Poets & Writers Night
by Martin Kleinman
Mr. Kleinman is a regular contributor of WEEKDAY MAGAZINE. Read his work every Monday.
This is why people love it here, places like this.
You get off the 1 IRT train at 238th Street, trudge up the step-street and head west. In short order, you see picnic tables under a purple awning outside a bar. It is a bar that looks like many others.
But it is not.
And the proof? “Poor Mouth Poetry” night.
Go inside this place, named An Beal Bocht (“The Poor Mouth,” in Gaelic). The creaky door reminds you a bit of the entry to Ear Inn, on Spring Street. To your immediate right, is a coat hook, above which is a shelf for books; take one, leave one. Overhead, a canoe is suspended from the ceiling. On the right, over a fireplace, within which is a mixing board/PA system, is a wall papered with posters of writers, and folks of note, along with a rifle relic. A few worn wood tables flank a worn wood bar, under which is an equally worn wood floor.
A subway sign from the Cortlandt Street stop (alev hasholem) is nailed to a wall beneath a chalkboard listing libations. To the right is another sign: “Pog Mo Thoin.” (That’s Gaelic and, this being a G-rated blog, you’ll have to look that one up.) A bartender, Caitlin, multitasks mightily, pouring pints, mixing Moscow Mules, and cracking wise, all effortlessly. A fast-moving waitress weaves through the throng to deliver pints and steaming plates of stew. A regular server, Bronagh – a salty stage and screen actress – is off tonight.
This is a pub that is home to a resident theater company, and hosts the likes of Malachy McCourt. Niall Connolly. Mary Courtney. This is a pub owned by Tony Caffrey, who told me when I first came by, seven years ago, that his goal is to promote conversation versus cultivating a sports bar ambience.
Conspicuous by its absence: a TV monitor. There are none in this place.
Tonight is for “Poor Mouth Poetry” – an open mike affair. Melinda Wilson and Erin Lynn co-curate this series, every second Wednesday of the month. Melinda, a gifted poet and college literature professor, is MC this evening. The crowd is a rainbow coalition of young, middle-aged, and old, brown and white, women and men. As I enter, the house PA playlist tonight is running through lesser tunes by the Beatles.
And not ironically, either. Remember “There’s a Place?” That’s on right now.
The sign-up sheet of open mike readers is full, and tonight’s two featured spoken word artists, Abby Kirby Conklin and Robert Kramer, are in the house. Abby is 25. Robert is of a certain age.
Abby is up first, after a brief introduction. She adjusts the mike and scans the room. Then, she takes it over. She chomps through her work. Her words have bite and her delivery…this is not a reading, this is a performance. Remember her name.
After Abby’s set, a series of open mike readers reveal their words. They jump out of the plane and hope their ‘chutes opens. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Have you ever tried getting up in front of an audience and unzipping your psyche, letting your very own words define your depths before total strangers? Try it. You’ll gain an appreciation for what it takes to be a performer.
Closing the evening is Kramer. He looks writerly, assured. Why not? Melinda’s introduction tells us that he was in the 82nd Airborne, specialized in chemical warfare, was a Fulbright Scholar, travelled the world; he has been a guest professor at many universities. He owns his material. He has truly lived life. His words are uplifting, unsettling, overpowering.
Too many people, even Native New Yorkers (that dying breed), take this town for granted. And, in a borough bereft of bookstores – don’t get me started; I’ve written about that here already – writing series’ like this exist, but are few and far between.
And here is a gem, right on 238th Street, where spoken word artistry has currency. But wait; there’s more: there is another budding series, curated by Tim Brown and Amy Joy Robateau at Mon Amour Coffee & Wine, also on 238th Street, just east of the El train. It recently celebrated its one-year anniversary.
Do you have a poem or story that needs an audience? Do you have the guts to get out, stand up at a mike in front of strangers, and let ‘er rip? If so, I suggest you put your TV remotes down, log off of Facebook for an evening, and try your hand at bearing your soul.
Martin Kleinman is the author of the short fiction collection, “Home Front”, called “a striking debut” by Jennifer Cody Epstein (who is the author of the best-selling novels, “The Painter From Shanghai” and “The Gods of Heavenly Punishment”). Kleinman’s stories have appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies. This storyteller and blogger (HuffPo, thisistheBronX, and therealnewyorkers) captivates audiences in venues from KGB Bar to Brooklyn’s Union Hall. Born and raised in New York, he currently resides in the Bronx and is finishing his second collection, “A Shoebox Full of Money.”
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