One Little Light

On poetry open mics, scenius, and my new podcast, One Little Light

Since last October, I’ve been temporarily living in Massachusetts, in the Boston area, while my wife performs in a play at the American Repertory Theatre. A short walk from the one-bedroom provided us by the theatre is the Cantab Lounge, a local bar that has, for the past 30 years, been home to a poetry open mic and slam, one of the longest-running such shows in the world. The show has long and reliably been one of the consistently most interesting nights of spoken word performance in the country, rivaled by few others, except perhaps the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York City and Chicago’s Uptown Poetry Slam (the original (so what?)).

Once we were settled in here, my wife suggested we go, so one Wednesday night in early November we walked down to the Cantab and found that the twin events of the pandemic and the shuttering of the National Poetry Slam had not lessened the show’s quality, and in fact, the same culture of deep listening and attention to the crafts of writing and performance in the open mic participants was still going strong.

Open mics can be, if not well-run, really boring for everyone, the readers included. A good open mic creates a culture of attentive listening, and of continual improvement on the part of the writer-performers, while also guarding against cliquishness and the rise of local celebrities. A great open mic helps foster what musician Brian Eno calls “scenius,” an “ecology of talent,” which he contends is what really results in great art, not “genius.”

A great open mic strikes a balance between mutual appreciation and friendly competition, which motivates writers to learn from each other and improve; a constant exchange of techniques and ideas, such that writers learn from watching and listening to each other; a network effect of success, meaning that success for one is, on some level, success for all; and an embrace of the weird and unconventional — every great open mic has a handful of oddballs who delightfully occupy a strange space (in one open mic I attended in Chicago, there was a reader named Edith, who only wrote erotica, and who was shorter than most other readers, meaning she always had to adjust the mic downward, which, when she did, she would reliably say “please excuse me while I adjust the phallic symbol.” That same reading often featured a fellow named Mad Peace who only wore homemade Mad Peace t-shirts.)

The Cantab’s open mic has been great for my entire adult life, and it is still great. I read that first night, and one of the hosts, Dawn Gabriel, recognized me from our mutual tenures in the National Poetry Slam, and as such Dawn invited me to be the featured poet in January.

All autumn and through the holidays, I attended the reading whenever I could, and doing so reminded me of all the good things about poetry shows, as well as why I used to prefer them to trying to get published in literary magazines. Partly it is immediately and intensely rewarding to have a room full of 50ish people leaning forward in their seats, focused on your poem while you read it. In the best moments, you as a reader can feel the connection in your body - it feels like transcendence, like something sacred is taking place. Over time, repeat appearances at an open mic become an occasion for relationship - people who like your work want to say hello, get to know you, just as you want to do with the people whose work you like. This can’t really happen with publishing except in rare circumstances. And finally, it becomes difficult to justify the frustration, work, monetary cost, and constant rejection one experiences trying to get poems in literary magazines most of which have smaller readerships than the number of people who come to the open mic on any given week. All of this is why, for years, I didn’t even bother trying to get my poems in literary journals. I still loathe everything about it (though I sometimes bite the bullet and send poems out, because in many ways, publication is the poetry world’s proof-of-work.)

Needless to say regular attendance at a great open mic had me remembering how much I enjoy the act of reading my poems aloud, which is why I have decided to be a latecomer to the podcast trend and start my own podcast, in which I intend to read a handful of my poems weekly. That’s it — there are enough interviews and rooms of buddies chatting about niche topics. The podcast, called One Little Light, will just be weekly installments of me reading a few of my poems, whichever ones are on my mind that week. I’ve already made two episodes, which are available here at Substack, or via Apple or Spotify (and therefore, probably on any service you prefer to use). Episodes will probably never be longer than 10 minutes, enough for 3-5 poems. I do hope you check them out and enjoy them.

I managed to video my feature at the Cantab, which happened last week, and I’ve uploaded the whole thing to YouTube. You can view that here.

Lastly, good reader, I do hope your new year is getting off to a great start, and I hope blessings, joy and peace are headed your way. We live in hard, weird times. Let’s take joy in each other, and take care of each other.

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