Monday, January 22, 2018

Full House Enriched by Powerful Readings at Beaners Spoken Word Open Mic


Last Thursday I attended the January Spoken Word Open Mic, a monthly event that takes place  at Beaners Central, the 3rd Thursday of every month. Hosted by Tina Higgins Wussow, who weaves a trivia contest throughout the evening, the event features writers and all genres of written work. As further inducement to come, the win is half price on these special nights.

Writers from all kinds come to read, and often there is someone takes the stage who has never read their poems or stories in public before.

When I arrived Thursday the parking lot was jammed, something I'd never seen before for a poetry night. The street parking was also maxed as well,  so it was curious. As it turned out, the mob was gathered for Liz, a candidate for city counsel I believe. But even after the Rally for Liz thinned it was an exceptionally healthy crowd, from the stage to the windows in the other room.

After welcoming everyone, Tina announced that the theme of this month's trivia contest was "wood." During the course of the evening we were asked questions about what state produces the most matchsticks, which state produces the most toothpicks, what country has the longest wooden bridge in the world, what country has the oldest tree, along with questions about beavers and termites. It's multiple choice, so you can guess your answers if totally blanked out.

But the writers present were there to read, and it was an excellent crop, because as many as a half dozen were there as a final practice event in preparation for Gut Instinct, an event in Ashland in which winners of a writing competition were invited to read their stories. So, we were treated to some mighty fine memoir excerpts, stories and poems.

Tom Kanzar read first, sharing a story about an incident in the South Pacific during the Second World War. A typhoon sank a ship and the brave seaman of the Tabor searched for 36 hours to find survivors. Kanzar, a wiry older man, wore a Stetson cocked at an angle and took a Sinatra-esque pose. He said that he sees it as a performance in which the object is to become someone else.

The second reader, David, reads a section from his non-fiction memoir, a memory from the first grade. It began, "The kid that lives next door is the one and only guest who is not a blood relative at your birthday party..." The story segues to an incident in school that pummels you like a volley of punches.

Zomie followed, offering up two whimsically titled poems, Why the World Needs More Georgia (O'Keefe) and After the Endoscopy, After Which You Looked Into My Guts and Found Nothing. This poem was written in an effort to redeem a bad experience, a poem about fortitude in the midst of the system.

I recently produced a piece of flash fiction titled The Gladiator that I wanted to share. When I heard some of the other readers I realized the importance of practicing your work before you read. A little rehearing helps strengthen one's presentation, a lesson I need to remind myself of before my reading.

At least a half dozen readers had come as a warm up for Gut Instinct. The readings included a terrifying first person excerpt from a novel about mountain climbing, about hiding in a crevasse waiting out a storm in a ten day storm with the tensions over tough decisions vividly outlined; a memoir about memories of New Mexico; a piece  about tea and relationships; a wonerful story about teen angst that began, "In the middle of January Willen still hadn't figured out how to talk to girls. Even if he failed, trying was the right thing to do.

As a writer/reader myself, I get impressed by and take pleasure in beautiful sentences, and there were plenty of these Thursday. Chris, who teaches English as a second language at UMD, read an autobiographical piece about a camping trip. The poem converged into this one wonderful line: "And you realize it's this vulnerability you've been searching for all along."

Marie Zhukov of the Lake Superior Writers, shared a powerful non-fiction essay about being mugged and its subsequent events with the intriguing title, Book Signings Can Be Hazardous To Your Health.

A fellow named Kevin shared three short, heartfelt poems: 1. The Lonely Mop Bucket 2. Music of the Universe 3. What Is Art? and a young woman name Cheyenna took the stage for the first time in her life to read a pair of poems as well.

Keynote presenter Jayson Iwen took the stage along with a UMD student, Mollek Adju, who hails from Tripoli in Libya. Dr. Iwen, who teaches at UWS, is himself a writer and poet with experience teaching English and writing. Interestingly, he lived in Beirut from 2004 to 2006 where he organized, publicized and emceed the first postwar public open mic reading series in Lebanon, a series that led to ongoing readings at the Blue Note Café.

For this particular evening Iwen and Adju read from the recently published Lighthouse for the Drowning by Jawdat Fakhreddine. There was a tragic beauty in these poems. Adju read a portion of a section in Arabic and Dr. Iwen read his English translation. There were so many great lines that served as containers for profound thoughts.

The process of translating the work to English was intriguing. A literal word-meaning translation would be produced by his assistant, and then Dr. Iwen would craft this so as to be culturally accurate and parallel to the intent of the writer. The themes reminded me of the longing for homeland expressed in Psalm 137.

This latter portion of the program was so rich that I must save it for another day.

Best to you in the week ahead and cherish it.

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