December 17, 2006

The Emperors of Ice Cream: Open Mike Night in Roslindale

“Thank you for coming to listen.”

It’s a sentence that takes on special significance at an open mike, where readers often outnumber listeners. And on a recent night in Roslindale, emcee Marc Widershien is making a special point of thanking by name half a dozen regulars who come out to encourage the readers, support the reading series, and listen to poetry.

You can find an open mike--or open mic if you prefer--going on just about any night of the week. Each one is its own little universe, with its regulars and host, its unspoken rules, and its personality. In Roslindale, where the open takes place on the last Thursday of each month, the prevailing atmosphere is mellow. It helps that the venue is Emack and Bolio’s, on Belgrade Avenue and the courtesy purchase is not a latte or a draft, but maybe a vanilla bean speck with hot fudge sauce. The open is scheduled to start at 7, but people are still drifting in, ordering their ice cream at 7:15 and the reading doesn’t get started much before 7:30.

This particular night there’s a problem. It’s the first night since Emack and Bolio’s was taken over by a new owner, and Widershien has only just discovered that the former owner took the sound system with him. All that’s left is the mike stand, but Widershien holds it like a talisman as he welcomes the crowd and urges the readers to speak loudly. There is background noise, an easy hum of neighborhood people coming in for ice cream on an unseasonably mild November evening. Widershien calls the new owner, Ron Foley, out of the back for us to greet with cheers. Everyone is hoping he’ll agree to keep the venue going through winter’s months of low ice cream consumption, but itís not yet clear what he has decided. A few people make announcements of upcoming readings and arts events, and then the lineup of readers begins.

Most open mikes include a featured reader or two. Featured poets generally read for about 20 minutes. Each open mike reader gets about three minutes, though some push the limit, and sometimes the audience’s tolerance, to the breaking point. The time limit is actually what makes an open mike possible. keeping it short gives everyone a chance without having the whole evening gone on interminably.

An open is always the luck of the draw. I’ve been to some where you hear one astounding poem after another and a few where you wonder how unobtrusively you could cover the distance to the door. Most are somewhere in between where you hear some interesting poems, maybe some wonderful ones, and also ones that make you realize you can stand just about anything for three minutes. At some readings, the features are first and at some the open mikes are first. Here the features are snadwiched between two open mike segments.

The lead-off poet is Sandra Storey, who, by day, is editor and publisher of The Jamaica Plain and Mission Hill Gazettes. She and the poets who follow raise their voices to the challenge of no microphone and manage to be heard by an audience that applauds appreciatively.

There are two featured poets this night, Michael Sherlock and Edward Abrahamson. We've all turned off our cell phones but as Sherlock begins, he is interrupted by the ringing--of his own phone. His poems look back to his native Ireland and he reads in a deep, winning brogue about poverty, famine, and injustice. Abrahamson’s poems include wry commentaries on the health care system; biting reminiscences of Viet Nam; and imagined conversations between Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes and Robert Frost.

The evening concludes with another open mike segment. The last few poets try to hurry. The ice cream scoopers are just about finished, the last customers are being served, and itís closing time. Next month, Widershien promises, there will be a microphone.

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©2004 Ellen Steinbaum

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