Poetry Night Opens Up
It is dark outside of the Student Union. Everyone inside sits on couches arranged in a semicircle, quiet, engrossed. The group this night is small; it is clear that poetry night at Reed College is not immune to the usual fatigues that plague other student groups.
This was the scene the 28th of November, and Reedies had a lot on their plates–perhaps a little more than usual, with finals looming and Spring/Fall quickly approaching.
But, like every Wednesday, a dedicated group of artists still showed up to the Student Union, ready to share works they created and to perform the creations of others. The performances this night included original music, poetry readings, a capella renditions of famous standards, and a monologue from Hamlet. The performers sat on a stool or stood, bathed in the glow of a spotlight in the loft, facing the eager spectators. The atmosphere at poetry night is intimate, the lights dim, the focus singular. Everyone is paying close attention to the performer at the center. Since its humble roots, poetry night has evolved into the broader, more open forum that it is today.
I’ve been coming to poetry night on most Wednesdays since the beginning of the year, playing my songs and watching others perform. On other nights I’ve seen some amazing things: original poems read with atmospheric musical accompaniments, short but spectacular raps performed with sometimes live and sometimes recorded backing tracks, duets playing Joanna Newsom songs, short stories, stand-up comedy, and wild monologues exploring madness, just to name a few of the types of performances that can be found at poetry night.
The culture is warm and accepting: spectators actually pay attention to performers, and when something resonates audience members snap their fingers in approval. Attendees are also told to clap both before and after a performance. And when performers express reluctance or performance anxiety, spectators often respond with words of encouragement, in hopes of seeing more of what the performer has in store. The attention paid to the performers is astonishing: one can tell that many who come to poetry night don’t even perform themselves, and come just to listen to their fellow Reedies.
Poetry night was founded by current senior Tristan Nieto, and its growth guided in large part by Nieto and by recent graduate Lizzy Martin. Nieto started the club the second semester of his freshman year, spurred on by his memories of attending a poetry night held at a San Pedro, Cal. coffee shop in high school. That poetry night was largely attended by “people nearing retirement,” he says. Early on during his time at Reed, he felt that the school needed such a gathering to serve as a place for students to share their creative work, as well as “a place to vent” and perhaps work out emotional issues.
That year also saw the unearthing of Allen Ginsberg’s original recording of Howl, done at Anna Mann in 1956. Nieto felt that a weekly poetry night was a good way to continue this tradition of creativity and the arts at Reed.
One of the coolest performances that Nieto can remember involved student John Pape and “another guy” elaborately playing a Ramones song. Pape put on some headphones hooked up to a Ramones ’45, while his friend watched him from the loft and played it on his acoustic guitar based entirely on the bouncing of Pape to the rhythm of the song.
Martin recalls a wide variety of memorable performances: “Some nights we heard mostly music. Some nights we would hear ghost stories, juxtaposed with freestyles. I remember one night when a good friend of mine sat in front of us for half an hour and told us what it was like to get committed to a psychiatric ward. It was beautiful and heartbreaking. And, frankly, that kind of thing happened all of the time.”
The format of the event has always been the same, spotlight, couches and all. Nieto intentionally tried to make it intimate, as it is now, but in certain ways poetry night is different from what it was then. He says that it started as “just my friends as we were freshmen” getting “super fucking blazed.” Nieto recalls meeting a homeless man at a punk show, inviting him to the event, and everyone passing around beer with him. That said, the focus was always on the performer, and Nieto remembers that he sometimes “felt like an asshole” for shushing people in the early days.
Nowadays the turnout is much larger. Poetry night is now organized by sophomores Gabriella Chronis and Jack Johnson, and they note that multiple times this year there have been audiences of more than fifty people, something that had never happened before. They note that the reputation of poetry night has changed from it being a small clique of drunken poets to a more open forum for artists of all kinds.
When I asked Johnson how he became an organizer for poetry night, he responded that he started out “just like you did,” as a freshman spectator and performer.
Chronis was also involved her freshman year. Though she usually doesn’t perform, she has become an integral component of the gathering, bringing together artistic-minded Reedies and giving them a platform for expression. But they note that much of the success of poetry night depends on the community. Both Chronis and Johnson, as well as Nieto, expressed a particular fondness for those students who come to poetry night simply to spectate, and believe that they are an important part of the gathering’s success.
Though poetry night has seen some change, its central mission remains the same, expressed by Martin as “a conduit for catharsis” and a way to “build community”. Says Martin, “All I can hope for is that even just one person gets as much out of performing at and watching Poetry Night as did the crew of us who made it happen.” Today the event’s focus remains on the performer, and it remains an important outlet for Reedies’ creative passions. It also remains a celebration of the amazing things people here make and do, an energizing exchange between the performers and the audience of ideas and emotion.
Says Nieto, “If you’re serious about what you’re creating, you get to share your gift.”