A Poet’s Journal

By - May 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By Russ Bickerstaff


The Bucks just won a game which brought them within one game of the playoffs. I don’t care. I’m wondering what happened to all the poets. I’m at the Y-Not II on the second Wednesday of the month and there are less than six of us there for the East-Side Milwaukee Poetry Slam. When had Milwaukee’s oldest poetry slam become such a secret? The whole scene on the east side has seemed pretty inactive in the past couple of years.

In the past seven years, I’ve seen attendance at poetry venues on the East Side run a strange parabolic wave. There are high points that mirror this low: I remember the summers of ‘98 and ‘99 when there were four or five open mics every week and no one made it to them all.

Now things are scarce. The Y-Not II is a long corridor of a bar with an elevated stage in back. There’s a podium there with a microphone that amplifies the voice throughout the room. Geo Kiesow shows up early to turn on the stage lights and the sound system. Geo’s been hosting the Y-Not II poetry slam for years. Fresh from a fishing trip, he does a piece from years ago that he wrote about fishing with his dad on Lake Poygan. It’s a very conversational piece that wraps the mind in the feel of northern Wisconsin. This is Geo’s literary home: the poetry of genuine rural life – not the romanticized visions typically found in nature poetry. The words feed through the speakers and Geo’s out there on Lake Poygan fishing in his childhood. I nearly drowned in that lake the day after my high school graduation. Geo and I were born in the same hospital down the road from the foundry in Neenah, Wisconsin. In spite of this, we come from very different places.

The co-host for the evening is Tim Grair. He’s doing cover pieces: the poetry of Patricia Smith (no, not Patti Smith – Patricia). I’ve heard him do pieces of his own stuff. It’s a very diverse body of work. He’s covered everything from the fashion industry with his “Max Factor Massacre,” to the intricacies of growing-up with “Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll at 11.” He’s not performing his own stuff tonight. Maybe he’s just not feeling it. Or maybe there just aren’t enough people here tonight. Years ago the Y-Not II poetry slam was much better attended. We don’t have enough people performing for the night to hold the slam competition, so the evening ends with only an open mic.

Long-time East-side poet JoAnn Chang tells me that there’s a big poetry performance at the Mecca’s poetry slam on the west side Thursday night. Slam competition teams from another state are coming in to perform with national slam poets from Milwaukee. I can’t make it. I’ve got my own poetry venue to host that night.


I’m brooding pleasantly over a cup of coffee at the Node Cafe when my co-host Brian shows-up. The cafe is relatively empty, but the nice weather outside means that the crowd isn’t going to be too good tonight. There isn’t much energy to ricochet around the back room of the Node: a cafe owned by at least one Discordian. The ownership at the Node is non-present and supportive for poetry night.

My co-host Brian does a piece that is written with occult and arcane emotional intensity, but he’s reading it like he’s not even there. He finishes and I grab the piece to perform the last few lines with some passion. It’s the biggest round of applause all night… at least, that’s the way it seems to me. . . not the first time I’ve done this to him. Maybe it’s the size of the audience.

Tonight there’s only a half a dozen of us taking turns reading and reciting. For the most part, conversations in the background continue throughout the one or two hours that we’re performing. The background chatter provides a rich ambience for us to play with acoustically–and since there isn’t a stage for us to work with, we can perform from almost anywhere. Even with this set-up it’s hard to feel like people are listening. It’s a drain on the energy, but no one’s going to listen if it’s not there. This is what keeps it all asleep: no motivating factors for combustion of emotion.


I’m half tempted to dedicate my five minute set on the open mic to all the empty space in the room. It’s an uncharacteristically warm night in early spring and an uncharacteristically late start for Poet’s Monday at Thai Joe‘s. The sparse initial turnout gradually grows over the course of the night. You wouldn’t know it from the early turnout, but the parabolic wave of attendance at east side poetry open mics is least apparent here. This is the big one: the most established poetry open mic on the east side. Every Monday around 8pm several performance poets surface to perform on a stage in a bar in a Thai restaurant in the basement of a mall on the east side.

Somewhere into the open mic, Askew is announced. He doesn’t approach the mic, but starts to perform from the audience instead. It’s his MO: been doin’ it that way for a long time. I’ve never seen an audience fail to react to it. It’s a wake-up every time.

But the whole scene seems to be sleeping right now. People just aren’t attending like they used to. The low point in the parabola of energy and attendance has stretched out for over a year now. It’s been waiting for its wake-up call for a long time. Askew’s been tellin’ me about a new open mic with an infusion of both poetry and music. It’s Sunday nights at Max’s Red Eye in Riverwest. It and Thursday nights at the Node are the East Side’s newest. There are now three weekly venues on the East side. Meanwhile, it’s Monday night and Askew has taken the stage at the end of his first piece. There’s a thunder of applause. He’s reading the next one into the microphone…

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