Does anyone else remember open mic poetry night at Larry’s, an OSU campus institution? For all I know, it may no longer be there – or maybe it is, and open mic night is still going strong as well – but my wheelhouse with this establishment was Monday nights in the late 1990’s, back when it was unquestionably one of the best kept semi-underground secrets in the university area.
It took me months upon months of reading about it in The Other Paper and Columbus Alive, their local happenings listings, before I finally worked up enough nerve to head down there one night in November. A cold night with bitter wind whipping around me, I walk/half jog down E. Woodruff Avenue and around the corner to this joint, grabbed a seat, timidly, at the bar. I order a Rolling Rock and survey the scene. Part of my reservation, I must admit, was hearing rumors now and then that Larry’s was secretly a gay bar…which itself was often countered by others insisting, no, the regulars just like to spread rumors that it’s a gay bar to keep it from being mobbed by frathole clowns and underage drinkers like all the other watering holes on campus. At any rate, my first impression is that Larry’s looks like your run of the mill dive, which I’m sure is just how the regulars like it. A cozy, almost coffeehouse vibe pervades this place, actually, and I can imagine becoming a protective aficionado myself after a few visits.
The guest of honor this particular evening is an out of town poet named Pamela Steed Hall. Open mic night runs from 7-9, and it seems that I’ve arrived just as festivities are about to begin. Mrs. Steed Hill takes the stage first, although it’s really just a cleared out section of the normal floor in back, and begins reading a number of selections from her recently published poetry collection. Her reading style is only okay, in my estimation, but the writing itself can only be described as awesome.
Following her, the host of this event – a funny, old school hipster guy with graying hair and one seriously dry sense of humor – gets up to read off a winning raffle number, with the prize being some underground poet’s chapbook, also recently published. Though this poetry night is partially funded by the Ohio Arts endowment, they also sell tickets for $1 each, by appearances a weekly ritual. When the graybeard had made his rounds moments earlier, I too had shelled out for a single entry, figuring why not support the arts, eh? The result for this particular drawing makes someone else happy, but not yours truly, which is to be expected.
Once this is finished, a number of local amateurs take turns upon the microphone. I wanted to see how this thing went before working up the nerve to perform myself, with an eye on possibly doing so the next time I visit. It turns out there’s a totally quotidian process involving a lined sheet of notebook paper on a table, and the first x number of poets to sign it per night get to recite, with everyone else left off and missing their chances at immortality, at least for another seven nights.
First up among the locals this time around is a tall bearded lad named Colin Dearth. Reminiscent somewhat in appearance of Jim Morrison, Dearth approaches the podium accompanied by this short, pale and skinny sidekick named Victor. Much like those old silent movie actors, Victor says nothing but cracks me up anyway with his facial expressions, at one turn silent and brooding, the next smiles – not to mention the pressing question of what is he doing up there, anyhow, itself a riotous concern.
Even more hilarious is Dearth’s choice of material, though. He (with possibly an assist from Victor) had picked out a recent sports page article from The Columbus Dispatch to read, a piece celebrating the OSU basketball team’s most recent victory, and now Colin begins reading it. Reads it with a passion, too, particularly the catch phrase “ball in the basket,” which crops up at least three times in the piece. Grinning coyly, Dearth raises his voice every time it occurs during the course of his recitation. A sample:
“I’m real proud of our team,” coach Jim O’Brien said, “they played real well and put the BALL IN THE BASKET.”
Throughout, meanwhile, Victor either makes his mournful faces, or nods when this central slogan rears its head.
Dearth leaves the podium after threatening to get up again next week, and Victor trails dutifully behind him. Up next is a somewhat serious cat in glasses, balding despite his young age, name John Glover. “I’m going to read two poems. One is 19 lines long, the other is 4,” he explains, then does just that. His style I would characterize as decent though unremarkable. Following him is a serious scholar with greyish black hair and beard, even thicker glasses than the host. This would be Frank Richardson. He recites slowly, in a deep, resonant voice, and his poems are long, crammed with all manner of obscure and forgotten words. Good stuff.
The middle section is for the most part boring – a black girl, Rita Baker, who’s too singsong-y for my tastes, then a flat out dull 60’s leftover named Elizabeth James. After that you have some kid named Dale Williams, whose reading abilities are strong even while employing only so-so source material, and Barbara Goodall, a grandmotherly old lady who fares about average, though better than expected.
Two final poets close out the night in strong fashion. Ken McCauley, a college age white boy whose style and material were both excellent, has one especially good piece about an existential type character being “discharged from the bus” as it comes to a stop. I’m taking a wild stab here that this one is highly autobiographical. Then there’s Christopher Apple, who in my mind had the greatest poem I heard all night. He’s a serious looking black kid with melodic, poetry slam worthy flow, and tonight’s highlight was a selection titled Something. The repeating refrain to this long, cleverly worded poem is, “something…I don’t know,” a phrase he returns to often.
The following Monday, I work up enough nerve to head down there with the intent of reading my own stuff. Technically speaking I haven’t written any poetry, ever, but do have a spiral bound notebook of crappy song lyrics, which will suffice. The whole point of this exercise is to force myself to get up there on stage. Giving speeches back in school, or getting up in front of a crowd to sing or play an instrument never really bothered me, but this seemed more personal somehow and I could feel my heart speed up just to think about it. So I stop at the Wendy’s next door first, for a bite to eat but also to steel my nerves before entering that shrine of the spoken word.
Colin Dearth is actually the featured performer this week, which suits me just fine – I find his material excellent (no mere sports page recital this time!) and his delivery even better. Plus, as an added bonus, he typically launches into extended monologues between each selection, and these might be the cream of the crop. He talks about his first poetry reading ever, which seems to be a significant instance of synchronicity relating to my own struggle, squirming in the chair, that he would broach this topic. That night, the occasion of his maiden recital, he had staggered in wasted, possibly not even aware a poetry session was underway, and stumbled up to the podium to recite a few insane lines off the top of his head. Since then, his approach has become slightly more refined. Warmly reminisces about recitals past, here and elsewhere, of “blowin’ a doob in back” before making his way to the stage, and once reading from a room in the rear of the building via a walkie talkie placed on the podium. All in all, I felt I could have listened to him read and talk for hours.
But of course, I have bigger fish to fry – namely, getting up and reading my own singsongy stanzas. After Dearth is finished, they have anyone interested waltz up and sign in, with only the first twelve earning a slot tonight. Initially I’m thinking to myself, in copout escape hatch fashion, “hey, I’ll wait and see if there are any slots left after everyone else signs up, then maybe add my name to the list.” But after a tortured second or two decide, screw that, I’d come here to read and would not be denied. Good thing I make that call when I do, too, for I wind up being exactly the twelfth person to put my name in the proverbial hat. Yet when the slots themselves are assigned, I am saddled with an early one, either second or third, which is fortunate in the sense that I don’t have an opportunity to lose my nerve.
Everything and everyone else is pretty much a blur. I remember clutching my blue notebook with these two typewritten sheets inside, the ones I’d transcribed to my computer and printed earlier to avoid fumbling through handwritten pages. I remember cautioning everyone before I begin, too, with the disclaimer that this is my first ever performance. They applaud before syllable one, then, which does help ease the nerves a bit. And my delivery is without question a wooden monotone, although the words themselves are not bad, as I rattle off the lyrics to Vibraphone and Fall Away Like Dust. Then it’s over. People clap and I hustle back to my dark back corner – and as I pass his table in front, Victor gives me the a silent thumbs up and nod of the head, which is all the approval I need.