Story by Walter Stormont
Photos by Ezekiel Espanola
It’s 5 p.m. at Dagny’s Coffee Company in the heart of Bakersfield. It’s Friday… First Friday. The downtown arts district is coming alive, with music, painting, jewelry, crafts, and the spoken word.
“About an hour from now, this room will be taken over by poets,” I tell a group of ladies meeting in the side room of Dagny’s. They know the deal… by 5:45, they’ve relocated and the room’s furniture has been moved around to accommodate poets and observers. Open Mic is getting underway. Before long, 35 people are in the room, jockeying for position to take in the proceedings.
“Full house here,” announces guest emcee Shanna O’Brien, an accomplished singer-songwriter. “We need everyone who wants to perform to sign up. We can’t start late tonight.” The signup sheet goes around as some performers eagerly get on the list and others try to summon the gumption. Attendance would swell to more than 50 poets and aficionados.
Shanna offers a friendly admonition to the audience to be polite to the poets. “They’re sharing their souls, opening up their hearts,” she explains. No looking at your phones while poets are performing. Don’t slide the chairs around… that’s pretty noisy. And please keep the door closed to block out the loud chatter from the front part of Dagny’s.
On with the show. Shanna introduces tonight’s Featured Poet, Julie Jordan Scott, who steps up to the mic.
“You people are my people,” Julie says. “The poets of the world are my people!”
The people prove it by helping Julie with an interactive poetic exercise.
She starts out by clapping her hands to set a rhythm.
“Find your own voice and use it,” she chimes. “Use your own voice and find it.”
Again: “Find your own voice and use it. Use your own voice and find it.”
Beforehand, Julie had passed around painted pages from old dictionaries that the audience could use to help them select words to toss at her.
“Give me a word!”
“Grateful!” Julie repeats. “Breathe in grateful, breathe out poetry.”
“What are you grateful for?”
And so it continues as the people bond.
Her session finished, Julie hands the mic back to Shanna, who introduces the night’s sign-ups in small groups. She does her best to keep things moving, because there are so many who wish to share – and some of their poems are rather long. I count 16 performers, including one dear lady who can’t go on at first because her emotions take over… but the night is young.
We hear offerings like “Different Sports” and “What is Love” and “The Lowly Substitute.” Thomas Brill startles us when he starts out screaming, “I hate poems about poetry!” Many topics presented might be shocking to some, as poets bear their souls like Shanna has pointed out.
One young man comes up and feigns stage fright, then announces, “I don’t write poetry… I kind of misunderstood this whole thing!” He then tells a joke that doesn’t go so well. But it’s an offering nevertheless. Michelle Moreno reminds us all that “love wins.” Some performers at Open Mic Night are singers like Elizabeth Privett who captivates us with her hauntingly beautiful ballad (all songs performed must be original compositions).
Bodhi, who tells us he’s “60-some years old,” offers a moving reminiscence of the tumultuous 1960s… Vietnam War, protests, peace marches.
Tonight, we have witnessed the best of what Tony O’Brien describes as “the greatest show on earth,” the human race. Soon after he shares, the night’s final poet approaches the open mic… the same woman who earlier could not get the words out. Now they flow wonderfully. She has a lot to say, and she ends it with the meaningful phrase, “Show’s over.”
The poets then find their way into the night as First Friday continues.
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Two of tonight’s artists graciously agreed to answer some questions about themselves and their work. We start off with Featured Poet Julie Jordan Scott:
Please share about your background and life.
My most important creative project has been my three children who are now grown or nearly grown.
I am involved in a variety of arts here in Kern County: my photography and mixed media art has been shown and sold locally. I do a weekly Art Livestream Broadcast on Periscope where I show my process and often read favorite (and newly found to me) poetry.
I have been involved in theater (on stage as well as a technician, Director and Producer) for the last 12 years. I’ve won awards, both The Empty Space and Bakersfield Community Theater. I’ve also done work at the Spotlight Theater (now Ovation Theatre) and Stars Theater. Most recently I’ve appeared in films with Inclusion Films.
My first poetry performance was at Spotlight Theater in Les Femmes Artistes, which upped the ante from my hosting of the Open Mic at Barnes and Noble which I did in the early 2000s.
When did you first become interested in poetry?
I have loved poetry since elementary school. I actually started writing before I was literate: I would dictate to my mother and then I would copy the letters with my crayons, having no idea how to translate what I wanted to write in letters and words.
I self-published a collection of poetry for my grandmother for Christmas when I was 13. It was primarily confessional, dealing a lot with my family’s dysfunction. My grandmother was impressed with my wordsmithing: it may have been a cry for help.
Who are some of your creative influences?
I have a profound love for the women writers who went before me. The literary canon too often leaves them out. I especially admire and learn from Ina Coolbrith, Mary Hunter Austin, Alice Walker, Mary Oliver, May Sarton.
I also wonder about the propensity for women poets to commit suicide and sometimes feel like my continuing with the craft somehow helps their work survive: Sara Teasdale, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton are examples.
What are some of the places you’ve been published or shared your work?
Some of the better known include Chicken Soup for the Soul of America,
American Greetings, several anthologies including a Co-authorship of Writing for Self-Discovery with Sheila Finkelstein. I self-published my first ebook in 1999. Quite a trendsetter!
As a poet, do you lean toward any particular style?
I attempt to be eclectic and enjoy experimenting. I enjoy forms of micro-poetry like
haiku and tanka. I enjoy playing with metrical verse. I enjoy the flow of pantoum.
What is your writing life like? How often… computer or longhand? That kind of stuff.
I write on whatever is convenient. Notebook, computer, phone is great for poems-in-the-moment. (People think you’re texting!)
How did you develop your technique involving improvisation and audience participation?
It all started because I was producing something called a Poetry Concert the night before my 49th birthday. Most people had no idea what a poetry concert was, but they wanted to support me, or liked poetry, and they were curious. It was the culmination of an art show I had curated at The Empty Space theater called “Visible Poetics.”
I hated the thought of people arriving at the event and not having anything to do, so I decided I would offer everyone painted pages and ask them to add words to the page or circle words on the page and when the time came, they would speak their words and bring them (somehow) to the center. Some people threw the pages onto the stage, some people marched onto the stage with their words and I had volunteers gathering up and speaking words for the more shy people.
It turned into a “happening” of sorts. I have a video of it somewhere (I believe). Portia was there (Kern Poetry Director, Portia Choi). I sort of stood back and let it happen, unfold as it wanted to.
It was a great way to get people involved from the moment they entered the theater and sort of let them know this wasn’t a “sit back and watch” kind of experience, it was a “I am a collaborative partner in art” sort of experience. As in all forms of improvisation, each member doesn’t really know where it is going, we sort of agree to agree AND add what will further the work along.
(This is so interesting as I have never put it into words before). I believe every person is a creative person, just need to have the spark to bring that creativity to life. In my work as a Creative Life Coach (I have a website, CreativeLifeMidwife.com) my catch-phrases include “Inspiring Artistic Rebirth” and “The World is Waiting for Your Words.” I believe each and every person on this planet has a valuable voice and a valid, important story to be interwoven with whomever we are blessed to find along the path.
I have also used different forms of audience participation including personalized haiku I create on the spot, offering words for the audience to create a line of poetry with me (you may have seen that at Dagny’s.)
I also have a creative experience called a “Soul Poetry Session” where I ask questions and we spend about 20 to 30 minutes in deep connection, and then I write a poem.
Please share one of your poems.
By Julie Jordan Scott
Take away the degrees, titles and accomplishments –
What is discovered at your core?
What is your unique, special spark?
Buried deep, neglected, that you’ve chosen to ignore?
Seeking to please whomever.
Drowning out the pure longings of your heart
Struggling, freezing, suffocating –
Until finally, you choose to start.
Whispers from the spirit.
Soul’s song from deep within.
After dancing, stranger among strangers –
Claim it. Your life. Now Begin –
* * * * *
We also reached out to Elizabeth Privett, who performed her song tonight:
Please share with us a little about your background and what you do in your daily life.
My name is Elizabeth L. Privett. I am 21 years old. Born and raised in Bakersfield, CA. I work full-time and take classes at Bakersfield College. I wrote my first song for a book report at Fruitvale Jr. High and from there I have performed my songs for talent competitions, fundraisers, small venues, street fairs and other functions across the city. Now, I am not as passionate about large performances, but I still enjoy playing music with my friends and my mom at small gatherings or venues. In my daily life you might find me catching a film at Maya Cinemas, eating waffles at J’s Place, or drinking with friends at Imbibe or Dionysus.
What is the name of the song you performed? Can you share a few lyrics?
The name of the song is “Olivia,” and a few of the lyrics include, “Through time we’d speak ideas of girl who’s yet to be. She fills our world with bits of wonder. Fall into the storm; scream into her warmth until you’re cold. How else could we know you’re still mourning?”
How did the song-writing process go?
I wrote a small portion of the song about a year ago and was never able to find the right words for the rest of it. For a long time I didn’t even know what I wanted to say. Then, the Friday at the Open Mic I began reflecting back on the moments that inspired this song and I was able to write about it again. I wrote and edited and wrote and edited some more, and within two hours completed the song. I was so excited about completing it that I decided to share it that night instead of another song I had prepared. So, I got off of work at 5:00 PM, drove home, found some chords on the guitar that would work with my melody, and drove to Dagny’s by 6:00 PM. Part of me wondered if I should wait until the next Open Mic to share it, but the energy was there, so I went for it.
While performing a song, do you feel “poetic” or “musical” or both?
I would like to say both. I am not very confident in my speaking voice, so the words I use to express my vulnerabilities and experiences tend to form themselves in melodies. Songwriting allows me to speak my mind while being able to hide a little behind my singing. I am still worried about people not enjoying my words, so if I can sing them, at least they might like my singing voice!
What are some of your other musical accomplishments?
I have been performing since I was 6 years old. I have been songwriting and playing guitar since I was 13 years old. I have been in a few bands. I have been a finalist in a few talent shows/karaoke competitions in town. Mostly now I play at open mic nights because I haven’t felt serious about performing for some time.
How often do you write?
Honestly, not too often. This is the second song I have finished writing in the last year, and the other song I completed I started writing a few years prior. I usually rely on bursts of inspiration to write my songs, but as I am realizing that I use my writing to process my emotions, I am also realizing that I cannot rely on inspiration alone. Ernest Newman, a famous and respected music critic from the early 1900s, once said, “The greatest composer does not sit down to work because he is inspired, but becomes inspired because he is working.” This quote has been pushing me to reconsider how I make music. I am now starting to schedule making music into my week. Additionally, my friend and I recently started hosting Art Nights for our many multi-talented friends to share their work and collaborate with one another. That has also inspired me to work on my songwriting more, so that I have new work to share with the group when we meet.
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Thanks to all our poets and attendees. We hope to see you next month, and every First Friday, at Open Mic Night… because Poetry Lives!