I am frustrated by men, so I got an angry poem tonight, Brandy announces, clutching a sheaf of notebook paper. Her voice is trembly yet self-assured.
I used to love you, she reads. I used to love you, until I redirected my energy and learned to love myself. She strikes the air with her fist. A few women cheer.
She reads eight handwritten pages, adhering her free hand to her hip so it doesnt reveal too much. Whew! exclaims the host when Brandys safely back in her chair. Was he really that bad? Damn!
At Clevelands open-mic poetry readings, feeling tends to come out coarsely, like a dislodged hairball. The writing generally has the lusterless, dashed-off quality of late-night diary entries. The themes, if there are any, tend to be the kind college English teachers warn against. The political poems call for revolution, warn about toxins in the drinking water, and wonder loudly if drinking too much Pepsi has coated our throats with silence.
The scorned-love selections speak of redemption: Although I dont fit your standards of beauty, Im beautiful, and someday, someone will see that. And the failed-friendship odes project angst: You might hold your head higher than mine, but at the days end, youre just a schmuck like me.
Not sure youre up for such marathons? Find out by answering this question: Would I rather be at home watching judge shows?
Over at the Beachland Ballroom, the annual Other Peoples Poetry Night is a kind of literary karaoke in which contestants are judged on how well they perform their favorite stanzas. Fusing your hands into fluttering wings for Ode to a Nightingale will win you big points here, as will casting an imaginary flyrod during Elizabeth Bishops The Fish.
Contestants are allowed only three minutes onstage, which makes it hard to contain multitudes. My apologies to Walt Whitman, announces one word-wrangler. I condensed his 13 pages into three minutes.
Cleveland poet Sara Holbrook comes dressed for the evening as Emily Dickinson, delivering a living-history monologue that makes the reclusive mother of contemporary poetry actually seem quite chatty. What the heck -- the real Dickinson, who rarely left the house and talked mostly to flowers and trees, deserves a night out every hundred years or so.
Moving south to Club Mapletrees reading in Maple Heights, the four classic ingredients of a really long evening have already been added to the stew: Theres a drunken co-host, a black nationalist who announces hes going to read from his manifesto, a gothic opening line (Mutilated tears from castrated eyes . . .), and a lesson poem about the importance of wearing a condom.
Before we get to our guest reader, we have just one more open-mic poet, says the drunken co-host, then seven more open-mic poets read. One is the other co-host, whose selection is called Time Rules: Time rules. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Time . . . Yep, times a-passing.
Café Noir in Ohio City hosts spare, friendly readings. Writers sit around the cozy room, drinking coffee and talking. When the spirit strikes, someone will rise, read a page or two, then sit back down and drink more coffee.
A customer once left a journal on a chair at Café Noir and never came back to claim it. Eventually, it became the house journal. Notes from friends fill its pages: Laura -- Next week when you are 18, we can go buy some guns. Lizzie. Ashley McFalls list of all the members of N Sync is in there, as is coffeehouse worker Jasons moody, neo-latte verse, full of stirring spoons and dark elixir.
Part of the journals charm comes from the control it gives its audience of one, who can choose to skip pages or sip coffee and not read it at all. At most of Clevelands live readings, the audience is held captive, forced to sit for hours as the entire population of Brecksville takes turns reciting the phone book. (Around 1 a.m., a real writer might get to read.)
And woe to critical thinkers who dont applaud Betty Lous rhyming quatrains about her darling baby niece. They wont be getting any hugs after the show, unless theyre from the poet/heavy-equipment operator named David Snodgrass.
A man whose mismatched teeth and balding head of long hair give him the air of a hillbilly Byron, Snodgrass believes that poetry belongs to the people, no matter how much it sucks. He nonetheless has a special place in his heart for killjoys and curmudgeons, having been mistaken for one himself.
Snodgrass was once the Lord-Hi Arbiter of a monthly performance poetry boot camp at the old Red Star Café. During the first part of each session, his charges would take turns performing their work. Afterward, hed beg, plead, cajole, and horsewhip them into critiquing each other. They werent inclined to do so, having been brought up to believe that cultivating an aesthetic is cause for a good schoolyard ass-whupping.
For all its contemporary foibles, spoken-word poetry still carries a certain nobility for Snodgrass. Muhammad was told by the angels to recite poetry, he says. It was breath to them. Griots and storytellers have been around a long, long time. Listening to somebody elses work can galvanize you, start getting you to think more deeply about things.
It cant, however, get you to think more deeply about judge shows. You need to set aside a block of afternoons for that. Maybe a whole month of afternoons.