Hot Mics

By Margo Hammond


Where the Mic Is Always Hot
for Poets & Storytellers

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An NEA/Pinellas Recovers Grant Update

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The mic is hot at Studio@620 for poets and storytellers — and always has been.

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The first open mic event at the creative space was held just months after it opened its doors in 2004. “Say What?” — a celebration of the spoken word — ran March 3-19, 2005.

Among its headliners were poet Peter Meinke (who went on to become St. Petersburg poet laureate and then poet laureate of Florida), comedian and poet “ranney” (Ranney Lawrence who went on to perform in every theater in Tampa Bay), poet Julie Buckner Armstrong (still a beloved professor at the USFSP), visual artist Duncan McClellan (who displayed his delineated glass sculptures), saxophonist Oluyemi Thomas (who shares the stage with his poet wife Ijeoma) and the Dundu Dole Urban African Ballet Company (founded in Pinellas County in 1991).

The first major open mic program at Studio@620 was Say What?: A Spoken Word Event, a two-week long celebration in March 2005

In a 2007 webcast, Dave Ellis and Bob Devin Jones, the co-founders of The Studio@620, talked about how perfectly the two-week long open mic event aligned with their mission to “bring different communities of people together into a neutral and safe space where everyone can share a creative energy.”
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Here’s an edited version of that conversation. . .
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Bob – Describe your favorite show of the last two seasons.

Dave – My favorite show was an event called “Say What?” It focused on poetry and spoken word, but because we wanted to bring different communities of folks together, we also included visual artists who had incorporated text as a tradition in their work.

We brought together dancers who did interpretation of poems. We had photographers. We had poets interpret an image that was thrown on the wall. They had ten seconds to come up with something.

We had workshops for children all the way up to poets emeritus. Fashion as well. It was this wonderful mix of different arts, backgrounds and abilities. For me it was sorta the perfect kind of gathering of people.

Bob – And the name was so great… Say What? Say What! In one word, how would you sum up the event?

Dave – Wow.
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“Say What” only lasted three seasons, but its spirit is alive and well at 620 1st Avenue S. in St. Pete. Last month the space hosted four open mic events where poets and storytellers were invited to step up to a hot mic and perform before a live audience.
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The Dead Poets Society

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“Tapping into the Ethereal” combined three of the original elements that made “Say What” so memorable – poetry, art and music. A fundraiser for the Friends of Jack Kerouac to mark the 53rd anniversary of the passing of the dead poet who invented the word Beat, the evening featured poetry readings, an interactive painting demonstration and a jazz band.

An altar to Jack Kerouac, the dead poet who invented the word Beat, at the Dead Poets Society fundraiser for the Friends of Jack Kerouac with the Johnny White and the Xperince playing jazz in the background – photo by Margo Hammond

There was also a silent auction and a “raffle witch” (aka Monica Drake, the group’s first ever female president). Oh, and free Nitro shots to keep us all awake.

First, the music. The evening began with a jazz program infused with Afro-Cuban rhythms provided by Johnny White and the Xperince, featuring Johnny White on the trumpet, John Jinkins on the drums, Rick Adams on the saxophone and Jake Walker on bass. Later, in true Kerouac coffee house style, the band provided a jazzy backdrop for poets who stepped up to the mic.

At The Society of Dead Poets open mic fundraiser for the Friends of Jack Kerouac at Studio@6230, Donnie Ibn Malik Ali-McClendon is reciting “Affirmation” by the very much alive poet Cuba-based American fugitive Assata Shakur. Johnnie White is providing the jazzy backdrop on the trumpet. McClendon was one of the co-hosts for the evening of poetry, jazz and an interactive painting experience – photo by Margo Hammond

Next, the visual art. Throughout the evening James E Hartzell, past president of the Friends of Jack Kerouac, stood at an easel, painting.

James E Hartzell at his easel during The Dead Poets Society fundraiser for the Friends of Jack Kerouac at Studio@620 last month – photo by Margo Hammond

As the image on the canvas emerged —  a typewriter topped by a tombstone labeled with Kerouac’s nickname Ti-Jean and the dates of his life on earth, 1922-1969 — he invited the audience to come up and paste poetry on the work, turning it into an interactive collage. The finished painting will be put up for auction at the next FOJK in March 2023.

Poetry readers at Studio@620 backed by The Johnny White Experience’s jazzy sounds and Nick Davis’s eye-popping paintings – Miesha Brundridge is a board member of the Friends of Jack Kerouac who curates the annual Youth Speaks Poetry Open Mic at Studio@620 offered by Keep St Pete Lit
– photo by Margo Hammond

And, finally, the main event – the poetry. In the spirit of the Halloween season, members of the audience were invited to throw their names into a pumpkin so that Denzel Johnson-Green, a Friends of Jack Kerouac board member and one of the co-hosts for the evening, could pull out the slips of paper at random and invite people to step up to the hot mic to read a poem.

“What is the Dead Poets Society?” asks poet Denzel Johnson-Green, one of the co-hosts at the open mic fundraiser for FOJK at Studio@620
– photo by Margo Hammond

“What is the Dead Poets Society?” Johnson-Green asked us. “It’s a funny question.

“We got all these live poets here tonight, talking about dead poets, past poets, past tense poets, poets once here, poets kinda like air, always around, breathing the same air that the dinosaurs breathed, but new air somehow. Perhaps poetry is like that. Perhaps people are like that. I’m not sure.”

Captain Jon Meliferas – photo by Margo Hammond

“Why do we read dead poets?” Johnson-Green asked the audience. “Because there’s more of them,” an audience member shouted. “To bring them back,” added another.

And the soulful readings of poems of dead poets, from Walt Whitman to Maya Angelou, nearly did just that.

Keesha King, secretary of FOJK, adding a dance step to her reading as Johnny White provides a jazzy backdrop on the trumpet – photo by Margo Hammond
Courtney Ross – photo by Margo Hammond

Not all of the poems read though were by dead poets. My favorite of the evening, in fact, was by the still very much alive Assata Shakur, an American political fugitive who has lived in Cuba since breaking out of a U.S prison in 1979. Donnie Ibn Malik Ali-McClendon, the other co-host of the evening (and my nephew) recited Shakur’s poem called “Affirmation.”

It begins “I believe in living” and includes these powerful lines. . .
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“And, if i know anything at all
it’s that a wall is just a wall
and nothing more at all.
It can be broken down.”

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The breaking down of walls, it seems to me, is exactly what happens at open mic events. By blurring the line between organizers and audience, between poets and poetry readers, between storytellers and lovers of stories, these events create a space where everyone is welcome to step up and perform or just sit back and listen.

And all the open mic events held at Studio@620 last month did just that.

James E Hartzell’s painting in progress begun during a fundraiser for the Friends of Jack Kerouac held last month at Studio@620, honoring the life and death of Ti-Jean (Kerouac’s family nickname). The strips of poetry were added by audience members. The finished painting will be put up for auction at the group’s next fundraiser in March 2023 – photo courtesy of James E Hartzell

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More Literary Open Mics at The Studio@620

Two open mics are offered every month.

    • Blah Blah Literary Open Mic: Storytelling and Prose readings, organized by Wordier Than Thou. Next meet up is November 8.
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    In both cases, with a $5 contribution, anyone can step up to the mic to recite their poem or tell a story. The order is chosen randomly in drawings at each session. Wordier Than Thou limits its prose readings to 10 minutes and 10 participants.

    The audience for the recent Proximity: A Storytelling Event at The Studio@620 – photo by Greg Hodge


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    A fourth event  — a storytelling open mic — made its debut last month: Proximity: A Storytelling Event. Host Jason Waits says he named it Proximity to underscore the fact that the storytellers will always be locals.

  • The evening echoed the original “Say What?” idea of mixing the arts, bringing six local storytellers to a hot mic, accompanied by original music.
    photo by Greg Hodge

    The music was curated by Levi Foe and Cameron Dorsey. The storytellers were local doula Alyssa Bedard, local poet Aenea, local musician Jessie McCloud, local poet Mike Pinney who is a used car salesman and uber storyteller Roy Peter Clark — “local everything,” according to Waits. And Waits himself.

    Roy Peter Clark – photo by Greg Hodge

    A St. Pete native who works at Craft Kafe on Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg by day and tells stories by night, Waits certainly has a compelling personal story to tell. He did stand-up gigs in rehabs in California (after getting out of one himself) and in Brooklyn in 2010 he performed at The Moth, a nonprofit organization that “celebrates the commonality and diversity of human experience through the art and craft of true, personal storytelling.” While in New York he sadly relapsed but then “finally got clean” when he returned to Florida.

  • Being tapped to tell his story at The Moth, says Waits, is what gave him the idea to create a similar experience for storytelling at The Studio@620.
    photo by Greg Hodge

    Now Waits is working on making Proximity a quarterly event at Studio@620.

    All we can say is, “Wow.”

    Or as a poet might put it, “Nuff said. Mic drop.”
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    The Studio@620 is a recipient of the Pinellas Recovers Grant,
    provided by Creative Pinellas through a grant from the
    National Endowment of the Arts American Rescue Plan.
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