Open Mic Poetry: The last bastion of free speech?

(Photo by Mery Rosado)

Poet Andy Clausen tore it up last Friday night at Café Mezzaluna bistro Latino and gallery. Clausen was a contemporary of the Beat poets by his own admission; he even read a passage from a short story he wrote in which he hangs out with Charles Bukowski (called “Hank” by his sycophants, according to Clausen), and has a short, sweet boxing match with the granddaddy of performance poetry himself. Clausen puts it well in his story – “I was 28 in ’74; I whistled two portside jabs,” and a “stop-left hook whose power ran down my back to my left glute and hamstring, on to his right side, just missing by a couple inches.”

The man knows how to give a good performance. Kind of a pity that the room isn’t packed with people to hear him. Writers Night organizer Judy Lechner tells me there are normally “a lot more people” in attendance. Aside from that story of performance-poet bravado, Clausen offers two or three poems. Not the poems that people are used to, though, and not read like a poem is normally read, in the slow, intermittent, teacherly fashion.

Clausen flies through his poems with zeal and aplomb, like he’s a brimstone preacher reading from a raggedy old scripture. Legendary poet Allen Ginsberg said of Clausen, “The frank friendly extravagance of his metaphor and word connection gives Andy Clausen’s poetry a reading interest rare in poetry of any generation.” There is fire and remorse in his voice, and I’m sure if you’re sitting close, a little saliva might be in the mix. Listening to Clausen is refreshing and different. Most people have never heard a poet with conviction turn in a performance like that.

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Clausen really enjoys the open mic night. “It’s a fine thing. I would actually say that the open mic is the last bastion of free speech,” he says, “and I really like the food.”

The Sept. 14 readers also included Pamela Twining, a Washington D.C. born poet fond of passionate, esoteric diatribes about sisterhood and sex, and Chronogram Magazine music critic Leslie Gerber. Laureates of the Mezzaluna Writers Night series also include short story writer Brent Robison, poet Amanda Gulla, children’s poet Bobbi Katz, famous upstate poet J.J. Clarke, Woodstock-based poet Will Nixon, and Jay Wenk, author of the World War II memoir “Study War No More.”

“It’s not always poets. I’ve had people read prose, read from their novels, memoirs… that makes it different from others,” says event organizer Judy Lechner.

Mezzaluna is the perfect host for the series. The café, right off of Route 212, is low-lit and chilled-out, with a nice menu of cheap-to-reasonable coffee drinks to nurse while you groove on some of the area’s most notable authors, poets, and artists vibe. Lechner, a poet herself who has been “writing seriously” for 13 years, has been running the Writers Night series for four years. She actually inherited the operation. “There was something called the world poetry café run by a woman named Josie Peralta. She would have people reading in different languages and English. She was from Argentina and she had to go back. Now it’s all in English – except one time, someone came in and read (Arabic poet) Rumi,” says Lechner.

She tries to run a tight ship with her Writers Night series and knows full well the pitfalls of staging an open mic poetry night. “Sometimes, at other events, people just get up and start talking,” Lechner says, “but we manage to avoid that. We try to keep it on a literary level and avoid the nonsense.”

Both Clausen and Lechner notice one thing missing from Writers Night, though: youth. By the looks of it, none of the Writers in attendance Friday were under the age of 40. “I don’t get that many young poets,” says Lechner.

Clausen says that the reason Writers Nights are under-attended by youth is because they simply aren’t viewed as exciting or endorsed in school. “How do you get people to come to poetry readings? How do you get them to realize that it’s not only educational, that it can be entertaining and uplifting? How do you get them to realize that it can be just as much fun as live music? And that’s the problem because a lot of the school system is against poetry because they think it’s boring and pointless,” says Clausen. “You have to try and show that there’s a door, an avenue for youth, that there’s a road that can be taken. I mean, to be frank with you, people used to get laid a lot more at these things. It used to be a lot more social.”

It shouldn’t be too hard for Mezzaluna’s Writers Night series to gain some cub poets and Writers. After all, slam poetry is making a huge comeback as an avenue for creative writing among youth. So if you’re looking to cut your teeth in live poetry or you’re a seasoned vet looking for an outlet for your prose or you’re looking to hobnob with some of the Hudson Valley’s most notable, prominent literary luminaries, come to Writers Night. Contact Judy Lechner (pronounced Lesh-ner) for a spot at the open mic at 246-1384.

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