I remember the day clearly when news of Kurt Cobain’s suicide was on the cover of every newspaper. It was early April 1994; I was 27, and Kurt, the voice of my generation, was 27. While I was riding home that day on the Metro-North commuter train, I opened my notebook, and a poem poured out. I brought the poem to an open mic reading at alt.coffee on Avenue A in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. With shaking and sweaty hands, I shared my words, and the audience cheered me on.
So here we are, 26 years since the death of “Hurt Kurt.” His lyrics were profoundly poetic, and it is fitting to acknowledge this during National Poetry Month. In April 2009, writer Glenda Bailey-Mershon called together poets and writers from the St. Johns Cultural Council database to align with the Academy of American Poets and observe the month officially. The result was an open mic called Ancient City Poets, where I served as master of ceremonies. Based on that success, we started up a monthly series, which has been running ever since. It can be said that the Backstreets Coffee House scene handed the baton to the Ancient City Poets. Backstreets hosted a weekly Monday night open mic that was facilitated by Michael Theeke and Kat Vellos for many years. They lit the fire, and we ran with the torch.
Recently, there have been dialogues about creating an umbrella group called the Saint Augustine Literary Society, spearheaded by author Lance Carden. His hope is to unify the various writer groups and organizations, earn St. Augustine a City of Literature designation, and appoint a poet laureate. (In the meantime, it is quite evident that I am the unofficial poet laureate of this “quaint little drinking town with a fishing problem.”)
In the best of circumstances, writers create in isolation, but then they come out of their cocoons and share their words with an audience. The benefits of this cathartic exercise are profound.
“I look forward to the whole process,” said Ruthie Van Alstine, who travels from Jacksonville to attend Ancient City Poets. “I take the prompt, sit and write a poem or haiku with the theme. Afterward, I stop by on my son for a visit and then pick up takeout food on my way back to Jacksonville.”
There is always the anticipation of that knock-out line. “I think one attraction is that you never know exactly how the reading will go,” said longtime reader Antoinette Libro. “It’s always different, even if slightly. There are surprises in store and that moment of truth, when someone goes up to the mic and gives us whatever he or she’s got to give. Poets tend to search for the truth and sometimes find it.”
Now, however, with the outbreak of COVID-19, the once-innocent act of gathering in company is fraught. A monthly clockwork face-to-face ritual, so instinctual, is not possible during these times. I have accepted the challenge to celebrate National Poetry Month in isolation by pairing 18 Ancient City Poets with 18 artists from the Butterfield Garage Art Gallery on King Street. Loretta Leto is on board as the coordinator of this project, dubbed PAM Jam: “poets, artists and musicians spreading joy.” Writers and artists are creating poems and paintings by collaborating with each other through text messages, phone calls, social media and email. The finished poems will be read at an October event. The event will migrate from the virtual to the physical world later in the year with a series of events.
T.S. Eliot’s words in “The Waste Land” certainly ring true: “April is the cruelest month.” Cruel, because poets and poetry fans cannot gather in the flesh. The best we can do is move forward through the haze, dream about tomorrow, and set our sights on future days.
Bodor lives in St. Augustine and is a member of the Ancient City Poets.