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A Formalist Poet at the Open Mic

Part I: Before the Reading

by Daniel Kemper

A two-story, square shaped “U” made of corrugated tin. Two theaters, a haunted attic. A gravel lot with reserved parking spaces—handicapped—and unofficial reservations. Some are simply old. Nestled deferentially in the corner, the SPC, the Sacramento Poetry Center. The unofficial reservations are for the featured readers who have a long, long way to drive. I’ve parked out on the street, adjacent to the light rail tracks.

I shuffle in early. I almost always do. Cheap carpet, oriental style. Eight rows of mixy-matchy folding chairs, some with cushions and some, the unforgiving metal kind. Space to congregate. A table with snacks and coffee, hot water for tea, and every now and then a bottle of something, er, donated. I’m only slightly early, but this place runs on poet time. In a little while, a trickle of an audience will wander in. In a lotta while, the main crowd. The lighting is pale, like beer, like Alien Beer, a local microbrew named in honor of a local poet’s book release—“Poems about Aliens.” That’s maybe the only time that “Aliens” didn’t mean migrants. The quiet of the place, broken only by the creaking pine door as I pull it closed, is broken again by mumbled cursing in the corner.

It’s Patrick, who founded the Poetry Center in seventeen-seventy-six, or so the story goes. He’s working on the AC. It’s failed again. He’s got a portable, but it draws too much current. It runs too loud. He can either have AC, automatic coffee brewing, or the electric teapot for water boiling, but not more than one. And yet this place has been here forever. It is a California staple. He looks up, curses at me, says I’m late, and grins. I drop my stuff to lend a hand. I’ve not been coming all that long, but how long do you need to come to lend a hand?

Eventually, the event’s prepared, the crowd rolls in and the host begins. Patrick’s standing in the back. The host has energy that radiates like burning thermite viewed through an infrared lens. His energy is even larger than he is. He’s linebacker large and its clear he’s tired of people reacting to his size first, and personality second. I’ve got an extensive athletic background. I feel at home. But that’s part of his energy, too. He’s dapper, ties an ornate scarf around the mic stand, and begins engaging everyone. His face shines: It looks somewhere between LeBron James and Rosco Lee Brown, tending more towards the latter.

He works the audience, but not with the style of a stage performer. He begins with a touch of history, of old poets and the wisdom that they have to offer, of younger poets and the energy they have. He alludes to the notion that the child is the father of the man, but not in so many words, then pivots on the idea of energy and lets the audience know that the energy they give the poets is energy that the poets will rebound and redouble for them. It has the feeling of a spiritual about to begin.

He asks for a moment of silence. A dear friend of the center did just pass. He tries hard not to prejudice the silence towards the Buddhist, the Pantheist, the atheist. I think I’m the only Christian in the crowd. I have my silent space as well. It’s not that hard. He closes with, “Ashay,” and moves toward announcement, including a code of conduct (CoC) and why they have it. HOURS of announcements before we begin. It is really starting to feel like church. The history of the code of conduct, only recently adopted, I’ll not delve into now. Suffice to say that no one should be surprised that drama follows poets.

Or do poets follow drama?

Anyway, it’s a typical liberal manifesto of inclusiveness. A lot of references to dominant cultures, to the SPC’s board of directors, to not exploiting power dynamics, to having an open reporting process for people who behave questionably according to the CoC, to being a safe space. I feel myself frozen to the chair. I’m wondering if they would extend those provisions to me. To paraphrase Clint Eastwood’s character from In the Line of Fire, “I’m an over-forty, heterosexual white Christian. There aren’t many of us left, but we’ve still got a pretty strong lobby.”

And worst of all, perhaps, I’m a formalist poet. It is difficult to overstate the disconnect. They’ve heard rumors and legends of “poems that rhyme.” Maybe. But generally not in a good light. Meter itself is really unknown. And so traditional poetry, my stock-in-trade, carries all the suspicions and anxieties of encountering the unknown. I bring meter, rhyme, form. And often, crickets… But let us go and make our visit.

After a few moments, I get out of myself and come back to the scene. Yes, the beat phenomenon of snapping fingers for applause is alive and well. It sounds like rainfall on tin. There’s an etiquette to it all, though no one really gets upset if it’s broken. When a poet, or a speaker, or a presenter hits a nerve and you want to reward them from the audience, but not interfere with their continuing presentation, that’s the time to snap. The church-like atmosphere does, also, at times, inspire a kind of call-and-response. “You name it, poet!” “Come on!” or “Let’s go!”

Even occasionally, a crusty old vet might semi-accidentally shout, “Get some!” Said vet should remain nameless.

The host has been asking how everyone’s feeling. He sounds very vaguely drill-sergeant-like to me with various expressions amounting to, “I can’t hear you!” Definitely church-like. There is definitely a certain spirit to the evening. Many performers of many different stripes have observed this. As long as it’s not a pre-canned, pop-culture tacky, clone-like, cut-out, paint-by-the-numbers, money grubbing, all-shine-and-no-substance kind of performance, each performance takes on its own kind of air, its own kind of spirit. Sometimes, the spirit is fairly predictable, or at least the bounds of what it will be are. For example, one feature a summer ago was a panel of a half-dozen or so poets, all over eighty. Then again, even at that performance, a few very, very bawdy poems bubbled up and the minority youth in the crowd responded not only to them, but to the several poems of forewarning and also those of carpe diem. One never knows.

“Are y’all really doing well now? Let’s get that energy a little higher. Say, ‘Abundance!’ Let me hear you say how you are feeling. Who feels strong—stronger now than when you walked in? Send out some of that energy! Say, ‘Bring it, poet!’ Look side to side—I know some of y’all are nervous. But check out someone who does not look like you and make a mental note to talk to them after the show. To give them extra listening. Say, ‘I appreciate you!’”

I look around and decide to try. I know a few folks here, but the crowd is just as kaleidoscopic as you’d expect from the capital of California. What is displayed outward is no less kaleidoscopic as the inside of the people that I know. Some seem like Joe Suburbia. Some seem like RuPaul. (Interestingly, the spell-checker in my computer knew how to correct the spelling of RuPaul.) One should get to know the crowd a little at a time. Suffice for now to say the kaleidoscope on the surface does not necessarily match the kaleidoscope below the surface. Again, one never knows.

The opening poet is Keith. I was expecting it to be someone with a name like, “Esmerelda the Magnificent” or “Butch the Bedazzled,” who’d look like Don Rickles with tits, just sayin’. I’m a crusty old infantry guy; we talk like that among and to each other. Doesn’t always go over well. In conversation, I have often rounded out such a statement with “I’m just confessing my naturally crass mannerisms fully and freely.” Keith has auburn hair pulled back over his shoulders just beyond which it hangs with a little waviness and a little frizz. He’s a full six-feet tall and thin, but has a sturdy frame. He has a mustache that he sometimes spins into an impressive handlebar. And he’s wearing a flowing cotton, tan and turquoise paisley… dress.

The dress comes down just beyond his knees. His shoes look like Louboutins, but I can’t tell for sure. Actually, I know the dude pretty well, and his wife. I remember meeting him—he approached me to make specific points of appreciation on the craft of my poetry (delivered at a different open mic), sonnets, rondeaux and all. He invited me to join him at a table with his wife. His wife—she is a classic doe-eyed, curly black-haired stunner that looks like she was plucked from a café in 1920s Paris. A little shorter than me, a little wider than him, quiet but sharp. When we first met, I did get into my cups a little. As we spoke, I made prolonged eye contact with each, puzzled and puzzling over whether I might give them the old Crocodile Dundee test to see if, “As above, so below.” I decided not to. The more I spoke with them, the more “normal” they seemed. More later, he’s getting called to the microphone.

“…welcome Keith to the microphone!” With a handshake and a brief hug. With a scattering of snapping fingers like a rainstorm letting up. With scattered hoots and hollers like a sports bar when the hometown team scores. With Jim Morrison in the shadows somewhere saying, “The ceremony is about to begin…”

The ceremony of the open mic had begun.

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Daniel Kemper is a former tournament-winning wrestler, a black belt in traditional Shotokan karate and a former infantryman. He has a BA in English, an MCSE (Systems Engineering), and an MBA.  He quit a 25-year IT career in 2023 and went all-in on poetry. Since then, he’s had works accepted for publication at The Blue Unicorn, The Lyric, thehypertexts.com, The Creativity Webzine, Amethyst Review, Rat’s Ass Review, Formalverse, The Literary Hatchet, the Society for Classical Poets, and Ekphrastic Review. He was an invited presenter at the 2023 national PAMLA conference and will preside over the Poetics Panel at PAMLA 2024. He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by The Blue Unicorn and has been the featured poet at the historic Luna’s Cafe and the Sacramento Poetry Center. 


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18 Responses

  1. Julian D. Woodruff

    Your description gives me another reason for being sorry to have left Sacranento (2014), but also leaves me wondering what place I might have found at an event of this kind. Glad at least to learn that Keith’s wife is a woman (assuming that Keith is not a woman).
    I appreciate the observation about rhyme and meter perceived as alien phenomena. I once subbed for an English teacher, a colleague of mine in the Modeso Symphony Orchestra; the kids were reading Hamlet, and the teacher later expressed amazement that I attempted to introduce them to iambic pentameter, about which none of them had a clue. I was amazed myself that a.musician regularly immersed in Mozart, Brahms, Ravel et al. would not trouble to impart to students the rhythmic rudiments of poetry as it was consistently conceived in the West until long after Shakespeare. And the attendees at the poetry reading–I wonder at how their ears confront rhymed and metered poetry as foreign, when they have striking visual parallels at hand in, e.g., the symmetry visible in the architecture of the Cathedral, Sacred Heart Church, the Capitol, and the original Crocker Museum of Art (where I used to work) and so many of its holdings, but even more the example of the lyrics and structure of the pop music many of them know almost by heart.

    Reply
    • Daniel Kemper

      Hi Julian! Small world~
      Quickly, yes Keith is a pretty masculine guy really, an actual man. He’s a friend. An honest liberal. We have beers and spend almost equal time discussing disagreements and agreements. Folks like this actually exist. Fair points made are acknowledged. We arrive and depart with hugs. In mutual agreement to abundance of caution and decorum, something left out is how Keith and I first bonded.

      Keith is actually one of the ones who understands and appreciates formal poetry and complimented me after a performance in another venue and invited me to his table. Being in my cups, and an ex-grunt, the potential practicality of, shall we say, a moment of public romance in a dress rather than something with sharp metal zippers occured to me and I just asked straight up while his wife was in the powder room. He confirmed the with a boyish conspiratorial chuckle.

      I bet your colleague is hiding his/her metrical illiteracy. The scope of the artistic malnutrition cannot be understated. Or the fear of instructors to venture away from state-mandated doctrine. But yes, yes, yes! So much connectedness with poem song music architecture!

      Sacramento has a lot to offer, as you know. Remember, “Wide Open Walls?” (Note: It basically puts murals on every available space, like the pale green electrical boxes or warehouses, etc. Wide variety. My favorite is a 200-foot-tall Johnny Cash mural downtown.) Remember the alley names? I love that they named their alleys, which traverse the downtown–creatively and logically. First letters of names are alphabetically ordered, but names are fun. Tomato alley or Eggplant or Victorian alley…

      More later.

      Thank you for giving this a go.

      Reply
      • Julian D. Woodruff

        Daniel,
        I’m sure this teacher knew enough of poetics to have done at least as much as I would have liked to. But oh, it’s a 4-hour play, and oh, it’s got all those arcane words and convoluted phrases, and oh, we’ll never have time to get to Whitman if we linger …
        On your reference to “Wide Open Walls” I draw a blank: could that have been a post-Woodruff development in Sacramento, or should I be embarrassed to have been living there 17 years half-blind?

  2. jd

    I really enjoyed this “teaser”, Daniel, and am looking forward to the next installment.

    Reply
    • Daniel Kemper

      Thank you jd. If you liked this, the next will not disappoint.

      Reply
    • Daniel Kemper

      Hi Cheryl!

      What’s in store for more of the series about this little poetry center is actually a very large space. Like Dr. Who’s tardis. Or a little like my own Yoknapatawpha. Assumptions really cannot be made safely made here.

      For example, upon occasion there are events like: https://gracecathedral.org/calendar-events/the-iliad-at-grace-a-public-reading-event/ whose organizer presented at SPC. It’s way uncommon, of course, but supported. You just never know.

      There is a ton of good stuff to come. For many, it will seem at times a freak show, but that’s more unkind than I intend to be. I have found deep and important things to share through this series though. Similar to, but not exactly like, the traceries of the patterns in Invisible Cities.

      Hope you come along for the next stage of the ride!

      Reply
  3. Cynthia Erlandson

    This is great writing, Daniel, and hilarious! And you must have a great sense of humor to continue attending these things. “Let us go and make our visit”, indeed! I’m already hoping that the dilapidated place of meeting is going to symbolize the pathetic dying gasp of formless “poetry”. “They’ve heard rumors and legends of poems that rhyme” is such a great line. I love the way you’ve described the idiosyncratic pentecostalish(?) liturgy of this event. Can’t wait for Part Two; the suspense is killing me!

    Reply
  4. Daniel Kemper

    Hi Cynthia !

    Sharp and good comments. Let me say something regarding, “Symbolizing the pathetic dying gasp of formless “poetry”.”– Many here might know my penchant for finding beauty in broken things. That’s important– where you end, not where you start. All forms of expression are permitted and I’ve been well-treated, if not well-understood. I admit I feel much more comfortable when a logical taxonomy keeps free verse in its own category and doesn’t shoehorn it into poetry. Like anything, 90% is bad and 10% is good. Good “formless poetry” is oxymoronic as stated, but as “good art,” is not oxymoronic. Personally, I’d call it, “Enjambed Flash Fiction.”

    [rumors and legends] Thank you for the compliment on the line!

    It’s important to emphasize that each event has its own spirit, though this is a fairly common type. The fervor with which they organize, communicate, collaborate can’t be overstated. We, as formal poets, don’t do nearly as much of this. And I think that’s a huge reason for the relative imbalanced. They’re pounding the pavement to promote and maintain. Formalists like me, not so much. Yet.

    Anyway, the best way to kill the bad is to encourage practice until it is good, right? Don’t take my rosy glasses away yet. 🙂

    There are a few people who write rhyming poetry. And people I can tell who are infatuated, but afraid. So much to tell. So far to go.

    Reply
  5. Margaret Coats

    Daniel, this may be an essay at the Society of Classical Poets, but it would fit right into a 1976 anthology I have, entitled “The Prose Poem” and edited by poet Michael Benedikt (1935-2007). I took a required senior seminar with Benedikt, where he explained how he tried to distinguish between mere purple passages and prose poems. A big part of it was artistic intention, or the wish to produce something in a style fashionable at the time. Other than that, it seemed to be mostly using prose blocks and some adjectives, instead of typical spare free verse broken lines (which often can be translated into blocks and read just like prose).

    You get credit for the essay intention! As reportage, this is a good description of the very few readings I have attended. Many details change. One important aspect is the nature of the audience. Well-advertised and well-attended readings are not always gatherings of persons who consider themselves poets or even readers of poetry. Groups like that do not know the etiquette you describe so well. But I have never been surprised at the failure to recognize meter. And that’s what it is, in both artists and audience. Free versers don’t seem to be suspicious or alarmed at meter; they just don’t hear it. They do recognize rhyme and may dislike it. But when I hear someone read formal verse, both meter and rhyme may be disguised by drama. That’s the part of reading that the vocalist supplies (pitch, loudness, spacing, gestures, tempo, attempts to delineate mood or character by acting out what is in the text). If a reader does not “perform” to some degree, he is boring, no matter how good the poem. And many poems (my own especially) depend on silent, visual reading for full effect. Reading that way is a different experience. The silent reader has the ability to look up, down, sideways, and indeed re-read before coming to the end of a sentence or stanza, much less to the end of the poem as a whole. Reading aloud requires dramatic acting, which may be why you ask about which comes first. Does drama follow poets, or poets follow drama?

    Considering the time before a public open-mic reading, the poets naturally do some kind of self-presentation (such as your arriving early, which I do as well, to gauge the scene as others enter, and decide how much I want to participate). It’s the same as lengthening one’s written list of places published, but far less tedious, and more fun to anyone with a flair for it.

    I’m sure you’ll go into more about my points as you proceed. I like your concern with the scope of artistic malnutrition in evidence. I’ll also be interested in more on topics favored at readings, and on codes of conduct, which exist whether explicitly known or not. I would say bawdiness is so prevalent as to be old hat–except that newcomers must show a little to prove themselves. The more shocking or offensive the language on any topic, the more “powerful.” Still, a competition in that peters out quickly at a reading, where everyone wants to get on to the next thing without losing much time.

    Looking forward to your continuations and overall analysis!

    Reply
    • Daniel Kemper

      Hey Margaret,

      Thank you for the high praise about the poetic feel of the essay. This is one of my first forays into other-than-strict-rhyme-and-meter, and it is rather daunting in the face of some of the masters of prose on this site.

      Intention matters, I hope! 🙂

      There are a lot of dimensions to the experience, and I hope to have time to explore them all, including the many various artists who appear. Some things are the same over and over, some unique.

      You raise a great point that is on my mind to get to, but I expect to have to go a long way to set it up properly in an essay. The performative part of a poem is not trivial. It is definitely not, just read what’s on the page. There is a magical middle way between staring at the top of someone’s head as they stare at a book/phone and read and an outlandish performance piece, engaging enough on its own terms, but totally losing the poem in the process. It’s not easy. And degrees of appreciation for it are indeed a kind of high art/fine art. Like the perfectly pitched warble in a country lyric, or the slight gear-changing speed of a bluegrass riff, or a well-timed Waitsian grumble, or yes, the hovering singularity in a Beethoven late quartet.

      And it’s compounded because it takes time to get past the adrenaline of presentation. First comes uncertainty, then after a few times, some comfort, but unconscious acceleration, then too much time making friends with the crowed, then a new round of uncertainty wondering if the crowd is sufficiently perceptive…

      {Does drama follow poets, or poets follow drama?} This phrase works on a lot of levels. Potential callbacks in store.

      “Powerful.” It’s been said that sometimes these sessions are really therapy sessions. Some really difficult to hear stuff is presented. I feel like Irv Yalom has snuck in as the MC sometimes. That leaves the event woefully mislabeled, IMO, but an important one still.

      I attend more than one place but will probably blend them all into this one. I flatter myself that for about six months after I started, I saw 0 other rhyme and meter (RAM) poets. Now, there are ~10-15%. Maybe it’s just frequency illusion.

      Thank you for your positive vibes and insight. I hopeful of coming through strong with the next.

      Reply
  6. Jeff Kemper

    I can’t wait to read about the readings!

    I have “made my visit” to a few of these in my area and have been less than pleased with the results. I have never read my own poetry and I wonder how it might be received, were I to in the future. There is one semi-formalist poet who was a good presenter. As for the others, the same old prose nonsense gallivanting as “poetry.”

    BTW, it was that very poem you plagiarized (Prufrock), that I had to analyze way back when for Freshman Comp, that was my initial spur to write poetry.

    Reply
  7. Daniel Kemper

    Jeff

    I’m glad you enjoy and anticipate still better– it’s already in the hopper.

    How [your poetry] might be received. First time through, the awful sound of faint, polite applause. Remember, infants often need food presented 10-12 times before accepting and liking it, though. Over time, as they get to know you and get used to it, things grow.

    To paraphrase the first recorded convert in the NT: How will they understand unless someone explains it to them?

    Prufrock was big for me too. There was a debate here some time back about why Eliot is still everywhere, and Auden is only sprinkled around. Among the reasons, I think Auden was higher IQ; consequently, Eliot’s work is infused with the strain it took him to get where he got. And identifying with that strain and pain is a powerful hook. Just a one-off thought.

    Thanks for digging in! I hope not to disappoint with the next…

    Reply
  8. ABB

    I remember the first time I went to a coffee shop for an open mic poetry event in high school. I started laughing hysterically in a very cruel way during someone’s performance. The guy across the table from me kept telling me to ‘shut the F up’ a few times and I almost got in a fight with him, then left to sip my coffee outside. I regret nothing.

    Looking forward to the next installment. Admire your willingness to work with people, Daniel.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Gerald Harnett, the editor of the formally metrical journal Hellas, had a habit when attending poetry readings where the bulk of the material presented was predictable junk. He had a small cardboard placard tacked to a stick, on which these words were written in big capitals: WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

      When someone read a particularly impenetrable piece of navel-gazing obscurity, without saying a word he lifted up the placard and waved it vigorously.

      I can’t imagine how that would fit in with the Code of Conduct expected in Sacramento.

      In any case, Daniel has piqued the interest of everyone here. We look forward to reading what happened next.

      Reply
    • Daniel Kemper

      YO ABB!

      Admire your forthrightness. Raw feelings produce raw reactions, I suppose. I’m glad you are looking forward to following along with things as I open this tesseract little by little.

      Feelings, emotion, passion in poetry–live passion–is an important theme that will thread along through these installments. A key conundrum is this: If all feelings are to be validated, what do you do when feelings are in direct opposition to each other?

      More in store, for sure.
      Daniel

      Reply
  9. Joshua C. Frank

    Is this a true story? It reminds me of the readings where I read.

    Reply
  10. Daniel Kemper

    Howdy sir!

    This is a true story, slightly tweaked. For example, I don’t actually remember what shoes Keith was wearing at the time. And a different poet/host typically uses the “abundance” word. But it all assembles validly.

    Reply

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