Reno’s popular open mic poetry night gets a new home and a new style
It’s 7:50 p.m. on the second Monday in October, and the few patrons at Esoteric Coffeehouse and Gallery look appropriately blasé. They sip their coffee, lounge on the couches and scribble in their notebooks, looking unaware that any sort of event is about to commence.
Fifteen minutes later, the atmosphere has changed dramatically. The crowd multiplies, and the java-scented air is charged with excitement.
It’s Slam Night, and various poetic types are getting ready to seize the microphone and compete for small cash prizes—the same poets who, until last month, brought their verse and their vibes to the popular weekly open mic night at Java Jungle.
Megan Boldway, the night’s host, walks up to the microphone dressed in a white tank top and jeans. Taking the mic, she introduces the slam’s four poets and four judges.
The first poet approaches the mic. Kevin Lieby is a large, middle-aged man with a moustache and a beret. He gives us a rhyming narrative of his day, talking of autumn rains and the bombing of Afghanistan. After he sits down, Boldway asks the judges for scores: Lieby receives mostly fives on a scale of one to 10.
The second poet is John, a young man in a white T-shirt. While Lieby was calm and dignified on stage, John is impassioned, his body full of movement and his voice full of inflection. He gives us a powerful, angry poem. He uses big words, pronouncing them carefully and deliberately. He says things like “fucking ill-gotten nemesis.”
He pauses between lines. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I use big words.”
After he finishes, Boldway asks the judges for their scores. One gives John a six, commending the poem’s quality but criticizing his mid-poem apology.
Dowd, clearly a crowd favorite, is up next. He reads his poem fast and almost flawlessly; he keeps lunging forward, putting all his weight on one foot, like a javelin thrower. He flushes from the exertion.
The judges give him impressive scores.
The final poet is Bob English, a gentleman with a brown hat, a goatee and a calm, unexpressive demeanor. His poem is a bit more conventional, his delivery more subdued. His poem ends with, “Of all the things I hold dear, it is myself I miss the most.”
He gets mixed reviews. “I have no idea what it was about. It was lines put together to rhyme,” one judge says. “It’s a take on Ozzy Osbourne,” says another, quoting, “Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most.”
And so ends round one. At the tally, Dowd is ahead.
For years, a faithful and fervent collection of poets gathered at Java Jungle on Monday nights. It was a nameless, populist sort of gathering made up of published poets, angst-ridden teens, academics, dropouts, traditionalists and fringe poets. The café was often cramped and the event slightly disorderly, with non-poet types stopping by to try their hand at verse. But no one seemed to mind much. Rory Dowd, the group’s charismatic host, was always quick to smooth ruffled feathers and offer friendly criticism to fledging poets.
Last month, Esoteric Coffeehouse and Gallery, just down the street from Java Jungle, opened its doors to the group, offering a sound system and plenty of room.
The change of scenery, it seems, is just what the poets needed. The group’s core has tightened, and its audience has expanded. Those who were casual attendees have renewed their enthusiasm; those who treated the event in a not-so-respectful manner have fallen away. And Dowd, who wanted to hand off some of his responsibilities as host, has chosen 10 regulars to take turns hosting and promoting the event.
“I made my decision based on people whose poetry I enjoy and who were interested in creating a thing, an artistic thing,” Dowd says.
“I was burnt out,” he adds. “I was really looking to get out of it. But [after] the move to Esoteric, I’m all jazzed about it. I can just go there and be Rory and read poetry.”
The group’s new, democratic format isn’t the only change; for starters, the poets have given themselves an official name. After tossing around and rejecting the tongue-in-cheek IPECC, or Inner Poetry Elitist Circle Clique, and a somewhat more serious 8 p.m. Lounge, they decided on Inversely Poetic at Esoteric.
Also, nights are now themed. One Monday each month is devoted to a guest “celebrity” poet. Another Monday has been designated Cover Night, when poets cover the poetry of others, be it their Reno peers or Robert Pinsky. This evening’s event, Slam Night, is held on the second Monday of each month.
With the new locale comes a slightly different crowd—and a radically different atmosphere.
“We have the coffeehouse feel,” Dowd says. “A lot of the people who had been coming to Java Jungle as regulars were getting bored. … [Now], we’re pulling in some of Esoteric’s crowd, and we have gotten a little better at [public relations].”
The second round begins.
One of the highlights of this round is Lieby, whose poetry is again rhymed and carefully metered. His poem includes lines like, “Poet, make my poem to touch my lover’s heart.”
Lieby’s scores for this effort are considerably higher than for his last. “It has a sense of integrity,” one judge says. “A lot of us have a teen angst thing.”
The third and final round is an improv. The idea is to get up on stage with no prepared material and simply let words flow. English, whose last effort met with mixed reviews, this time receives nines and the full support of the crowd for his harsh poetic critique of pop music.
Dowd comes last. He takes the stage, introducing his piece as “something I call the most generic poem ever.”
”Adjective,” he says commandingly. “Noun. Verb! Noun. Rhyme here! Adjective, adjective … rhyme again here!” He pronounces each word, each part of speech, as if it were laden with complex meaning—as if it were a battle cry, or a deathbed whisper. “Adverb,” he says pithily at the end, and the crowd roars.
Boldway again takes the mic, saying “[That was] one of the most memorable moments we’ve had.” One judge gives him a 10, another a nine and another a seven, commenting that the poem was “premeditated.” The last judge, agreeing that the poem was premeditated, gives it a one. Dowd, unaffected, laughs, cheers and bows when he hears the dismal score.
After the scores have been tallied, Boldway announces that English and Lieby have tied for first place. He organizes a final, tie-breaking improv competition between the two poets. This time, the audience will decide the winner.
English, who manages to spice his improv with a good number of penis jokes, wins hands down.
“It was tough,” English says of the competition. “I really thought I was sunk after the first round. … This is my first slam here, first poetry night. I adore it. I love the crowd.”
Dowd is not at all upset about losing.
“It was great, fantastic,” he says. “I was really hoping I wouldn’t win tonight. I don’t want those of us who put this together to dominate.”
Neither, apparently, did the judges. Boldway says judges can a bit more critical of their friends than of newcomers.
And what do the judges look for in a poet/performer? Every judge has a different answer.
“Sometimes we just look for how well you can captivate an audience,” judge Nick Delehanty says. “We look for how heartfelt it is, just kind of tears on paper.”
Craig Browning, who is also known as “Satan” to the group, has a different take. “I’m known for being a little bit harsher,” he says. “One of the main things [I look for is whether a poem] communicates a message and it’s not just complaining. And I also look for intellect, how [the poet] uses language.”
Ryan Daniels is perhaps the harshest judge of all—not just of contestants, but of slams and poets in general.
“I look for something that strikes me as individual and creative, [for] a poet who strives for excellence over approval. … I think, in this industry, people rely too much on labels they are given. Characterizing yourself as a poet is just a waste of time. … More poets care more about recognition than the actual stuff they write.”
Despite their differences, all involved with Inversely Poetic at Esoteric share an enthusiasm and camaraderie that can’t be faked. The core group lingers after the slam has ended, teasing each other—practicing, perhaps, their poetic invectives.
If this group is any indication, the Reno arts community is stronger and more cohesive than it’s been in years.
“Things really started happening last year with the opening of the [Riverside] Artists’ Lofts," Dowd says. "… There’s a lot of good stuff happening, and if we can stay with this for the next couple years, then this will be a really good place—with something more to offer than just casinos."