A Formalist Poet at the Open Mic

Part II: The First Reader

by Daniel Kemper

Keith stands up semi-gracefully in the dead center of the metal folding chairs, gives his patented sugary-surly smile, swings his head in a short semi-circle and swishes his hair back, and tucks it behind his ear as his Doc Martin boots thud against a chair, a shin, and then at last, the open air. (Doc Martins! How could I have mistaken them for Louboutins?) He makes big nodding motions as the crowd go half-wild with finger snaps, jocular shouts, “I KNOW that guy!” and scattered claps. Some are still pretty stiff. Surely yours truly is not one of them. But maybe I was once. A guy whose face and dress I cannot remember for the life of me shouts like he’s got inside information that makes him cool, “I love the dress!” He’s a poser. Keith rolls his eyes. The crowd is unusually, quickly quiet.

“I know you do.”

More silence.

“But you can’t have it.” The tension breaks like a gust of wind in a rain saturated tree. Maybe it had been quiet and rainless a moment ago, but now there’s a fresh spray. Laughter. Applause. He doesn’t begin with the ubiquitous, “This poem is called…” He just lets the silence do that and just states the title outright, then in his pause, the room gets quiet.

“It’s 9:30 p.m. on a Tuesday and I’m trying to remember a password.”


There is such a thing as
wine from dandelions
Crushed buds
Turning water yellow and cloudy …


But now, you, dear reader, can’t have it. The rest of his poem will have to wait for now. The thing is that not only does every open mic have its own spirit from night to night, but there is also an entirely different culture here. Different from what? From the people who neither write, nor read nor speak. Also, different from traditional. Welcome to California.

That’s all cliches and chuckles of course, but we should linger here a little while, step out of time, and walk around the inside of the poetry center a bit longer. There are paintings on the back wall and internal side wall and a few on a small wall to the right of the mic and beside the stage as the crowd would see it. If we retraced our steps and came in the door again, the back wall would be on our left but the wall immediately on our right hand—the one that the door is a part of has a table with the snacks and coffee and whatnot. Beside it, there’s a table with books by whoever happens to be around tonight—the host, the feature, a few leftovers.

Here’s the reason for the pause. The paintings, with their varied skill levels and techniques and subjects and skill levels and placements and skill levels (are you getting me?) reflect visually in an instant what can be expected from the mic. The culture is a culture of poets, but what they call poetry, again varying in skill level, is quite different from the traditional.

But it’s not that there’s a single difference, like traditional is vanilla and this poetry is chocolate, though I am dropping you a hint about the average color tones in each enterprise. It’s that there are many poetries here. The term “Spoken Word” is really best. Look, I’m a formalist and think that’s the definition of poetry. I’ve got my arguments very well thought out, very well formalized. Right?

Now is not the time that I want to have that debate, though. Think of it: timing matters and purpose and humility. They are the ones providing the open mic for me. Where are the formalist-hosted open mics? No, it’s definitely a time for appreciation. Nonetheless, when I write, “Spoken Word,” there is a wide range of any variable you could imagine. And a wide range of ways to appreciate each, if one is willing. I hope to sail by these varieties of Spoken Word presently, but not in a Melville-like manner of detailing ships’ supplies or species of whales. Just a gesture at the ocean, then we’ll focus on the one or two at hand.

One thing that drives me crazy—and this is a good plank for connecting—is that there is this species of poet—and poetry—where someone says, “I just wrote this poem tonight, just a little while ago, and I’m gonna read it off my iPhone. Give me a second to find it.” This is a good plank for connecting, because most people here, regardless of their style, variety, voice of poetry, whatever forms they’re called to use—they are serious about the evening. But variety exists in the fans as well as the verse. Some just come to get laid.

They don’t come for that for long. The Sacramento Poetry Center is not the estate of a dissolute English Lord. It’s a scrappy place and most of the people have some core of their nature that is scrappy. There’s a struggle, an agonistes, in each of them, and that is beautiful. Beautiful. But you have to work at it to find that core sometimes. Another sort of poet who comes here are the established hip-hop types. Now, of course there are plenty of hip-hop artists who simply torture prose to fit their beat, but I have had the extraordinary surprise of being in the presence of some who stayed spot on. And even more extraordinary, they made it up as they went. They also work in anapests and dactyls frequently without knowing the terminology for it—just playing by ear as it were, which alone is fascinating and impressive. The guys who are really good at that, who you can tell really drill, really listen, really develop themes, who spin their diction and polyrhythms like a Chinese acrobat spins plates: they’re the cutting edge of traditional poetry. If we could only just talk to each other.

Then there’s a whole family of writing that obeys principles of good writing, but you could not tell whether it is flash fiction or poetry. Some is good enough to make me forget taxonomy for a bit. Some, but that matters. T.S. Eliots continue to be born.

Then there’s political stuff, therapeutic stuff, personal stuff, and so on, but I promised not to survey the seven seas. It might seem like I’m giving a free pass to them—those who know me know how anal I am about perfect meter, which perhaps I’ll come to later, but suffice to say, yes. Yes I am giving them a bit of a free pass at the moment. Again, how could I not be a gracious guest? They are providing for me, not I for them. Also, although it does feel a bit like a Twilight Zone episode, it is also empirically true that I am the odd one here. Further, I’m older. More life is behind me than ahead for sure. Having seen a thing or two come and go, I love their striving, struggling, longing. It overpowers the urge to critique during the event.

There was a time when I felt the whole scene to be bad replications of what was true poetry and I’d verbally hunt down and retire those replicants, but in the end there was a time when I was hanging off a cliff and someone invited me to this. It was like they caught my hand just as I passed my endurance and started to fall.

Back to Keith’s poem.


… It’s how I’m
courting bitterness
Sipping mashed leaves
and poisons
Sitting at a desk
Flattop sleek
and marred by
detritus of felled trees
and the wet shadow
of a half full glass
A sticky note on the
bottom of the monitor
in your handwriting like
cars going too fast
on crowded freeways
It says

I hope you find your peace

I’m shaking again
but slowly
It’s just me with thoughts
of flesh and absence
and candle wicks surrounded
by puddles of soy
It’s me and fermented dandelions
Dragging cursor to
the bottom of the login
screen and pointedly
filling the

Remember me.



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, 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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22 Responses

  1. Paul Erlandson

    Thanks for this, Daniel. I’ve been to several formalist-hosted open mics in the past few years. My last time reading at the kind you describe here, however, was in the early 1990s.

    I read a poem with VERY tight, formal rules. It was iambic, and 80 syllables total. It must rhyme both when arranged as 8 lines of 10 syllables AND 10 lines of 8 syllables. But though it looks very formal on the page, the “beat frequency” effect of the rhymes catching and passing each other give it a “be-bop” feel when read aloud. It went over fairly well.

    The next reader’s offering was more political. His poem was interspersed with random imperative’s such as “Boycot Nestle’s!!!”

    Thanks again for this essay!

    • Daniel Kemper

      Hi Paul,

      You are certainly welcome! Please let me know about those formalist open mics; I’m trying to catalog a number of things that I can share with others for convenience. I’ve not found a formalist open mic in NC, VA, CA or WA. I’m sure they’re there, but the stunning disproportion can’t be missed.

      Neat idea: A-rhymes every fourth foot, B-rhymes every fifth. I’d love to read your poem. And I love that your form was highly musical.

      Not knowing your situation, I hope you can keep getting out there. We formalists gave up the field as much as it was taken, I think. As for the boycotts, etc., they’re everywhere. Politics seems endemic to poetry no matter the side. *sigh*

      • Paul Erlandson

        Thanks, Daniel. As of right now, I don’t have a local poetry reading place such as we used to have. Maybe someone will revive it.

        I should have stressed that the form I mention was not invented by me, but by a friend from California, Mr. Russ Smith. I’ve made 4 or 5 in this form, but this was my first, and was actually published in “Dome”, the Journal of St. Paul’s, London.

        A Winter’s Eucharist (London, 1990)

        A winter’s Eucharist I took
        At noon, with Cranmer’s little book
        My fork and spoon to eat the bread
        Of heaven as we sung and read,
        The blood of Jesus on my tongue.
        St. Paul’s Cathedral round me rung
        With late echoes of Donne and Wren.
        How very great our God is then
        Who on His wise wheel spun the sun,
        As well as Messrs. Wren and Donne!

        A winter’s Eucharist I took at noon,
        With Cranmer’s little book my fork and spoon
        To eat the bread of heaven as we sung —
        (And red the blood of Jesus on my tongue).
        St. Paul’s Cathedral round me rung with late
        Echoes of Donne and Wren. How very great
        Our God is then who on His wise wheel spun
        The sun, as well as Messrs. Wren and Donne!

        © 1993, Paul Erlandson

  2. Mary Gardner

    Daniel, one of my mentors said good writing “takes you somewhere.” Your essay, including “Keith’s” unstructured recitation, has done just that.
    Thank you for the reminder on how to be a gracious guest.
    I am looking forward to Part III.

    • Daniel Kemper

      Mary, your email was very encouraging: thank you! There’s plenty of interesting material for a series not unlike the old, “Letter from America.” I’d love to continue; it’s unclear the best path forward right now. But there might be more coming.

      I’m particularly encouraged; I mean really, really encouraged by your comment on grace. Whether it’s returned or reviled, I think it’s the only way to be. “All things are possible, but not all things are good.”

  3. Joshua C. Frank

    This sounds like every poetry reading I’ve ever been to, and I live in a red state! It’s rare that I hear an actual poem with rhyme and meter as opposed to pieces very much like the one read in your story. Usually, I’m the only one at the reading who uses form or isn’t far-left, let alone both. I’d hate to think what would happen if I read my stuff at a reading in California!

    You’ve described the experience well.

    • Daniel Kemper

      Howdy Joshua,

      Thank you for the props. Glad to hear you are out there. Is your experience also that the other non-formalists simple have zero knowledge and not necessarily an a priori distaste for formal poetry? (Save some sour-grapes kind of bitching.)

      For me, every open mic seems like a new Yoknapatawpha county.

      BTW, I’ve recently heard of a small group of formalists that meets at someone’s house here in Sac. So, there is *something* here. Sort of. We’ll see. To be fair, the open mics declare all forms of expression acceptable, and they’ve been as good as their word with me. It might be fun for an essay like these just to walk through the variety out here! 🙂

      • Joshua C. Frank

        Yes, that’s my experience. One of them, a staunch leftist who writes exclusively in free verse, said, “There is no nice way to say this, but your worldview is completely opposite from mine… but still, you’re a very good poet.” I just said thank you and added that one of my favorite poets (Georges Brassens, 1921-1981) was an anarchist and an open adulterer. Others there have tried debating me on the content of my work… I’ve had to start limiting my side of the debate to the poems because even here, left-liberals aren’t happy with anything other than total surrender and assimilation.

        I’ve only heard one other poet there use form (one poem in abab common meter). I’d love to be part of a formalist group like that… any chance yours does open mics online as well?

  4. Paul A. Freeman

    There was an episode of the TV detective show ‘Ironside’, where the be-wheelchaired hero is taken by his two young acolytes to a poetry reading. The look on Ironside’s face when the finger-clicking started was something to behold. Mind you, I’d never come across such a thing either.

    In Abu Dhabi there’s a monthly open mic poetry event called Rooftop Rhythms which tends to be mostly lyrical rapping. I went once or twice, but for more formal poetry and more variety, the city’s writers’ club suited me better.

    But as you mention, Daniel, it takes all types.

    • Paul Erlandson

      Your mention of Ironside reminded my of my favorite cinematic scene involving a beat poetry reading. It is Philippa Fallon from “High School Confidential.” She pops her fingers between stanzas:

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        The piano player in the background of that video is Jackie Coogan, who played “Uncle Fester” in the Addams Family TV series.

      • Paul A. Freeman

        That was very entertaining. I looked for that Ironside clip, but couldn’t find it.

    • Daniel Kemper


      Ironside! Wow, that takes me back. The guy who runs the poetry center is actually a living link to those times, e.g. friend of Gary Snyder, the last of those beatnik Mohicans–though he wasn’t actually a beatnik. Hung out with the whole crowd as ‘the kid.’ Anyway, when I first encountered finger-clicking, it felt plenty weird, but it’s evolved to a very useful function, the applause without interruption, bit.

      They still applaud of course, and at the Berkeley Slam, the crowd is rip-roaring. Slams there are very often musical, not just machine-gun prose. Interestingly, it’s judged, there’s a winner every night. Though no one really worries about not winning. It’s thrilling to be in a crowd that gets yelling-fanfare-loud for poetry. Rapping/hip-hop/slam is a razor edge. When it’s good, it’s very good. But when not. Ug. And ug. Seems no middle ground.

      I am convinced if they understood just the basics of meter, many would be producing “Goblin Markets” and “Kubla Khans” and the like.

      Have to go as far as Abu Dhabi for more formal stuff?! Ha! Are you still out there, or stateside? Found any stuff like the city writers’ club around here?

      Thanks for reading and engaging!

  5. Daniel Kemper

    In my post-semester catch-up, I noticed a small, critical mistake in the manuscript I sent Evan. The last two words are supposed to be one. “Rememberme”

    It’s important because it’s a common password like “changeme” or “password” or “Password123!” or whatever. The speaker remembering and wanting to be remembered and logging in. And the single word unifies his whole thread. Not sure if that comes across if the ending is in two words.

    If only it were metrical. 😉

  6. ABB

    Good observation of how the paintings reflect what’s happening onstage. I, too, would like to find a formalist open mic. Don’t know of anything like that in the KC area, and the only SCP-er near me that I know of is Stephen Dickey. The potential problem I foresee with that is free-versers showing up asking to participate. And if you allow them out of a natural inclination to be friendly, they will swamp the show and ruin everything.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      There used to be several formal poetry open-mic events here in New York City. There was the Belanthi Gallery, the Jefferson Market Library, the Moroccan Star, the Iambs and Trochees readings run by Bill Carlson, the Soldiers and Sailors Club in Manhattan, the Shelley Society run by Annette Feldmann, and the Pivot Press readings run by Art Mortensen.

      They’re all gone — and for precisely the reason that you have mentioned. When the free-versers started showing up, that was the beginning of the end.

  7. ABB

    Also, have to praise Evan’s choice images juxtaposing the genteel culture of formalism against the degenerate with half his (“their?”) hair shaved off. Perfect.

  8. Daniel Kemper

    Guys, seems to me you lose the ground you leave. Simple as that.

    But to honor your feelings to a point, I’ll say it does feel like a siege sometimes to me too. Abandoning the field has had predictable results. So, here’s the thing; you don’t survive a siege unless you break it. You gotta get outside.

    If we just preach to each other’s choirs and work ourselves up as if these people are nothing but Dalit boogeymen, we’ll self-trigger into ranting, dysfunctional behaviors, which in the end secure no rights, nothing, except the right to rant.

    Don’t get me wrong. There is a place for strong walls and sacred spaces.

    It’s just that we should consciously balance walls and ventures, in my opinion.

    We need to be the strong, stable men that these people are actually hungry for. Not perfect men, Lord knows I’m not. Don’t get me started drinking and talking drinking stories. Just be a man who shows up and leads the way forward. Hold your standard. Teach. Lead. Demonstrate (as in be an example, not sit in and demand door-dash 🙂 ). Seek rest in places like SCP when you need it. Get up and do it again.

    You’re gonna take your hits if you do. I’ve been nearly simultaneously excoriated as both a Trump and a Mao, someone destructive of tradition b/c I hold a higher standard, and yet at the same time one trying to subvert tradition, a closet leftist, a closet capitalist. Your gonna take your hits; it’s not easy. There’s gonna be times when you want to quit, and encouragement will come from the most unexpected places. Sometimes from the same place you took hits. Some will come around; some won’t. Some will regard *you* as the one who came around. But as Stanley crouch wrote, you gotta get out on the field and stay out on the field.

    Anyway, there’s a clear subtext here. Forthrightly speaking, it’s annoying, but it’s ultimately good. Let’s just name it and not freak out. And fix stuff. The subtext is basically, “Daniel, be careful of these open mic essays. We think you might bring corruption into SCP with them. At a minimum ease up on the technique of bringing their free verse here.” Fair enough. Blessed are the wounds of a friend. I can use my own formal verse to capture the moment instead since I do like the essay + poem formant.

    As it happens there’s sort of a transitional one in that mode that’s already in the pipe. 🙂

    I’m sure I’ll revisit the topic in other threads.

  9. Margaret Coats

    Daniel, you’ve perhaps made your point more clearly in the May 9 comment than in the essay presenting Keith at the open mic, with a long portion arguing that there is a specific culture to open mic presentations, or a culture specific to each different open mic venue, or to each person appearing (host, featured reader, other readers, and listeners who are not always passive). You find that open mic culture has been abandoned by nearly all formalist writers, and encourage us to participate rather than lose this ground. You admit that open mic ground is in fact lost ground and enemy territory, if we consider who is in charge. You imply that the open mic phenomenon is poetry, or a part of poetry, or one of many poetries. Formalist poets should therefore be concerned with it, even if it is uncomfortable and includes free versifiers.

    Points taken, and encouragement welcome. I think the subtext you discover in responses may mean, “Daniel, couldn’t you present this in a clearer form?” I for one think Part II is less of an essay than Part I of your series. I don’t even know that you needed Keith’s poem to make your points, but it may have been worthwhile for those readers less familiar with his sort of writing. Whatever hostility you notice is similar to hostility aroused here for various reasons.

    I also appreciate your reference to walls and ventures, and the advisability of both. Of course you know quite well that there are many more poetry readings that not entirely open mic (sponsored by bookstores to attract customers, or by libraries or academic groups, or by a particular poet or supporters). More like the open mic are readings sponsored by groups that do no public advertising, but meet irregularly and thus announce time and place by e-mail. The place is in effect private (a home, or church or club or civic hall, or restaurant with reservable room). Anyone who comes may read a poem or two, and these need not be original. This kind of meeting has its own culture too. I am on the e-mail list of an Orange County group where high tea is the culture, and refreshments as well as poems are contributed. The very atmosphere is more cultural appreciation than self-promotion–and though much of the poetry is formal, we too have reciters reading free verse from their phones.

    I would suggest that another open mic near-equivalent is the big commercial poetry sites online, where anyone who registers can post whatever he or she wishes, and promote competitions or challenges to anyone who pays attention to such announcements. There is a considerable proportion of formal writing at these sites. They get a lot of traffic and rake in the advertising money, with advertisements often jumping into the reading space as one attempts to read a poem.

    I bring in these examples not to berate open mic or your recommendations, but to show how much in the way of poetry participation may be available to those who want it. Thanks for your description of open mic; maybe it will encourage some here to think of becoming formalist hosts.

    • Daniel Kemper

      Hi Margaret,

      These essays are sort of a Canterbury Tales more than a discursive proof-text. Maybe questions and responses tend to frame it a little differently. I’m not really making an arguement, just doing a Livinstone, you may presume. The different spirits as you observe aren’t limited to these kinds of open mics.

      Some of what’s there contains poetry/attempts at poetry, but not all that’s presented is poetry, for sure. SPC often states a credo of accepting all forms of poetry and acknowledging that all poetry was once experimental. Mine is rare for there, but they’ve accepted it.

      I think the best way I’ve found so far to get along with free verse is to consider it flash fiction, technically enjambed flash fiction, but you rarely *hear* enjambments.

      It’s quite insightful when you mention the parallels in hostility. I’m grateful when they become clear so that they can be addressed. There’s nothing wrong with adapting speech and subject matter to properly honor a venue. Offering grace and courtesy is not repression.

      Though you note formal sites the percentages are still quite steep. There are journals and lists of them online, I hope to start creating lists of sites and open mics for formalists and traditionalists.

      Please don’t worry about me feeling berated. I do not. Your firmfairness is something I love. You’ll give my stuff a stout tire-kicking, but although the bar you present is high, when I acheive it, you acknowledge it in good faith. I often thing of Bagatelle for Brokenness, produced as the result of a challenge. Many responded. You worked it over, found it good, if obsessive (but not dependent on its unobtrusive obsessive features). You actually found a small but critical theological issue (which I have addressed by building the bagatelle out into a full sonata). All very honorable. So, no I don’t feel berated. I feel secure. And a little bit indebted: I count on SCP for stuff like that.

      Thank you.

  10. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Daniel, I am most intrigued by your open mic series. Your words paint such a colorful picture of the poets and their surrounds, this reader simply had to pull up a chair and listen. So many thoughts swirled around my head upon reading your observations.

    For me, this is where the message hangs (no pun intended): “The paintings, with their varied skill levels and techniques and subjects and skill levels and placements and skill levels (are you getting me?) reflect visually in an instant what can be expected from the mic.”

    I’m glad to see that creativity is out there. I believe the skill level is dependent upon the education creatives have received or been denied. If “write what you know” is where it’s at, for all who are writing what they know with the aim of entertaining with “truth and beauty”, the meaning of these two words has been twisted out of all recognition. For many budding poets, truth is fluid and beauty is brokenness.

    That’s why I think it’s important for those who believe in immutable truth and a beauty that depends upon a literary canon that includes the likes of Shakespeare, to stand at the mic and deliver. To read a villanelle, a sonnet, a pantoum, or a sestina in a voice that sings with the joy of wondrously woven words is a radical move that is one step towards change.

    I have a story of my own. Reading formal poetry in monthly Zoom sessions since 2020 in a UK university group that favors modern poetry, I saw small changes, then larger ones, to the point where alliteration litters much of the free verse, and strict form crops up regularly. I believe it’s only by getting out there and sharing that you have a chance of opening minds. I will admit to enjoying and being inspired some of the skillful imagery produced in the free verse. I hope one day we are all able to move forward with a mutual love of language and not the political skewing of it in mind… it seems improbable, but maybe taking that one small step to bravely belt out an adjective-and-adverb-rich, alliterative sonnet at the open mic on a regular basis could make all the difference.

    Daniel, thank you.

    • Daniel Kemper

      Howdy and cheerio Susan,

      I’m delighted you plucked the crystalization from among the words. Exactly as I’d hoped the microcosm would play. As for skill level and learning, it’s akin to multi-generational welfare: I believe few instructors know the basics of meter now — they were not taught, or rather were taught the ever-popular sour-grapes-scorn, and so they do not teach. Many things that are necessary but not sufficient are taught individually, piecemeal, as the entirety of poetry, i.e. writing what you know. Yes, you must, but there’s a teensy-weensy bit more to it than that…

      Thank you for your props and for letting me know you picked up on that.

      It’s odd and jarring to see how suspicious the average open-mic-er is of truth and beauty. Truth becomes “your truth” or “my truth.” (fear of top-down pressure) Beauty is overwhelmed by the fear of being found unbeatiful. (fear of peer pressure)

      Yes, stand and deliver, absolutely. It might be frequency illusion or Bader-Meinhoff, but I’d swear I’m seeing more rhyming poems than when I stared open-mic-ing ~18 months ago. (I might have one more bit of good news, and though I bubbled out in one other place already, I don’t want to jinx it. Stay tuned.)

      I loved your story. Thank you for sharing. It’s encouraging and morale-building. The desire is out there, I’m sure. The alliteration and wordplay, from just the right angle is like a baby learning to speak, these poets just need to keep going.

      One weird thing. Music is a rich source of analogy for me. Formal verse seems something like classical music to me, but free-verse does not strike me as pop music. It strikes me as “free form jazz exploration” (to quote Spinal Tap). And the massive middle of an analog for pop music seems missing. My calling is classical, not pop, so not sure what to do with that. Just musing.

      Thanks for the encouragement. Thanks for the contribution of your skill and insight day after day after day.


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