loose’ has a statement of purpose: “It is a non-academic, grassroots, community-based organization. The door is open wide.”
New readers are eagerly welcomed at all open mics. Seaton emphatically encourages newcomers to try an open mic, even just once. “Far more than in academic or employment/publishing/money situations, people at readings tend to be very supportive. I have seen young and insecure readers applauded by friendly audiences who asked for more. The outrageous is met with acceptance.”
Check the events calendar in your local paper, or the handy website poetz.com/hudson for information on where the open mics are in your area. Recruit a friend, even a non-poet, to go along. Offer to buy the first round of lattes. Admissions range from ‘pass the hat’ to a few dollars, less than the cost of a Happy Meal.
You’ll be deliciously surprised at the range of topics and ideas covered in a single evening. Seaton can’t recommend the act highly enough. “Making your own art is good for you. Consuming art that is crafted by your neighbors, working solely out of love, with whom you can discuss the work and perhaps your own work, can be a great pleasure. You may be surprised to find what art is like when it is neither created nor approved by a corporation with the goal of profit. Poetry readings also allow you to meet some of the most fascinating people in your area as well as the chance, if you like, to display your own most scintillating self.”
Cheryl A. Rice is a freelance writer living in Kingston.