The Art and Craft of the Word Alive and Well in the City

(Credit: Findlay Market)
(Credit: Findlay Market)

(Note: Links to all references designated at conclusion of post.)

“If I open the door to words, I will leave this world.” – Poet in the Garden participant.

For three days I left this world, and with muck boots on, waded into the world of words, poets and writers. Daily, they muster up the courage to not only write about their life, surroundings, anger and joy, but they hone those words until their meaning takes the same shape as in the writer’s mind, and finally, they whisper, recite or shout out those words to the public.

Upon returning, I pronounced the art and craft of the spoken and written word alive and well, breathing and pacing, kicking and screaming, in Cincinnati, with subject matters as diverse as the city itself. Topics ranged from geology and fossils, to Michael Brown and rape, and the poetry of pottery. From twerking to the Genius of Water. And, of course, Skyline chili.

My first foray began with judging a spoken word contest at Findlay Market. The event, hosted by Findlay Market and Kathy Y. Wilson, opened with several young competitors in the upcoming weekend’s Louder Than a Bomb spoken word contest. But the other participants ranged from young, black women to old, white men, and everyone in between. Brian Sullivan, founder of Roh’s Coffee Shop Queen City Poetry Open Mic/Slam, coordinated the event with his usual invisibility and efficiency.

First, what was a white woman like me, sitting there in judgment of a poetry form that is as foreign to me as the Chinese language? To be honest, I don’t know, but I sure had fun. Besides, I was told repeatedly, it was all subjective.

While I absorbed much about the craft and form of spoken word, I also learned a few things about myself. I was conscious of my scores, asking, am I rooting for this person because of the color of their skin? At one point, our host called me out for giving the sensitive white guy a high score, but to be honest, I scored him high because  no one else would, and wanted to give him props for getting on stage. Sometimes, we have to rate courage equal to art.

In the final rounds, my scores were lower than the other judges. I had become a bit more, well, judgmental. However, I scored fairly, using the first slam poet as a measuring stick, and the rest scored below her. She turned out to be the winner.

It was an exercise in fairness for me. Was I prejudice? Did I only want women to win? The three winners were Protagonist, Arianna, and Calla, all women, two African-Americans, one white. All blew my mind. Several perform at Roh’s Queen City Poetry Open Mic & Slam. And, you can catch more spoken word performances at Louder Than a Bomb, April 18, with teams from Elementz, Seven Hills, and Wordplay.  Read here and here, to learn more about poetry slams and why they exist.

Later that evening, I reworked a poem of mine. When I broke down the lines to add layers, I noted the rhythm of the piece had turned more towards spoken word than usual. I had been unduly influenced. My only regret about the spoken word event had been poets spoke too fast for me to get my readback lines down.

My second experience was as holder for Meaningful Mondays: Women Poets in Arnold’s Courtyard. Typical of my actions, long ago, I stated to the director of Women Writing for a Change I hoped my move into the city would bring the voices of WWfaC here as well. When the opportunity arose to lead and host poetry readings at Arnold’s, I took the chance. I have not looked back, and our success is evident in that women poets who are not members of WWfaC contact me to find out how to be a part of the event.

MM 2Our third Meaningful Monday offered the same diversity as the poetry slam, in a different from. Each woman was given eight to ten minutes to read and share. The women ranged from elders, Linda Busken Jergens, to Alison Caller and Celeste Fohl, to Jaye Johnson, a young woman now teaching our even younger girls in our YW programs. The topics ranged from friends who died, mothers who left, origin poems, and what does it mean to be black, but not black.

These women are not “published”, though we always call readarounds a form of publishing, and the Arnold’s event proved to the be the same. Guests circled around the poets afterwards to ask questions, and congratulate the women for their courage, their words, to share how those words touched them . I too congratulated them for contending with the birds that flew in the courtyard, the bells that chimed in the distance, the barrels that rolled below us. In attendance was the founder of WWfaC Mary Pierce Brosmer, who will read her original works in May, and also, a supporter from the local trio, Raison d’etre, Roberta Schultz, a poet in her own right. I would see her the next night as well. The final Monday of the series wraps up May 4 and we, I, hope to repeat our event in the fall. In the interim, WWfaC offers poetry workshops and public readarounds where one can hone their words and share in the bounty of others.

Finally, the convenience of city living offered the opportunity to attend the third week of Poetry in the Garden at the Main Public Library. While the space is technically not a garden, due to space considerations, the chairs faced out to Piatt Park, where city life it is own sort of garden. Prior to the reading, a church group was grilling burgers in the park and serving those in need. An occasional siren whisked past, as did Red Bike patrons, and a few onlookers, dressed for a finer dinner than those of us who had scarfed down chicken to get to the good stuff – poetry. The series is held in partnership with the Greater Cincinnati Writer’s League, but moderated by library staff.

As I walked in, I immediately spotted – Arianna, second place winner for the poetry slam two days ago. It turns out, Arianna works for the library coordinating special events. And in the audience, was Roberta, guest from one night ago, to support her friends. Also in attendance were renowned poet Pauletta Hansel (Thomas More College Writer in Residence for the Creative Writing Vision Program) and Valerie Chronis-Bickett, who leads classes through Little Pocket Poetry, both of whom I have known since my “early” WWfaC days. I was greeted by Bucky Ignatius, an affable gracious poet/coordinator in the GWCL and Susan Glassmeyer, (also of Little Pocket Poetry) a prolific and witty poet who generates a daily poetry email during the month of April, called April Gifts.

The poets in the garden were Dr. Annie Hinkle, a literary arts teacher from Ursuline, who knew two of my daughters, Sarah Nix, a young artist/poetry, and Patrick Venterella, last name rhymes with Cinderella, who inspired with his infusion of geology and science terms into his poetry.

For those who came prepared, audience members were invited to the podium for open mic. And yes, I stepped up twice, hoping the battery life on my iPhone would last through my readings. The evening closed with Arianna performing one of her spoken word pieces. The night had come full circle.

My husband had dutifully attended all three events with me, and had even begun writing his own poems. We later discussed the events of the past days over a glass of wine.

Neither of us lay claim to being poets in the traditional sense, but we appreciate music and wisdom no matter the form.

“You know, I liked the explanations poets gave before their readings, but for me, I really didn’t need to know about the forms, villanelle, 7x7s.” (I guess he had been paying attention).

“And sometimes, the explanations were longer than the poems.”

“Because what I love, without all the extras, even the slam poets, is I can create my own experience from the poem.”

Can you understand why I love this man?

His other observation was, “I can’t believe that one guy talked about workshopping a poem that was like, twenty lines. You’re not talking a short story or novel, but dedication to twenty lines. Wow!”

There are more than enough outlets in this city for a poet or writer to find a home. There is within each of these organizations, the opportunities for words to find space and grow. It is April. Time to sprout, time to plant.

Here’s a run-down of spoken word, poetry and writing I have found and been inspired by, around the city. It’s the how’s and where’s and who’s of people gathering to celebrate the art and craft of the spoken and written word.


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