When Poetry Nights Turn Into Parties

Bob Batson

Staff Writer

Bob writes furniture descriptions for money. He lives in Brighton.

After the intermission, the MC Shavonne Kaye bounds up on stage with a seven year old clutching her hand. “She’s gonna help me host the rest of the night, y’all cool with that?” She gets loud whoops and soft coos from those charmed by her co-host. Shavonne introduces the next poet amidst the noise of forks scraping the home-cooked buffet, the artist Rae Parker discussing their live painting, and the soft sounds of an impromptu jam in the far corner where a few couples dance. Yet none of this distracts anyone from the poet, Chantel Massey. This is her vibe: intimate and unpretentious. 

The night has all the organization of a poetry reading with none of the stuffy decorum and honestly, it’s a lot more fun.

The evening, formally, is the book launch for Chantel’s debut collection Bursting At The Seams. Scattered around the crowd and stage are supporting musicians and Chantel’s fanbase/family, all packed into the cozy venue Indy Reads Books (the name is not a desperate affirmation but a reference to their adult literacy initiatives). The first half’s performers resonate the room with imaginative metaphors and confessional images. Yet Chantel’s own work abandons metaphorical language. She uses newscasts, prayers, and gossip to compose stanzas that document generational angst. She absorbs her inherited trauma and brings it into a raw beautiful focus.

All this amidst the noise of what could be a wedding reception.

Poetry readings and open mics are noisy affairs with snapping fingers, affirmative murmurs, and spontaneous applause. Yet the tricky manner-politics are ever present. If one is talking about the poem as it is performed you can expect a row of glares. That’s what’s so marvelous about this event where there was discussion, children laughing, and shouted encouragement without any of attention drawn away from the poets. It was a celebration of poetry with an emphasis on the “celebration.” It’s easy to understand why poetry nights are ones to facilitate the party atmosphere.

Other live performances, with their own social cues and codes, don’t benefit from the same freedom. Comedy nights are surprisingly conservative affairs where the silences, laughter, and audience participation stick to strict social constraints. Any deviation invites the wrath of the comic and/or bouncer. Author Readings have all the levity of Catholic Mass. The amount of allowed fun is (rightfully) determined by the author. Storytelling events are also relatively silent affairs for the audience. Imagine one without applause and it starts to resemble the social tones of a funeral. And there are drinks afterwards for all of these but they’re not integrated into the night.

Poetry nights seem unique in their ability to become something fun without sacrificing any seriousness.

Why? Not vulnerability because that’s prerequisite for all live performance. The answer traces to the ambiguity of what poetry is in the first place. The form is often broken apart and challenged at any open mic where a rhyming couplet text about cats can be followed by a free verse of natural images. Because of this, the addition of any other artistic attachment fits in naturally. Introducing a live painter in a comedy night would push the evening towards the genre of alternative comedy. However, at a poetry night it only assists the evening’s theme. Chantel’s performance makes poetry a conversation, something to engage with, to embrace the audience chatter without any overbearing social cues.

The poetry-party forces all the usual pretentiousness and self-seriousness out of the room. And sometimes pretentiousness is fun and necessary but an evening without the pomp and circumstance of capital ‘P’ Poetry was incredibly refreshing. Was this an isolated incident and VK Press just has this event magic? Judging by Kaveh Akbar’s delightful twitter feed, no, this is thankfully not the case. As the lone bookstore owner (bless them) tried to usher out a hundred excited audience members into the street, the more accessible and more fun future of live poetry made its importance known. Make it a party.

You can pick up Chantel Massey’s debut from Amazon. Also give some social media love to VK Press, a new independent publisher dedicated to writers of colour.