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Rookie poets find a platform

Debbie Knight / Lantern photographer

Just north of campus, Kafe Kerouac is hopping. People are lined up at a doorway inside the cafe waiting to get in.

Inside, chairs face a raised platform and a lone microphone.

The setup is the stage for poets at the Writer’s Block Open Mic Night, which is held at 8 p.m. every Wednesday.

At the door, people are greeted by Vernell Bristow, who co-founded Writer’s Block, a group dedicated to promting Columbus poetry, 14 years ago.

“It is my personal mission for people to feel comfortable and welcome and wanted when they come through the door,” said Bristow, who also co-hosts the online radio show “Speaking of Poetry.”  

After everyone settles into their seats, Scott Woods, co-founder of Writer’s Block, steps up to the microphone as host of the evening.

“We treat it more like a show than we do an open mic,” Woods said in an interview.  

After working the crowd, he calls the first poet of the evening to the microphone: Beverly Wilkinson, who holds the nickname “Shake and Bake” at Writer’s Block.

She reads a poem called “Like God,” which she wrote for her newborn nephew Michael.

Wilkinson said she moved to Columbus two years ago from the state Delaware specifically for the Columbus poetry scene after she was a guest poet at Writer’s Block.  

She said in Delaware, there were people who read the same poems over and over again, but at Writer’s Block, she is continually pushed to try new things with her poetry.

Another poet, Joe Suarez, a marketing representative for radio station Mix 106, drives the 100-mile round trip from Marion, Ohio, nearly every week to come to poetry night.

He came to Writer’s Block two-and-a-half years ago after a friend invited him.  

“I’d never been to a poetry reading before,” he said. “I thought it’d be just old lady stuff but I was really impressed with the variety of poetry.”

As soon as he finishes his poem, Ed Plunkett, a library associate at Ohio State Libraries, jumps on the stage to read a poem he has written for the occasion — a poem that has become Writer’s Block tradition, due to the frequency of the event it discusses.  

His poem, “Knocking You in the Bluetooth,” wishes owners of ringing cell phones all kinds of horrible things for not silencing their phones before the start of shows.

On any given night at Writer’s Block open mic night, one to two dozen poets walk up to the stage to read original poetry. Crowd favorites receive cheers in addition to applause.

“The first time I came here (four months ago), I didn’t actually read,” said Katrina Kokolari, a second-year in world literature. “I was amazed. I was expecting a lot of pretentious people — that’s the kind of the vibe that people would associate with a writing night. And it’s just really wonderful people that are excited to see people, especially young people, getting involved with reading and writing.”

First-time poetry readers get a rousing introduction, complete with how the poet is “just coming off a world tour,” among other exaggerations that come to the host’s mind.

Every third Wednesday of the month, in addition to the open mic, there is a poetry competition called a “poetry slam.” Poets compete with one another before five judges randomly selected from the audience.  

The original poems range from funny and whimsical to emotional and thought-provoking.

After two rounds, three-minutes and two-minutes each, the contestant with the highest combined score wins the night’s competition.

Some of the slam competitions are themed. Poets duked it out with their interpretation of lyrics by recording artist Prince in the “Prince lyric slam.” The “decathlon slam” includes up to 10 competition events —  some are poetry-related, while others might involve food, Bristow said.

Woods, who has been president of the executive council for the nonprofit organization Poetry Slam Inc. for five years, introduced slam competitions to Writer’s Block in 1998.

Every third Friday of the month, Joanna Schroeder hosts the Writer’s Block First Draft Poetry Night.

Rachel Wiley, 28, in retail sales, started coming to Writer’s Block three-and-a-half years ago. She read her poetry for the first time at the First Draft two years ago.

“It was an even playing field for everybody,” she said.

Despite her theatrical background, Wiley likened reading her poetry to playing rugby with no protective padding.

At this month’s First Draft, Schroeder got 67-year-old Rick Foreman to stand on the stage for the first time. Too shy to read his own poems, he stood next to Schroeder, who read his poem “I’m for the Underfish.”

“It felt OK, but I’m still really uncomfortable,” said Foreman, an employee at Harmony Bell Co.

Schroeder said she will eventually get Foreman to read his poetry at the microphone.

“I think the really cool thing about Writer’s Block is that it’s like a revolution every week,” Schroeder said. “You’re guaranteed three minutes of time where a room full of people are listening to what you have to say. And in this world, I think that’s a really important and increasingly rare sort of thing.”

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