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Fort Wayne: City of Poets?
The organizers of the Summit City Poetry Slams ask “why not?”
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Justin Robinson is trying to bring a different kind of entertainment to the land of the monster truck rally and the professional wrestling bout.
That different kind of entertainment? Poetry.
This past summer, Robinson has been the organizer and curator of the Summit City Poetry Slams, events full of poetry readings, music, and performance. The first one took place at the Kachmann gallery in late May, and featured poets Robin Lucas (known as Michele Michelle for performances), E. Scott Smiley, and Curtis Crissler, among others.
Poetry wasn’t the only thing on offer. Comedians, musicians, and performers like local jazz singer Fatima Washington and the Voices of Unity Youth Choir also participated. The second event in July at Park Place Grill boasted the same eclectic mix of spoken word, open mic sessions, and music.
But the story isn’t so much that the events happened, it’s the response they received. Over 400 people showed up to the first Summit City Poetry Slam at the Kachmann Gallery, and the second event — despite being outdoors, maybe not the best venue for a poetry reading — also drew a sizeable crowd of spectators, poetry fans, and the merely curious.
As Robinson prepares for Summit City Poetry Slam III, on August 11 in the Summit Club, they’re hoping it’s even bigger. “Our goal with each event is to provide Fort Wayne's arts and entertainment scene with something different,” Robinson says. “The SCPS is about variety. It's more than a poetry reading, it's a night out of local entertainment.”
People in Fort Wayne are always looking for something different to do, or at least they say they are, but why poetry? Robinson says he gets that a lot, and boiled down, his answer seems to be “why not?” It works in other places, especially right up the road in Chicago. Why not here?
Of course, poetry isn’t exactly new to Fort Wayne. There have been poetry slams in the past, and several ongoing open mic nights at coffee shops and a few bars/restaurants around town feature poetry. But Robinson seems to be after something a little different, namely attracting a larger crowd that might not think they like poetry. That’s why the Summit City Poetry Slams are about more than “just” poetry. “I added in some things I would like to see, which is why you get musicians, and the comedy and other things we include in the show,” he says. “The general public might not ‘get’ the poetry aspect of it, but if you mix that in with other things that you’re more familiar with, you may find a different appreciation for poetry.”
The music and dancers are there to break the show up a little bit. “It’s the MTV generation,” Robinson laughs. “We don’t want too much of one thing. We want our music videos to keep moving fast. We want to hear a rock song, and then a rap song, and then an R & B sound… that’s the generation we’re in, and I sort of use that same rationale when I’m trying to put a show together.”
That’s the program for Summit City Poetry Slam III. There will be an open mic room and an R&B room with performances from Christa Denae and headliner Lynette Thomas, a local jazz singer that Robinson thinks is one of the underappreciated jewels of the Fort Wayne music scene. “To me, she’s an incredible local talent, and people really need a chance to hear her, so this time, we’re going to feature her,” says Robinson.
“This SCPS is going to be very different,” adds Robinson. “The first one was a scheduled performance, the second was music and dance. This one is 21+, and is going to have an open mic session that will be more or less uncensored.” Robinson explains that at other events, the poets couldn’t get too explicit because some of the other performers (like the Voice of Unity Youth Choir) were younger. “At this one, the poets can just do their thing,” he says.
There will also be a wine tasting at SCPS III, and the whole event is a “White Party,” meaning guests are asked — not required — to wear white. Those wearing white will be eligible for a drawing and win prizes.
It’s all part of making the SCPS III different, but if the notion of a “white party,” R & B, and a wine tasting in the Summit Club isn’t your idea of a poetry reading, open mic host Bernadette Gleeson delivers some poetic credibility to the set-up. A Chicago native and poet who moved to Fort Wayne on a basketball scholarship several years ago, Gleeson is a pro at the open mic host game. She hosted an open mic in Chicago for a couple years and performed in several places in Fort Wayne like the old Loft on Broadway, and open mics at Mad Anthony's and the Firefly. She’s been writing poetry for as long as she can remember, but really got serious about it around six or seven years ago. “I grew up really loving Shel Silverstein and different musical artists that did a lot of storytelling,” Gleeson says. “When hip-hop came out, I was really drawn to the rhyming and the storytelling aspects of that.”
Gleeson has drawn in some of the “regulars” from the spoken word artists in the community to participate in the SCPS III open mic. Part of the trick of hosting an open mic is judging the crowd’s responses, and Gleeson says that as people come in, she’ll see what the crowd’s reaction is and see who wants to come up and participate. She says there’s no lack of talented people in Fort Wayne, but there just weren’t many platforms for a spoken word artist. Also, poetry is… well, it’s different. “It takes a while for anything that’s different to become mainstream,” Gleeson says. “Spoken word poetry is well known in a lot of places, in a lot of big cities. But here, it’s like ‘what? Are you rapping?’”
Gina Johnson, a local poet who used to perform at the open mic nights at the Starlight Grill and other venues, thinks that audiences in Fort Wayne expect poetry readings to be a sort of stuffy, conservative, precious affair. They can be surprised when that turns out not to be the case — and not surprised in a good way, either. “Some of the poets can be kind of explicit,” she says. “A lot of people don’t have a problem with it, but some people do.” But according to Johnson, the unpredictability of a spoken word performance is what makes it exciting. “There are no rules of poetry. You can say whatever you want and that’s what I love about it,” she says.
Curtis Crisler, a poet who teaches at IPFW and has a book coming out later this year published by Front Street, says the idea that poetry is some set form with rules and regulations is a tough one to break. “Everyone thinks poetry is this rhymey, Hallmark card kinda thing,” he says. “The kids I teach say the same thing: ‘we thought there was only this type of poetry.’ And that is a part of poetry, but that’s not the perspective that I come from. The full spectrum of what poetry is is just amazing. But saying ‘poetry is only this’ is like saying ‘automobile’ or ‘car’ without specifying a model.”
Curtis says that when a lot of poets start out, they’re attracted to the cathartic, self-expression aspects of the form — the “this is my pain” kind of poet. “But then, as you really get into it and start reading other people, you start learning about persona and different aspects of form and things like that,” he explains. You start developing characters and the ability to tell stories and create images that come from outside your direct experience.
At the Summit City Poetry Slam III, Curtis says you’ll hear a little of the raw, in your face poets, but that’s just a small part of it. There are many different artists representing many different forms.
The people involved with the Summit City Poetry Slam would obviously love to see the event grow, and they are encouraged by the response so far. Gina Johnson has advice for the uninitiated but curious — leave your expectations at home, come with an open mind, and you’ll have a lot of fun.
Summit City Poetry Slam III
August 11, 6 pm – 11 pm
National City Center
110 W Berry St # 2500
$5 in advance; $8 at the door.
RSVP is available at summitcitypoetryslam.com.
Dinner is available for purchase during that time but only with a RSVP.
Also at that time will be a Wine Tasting for an additional $5.