At the front of the line of people waiting to pay $5 to get into Kafe Kerouac’s intimate and book-filled performance space, a man asked, “Will I be able to get back in if I leave to smoke a cigarette?”
The woman collecting people’s money while taking the names of the night’s poets responded quickly: “Nope. Because once I take your five dollars, I’m going to take you to the back and chain you up.”
There was a pause, then the man responded with, “Does that cost extra?”
That woman is Vernell Bristow, who graduated in 1995 from Ohio State with master’s degrees in African-American studies and English literature, and is one of the two co-founders of Writers’ Block Poetry Night.
Bristow said the night’s packed audience was representative of how busy the Wednesday night open mic usually is, which she described as the most irreverent night of poetry in the city.
“Poetry is so accessible, anybody can write a poem,” Bristow said. “I think every person probably has one good poem in them and it’s just waiting to come out.
“(People) get up there and share whatever’s on their heart to share and know there’s a room full of people there to listen to what they have to say. I think that’s really empowering,” she said.
Scott Woods, the night’s MC and other co-founder of Writers’ Block, took to the stage and captured the audience almost immediately.
Wednesday nights at Kafe Kerouac are an interactive experience, blurring the lines between onstage and off.
As an MC, Woods pushed the audience to interact, participate and expose themselves, whether they were reading a poem that night or not.
For example, one of the Wednesday night regulars brought his mother along to experience the night. With a keen nose for uncomfortable public conversations, Woods proceeded to ask the mom, “You still dating? You’re a very attractive woman,” as her son sank into his chair and the crowd roared with laughter.
Woods’ opening remarks came to a close and the poetry started flowing.
The tone of the poems spanned from serious to saucy, featuring social criticism of rape culture in current pop music and reasons to perform oral sex, as well as introspective verses about self-doubt, the reality of life and the heartache of break-up.
Woods and Vernell brought Writers’ Block to Kafe Kerouac eight years ago, and as Woods puts it, “This is where poetry needs to be.”
“It’s definitely a poetry show, it’s just a very active open mic,” Woods said. “We’re very much into a person who is new to poetry. We think it should be fun.”
Woods said there’s somewhere to go almost every night in Columbus for poetry.
“If you don’t like it here,” he said. “There’s a place for you and if you didn’t find what you like there, we’re probably your place.”
Writers’ Block featured many new poets: New to both Kafe Kerouac and to poetry open mics in general.
The crowd supported and received the “virgins” with attentive applause and the same level of snark enjoyed by the seasoned readers.
With the help of Betsy Clark, a Wednesday night regular and special co-MC for the night, Woods continued to invite the night’s poets to the stage one by one. The two hours of poetry featured more than 30 poets, all from different walks of life and poetic styles, but each baring their hearts to a full room.
Clark, a 23-year-old cosmetologist and veterinary technician student, started her open mic career at Kafe Kerouac, and said the diversity is a big reason she keeps coming back.
“There’s lot of diversity, a lot of different voices and a lot of different styles,” Clark said. “There are so many kinds of poetry, it can be high energy and no matter who you are, you’re going to find one piece you can relate to or one person who you like their style.”
Javier Cintax is a 26-year-old Spanish teacher who had only dabbled in poetry until he attended Kafe Kerouac’s poetry night. “I’ve done open mics other places, but I started here,” Cintax said. “I like the attitude, it’s much more about having fun and the poetry, rather than competition or the ego of people. It feels like home.”
Correction: A prior version of this article erroneously identified Betsy Clark as a OSU graduate student.