Poetry in motion: Beat Night blends poets, musicians and their fans
February 5, 2014
Mike Nelson is a soft-spoken heating technician who describes himself as “mostly introverted.” But when he steps on stage to read his poetry, he transforms. His voice becomes low and serious, rising and falling in a cadence that hints at suspense and mischief. The band behind him improvises a sultry jazz number that wraps around Nelson’s words. He closes his eyes and sways. One poem leads to another. Nelson’s arms are outstretched, his voice wild with bravado. The music crests and Nelson clasps the mike and tosses his head back, as if he’s in the throes of a fiery sermon. The audience feels it, from the front of the room to the back, as if they’ve just been hit with a gale-force wind. The quiet Nelson is gone; the words and music have morphed him into a rock star.
Such is the power of Beat Night. This monthly gathering of poets and musicians at The Press Room in Portsmouth, which has been running since December 1999, is not so much an open mike night as it is fertile turf, a place where the dual seeds of poetry and music cause artists to evolve and communities to grow.
“Being on the stage, having the attention of a crowd and affecting them with my art is the most alive I ever feel,” says Nelson.
In the last 14 years, hundreds of poems, songs, books, albums, and other projects have sprung from Beat Night. The latest is Nelson’s third book of poetry, “Another Forty Years,” and “View From The Mic,” a double-album by Nelson that features The Beat Night Band. On the first disc, the band backs the poet as he reads his works. On the second disc, they perform with six other regular Beat Night poets. The book and CD release party will take place at the February Beat Night on Thursday, Feb. 20 at 7 p.m., just after Valentine’s Day.
“I wanted to recognize the community that supported me,” Nelson says. “The CD is a love letter to the poets and to the musicians.”
The people’s place
The basic elements of Beat Night are deceptively simple. On the third Thursday of every month from 7 to 9 p.m., anyone can take the stage and read a poem—their own work or someone else’s—while The Beat Night Band, currently featuring Mike Barron on drums, Skip Gallant on keys, Chris Stambaugh on bass, Scott Solsky on guitar, Don Davis on sax and clarinet, Cynthia Chatis on flute, and Frank Laurino on percussion, plays with them, each word changing the course of the song. The first hour features scheduled guest readers; the second hour is an open mike.
“It’s free. There’s no cover. It’s open to everyone,” Nelson says. “The community there is supportive of anyone. If you have a degree or not, it does not matter, or if you just wrote your first poem ever. You will be supported. It’s a rare jewel. It’s the people’s place.”
Percussionist Laurino, who has been coming to Beat Night for 14 years, says Beat Night’s popularity stems from a shared yearning to seek out and revel in “the communal power of the spoken word.”
“Poetry is inseparable from music,” he says. “The ancient Greek poets, for example, or the Celtic bards, for them, music was integral to the event. The French ‘chanter,’ to sing, is where we get our words for ‘chant,’ ‘enchantment,’ ‘incantation,’ etc. So, the idea of spoken word and music together in a communal setting, this is ancient, powerful stuff. It’s in our human DNA. It’s the root of all histories, legends and traditions.”
Past Portsmouth poet laureate John-Michael Albert, who is featured on “View From The Mic,” has been coming to Beat Night since it began.
“The important thing to me is the words and music working together,” says Albert, who has sung baroque opera and given Shubert recitals as a musician. “If the musician catches the wave, all he or she has to do is go with it. Reciting with music is the same way. You wait for the wave and roll. You don’t struggle.” For Albert, Beat Night resonates when there’s symbiosis between the speakers and the musicians, when the words and the music combine to transform the work and/or the speaker. It’s what keeps him coming back, he says. “These excellent musicians. You have never seen musicians listen so hard in your life.”
The challenge to produce that alchemy is a driving creative force for drummer Mike Barron, who has played Beat Night since it began.
“There are no egos competing on the stage; everyone understands that for this to work, you have to listen and react appropriately,” he says. “It’s not always perfect, but this band has the ability to go off of a very brief description, phrase, or word and come up with an appropriate piece of improvised accompaniment for each reader’s work. This forces collaborative spontaneity, creativity, and originality and those are, in my opinion, some of the most rewarding aspects of being a musician.” Barron never intended for Beat Night to be one of his regular gigs. “I had a preconceived notion—think berets and snapping, daddy-o—of what that might be like and thought it might be fun to try maybe once or twice. That was 14 years ago, and I must say that Beat Night has become one of the most fulfilling projects I’ve ever been part of,” he says. “What makes it so special is the collaboration that takes place between the reader and the band each night, the fact that no two events are ever alike, and it all takes place in the very best room in Portsmouth. Add to that a hugely supportive and loyal audience and you have not just another gig, but a real community event where many of the performers and supporters feel like family.”
For poet Lyndsey Coombs, Beat Night’s influence is felt internally. She says stepping into the spotlight brings new dimension to her writing. “I’ve always felt that poetry is music by itself, but when you get an improv band behind you, you have another world to enjoy,” she explains. “It changes how you feel about poetry. For my work, it tends to change the pacing. I’ve learned to relax with it, so I can let the music be a part of it. The phrasing of the poem can change and the tempo. I can give the band a cue on the general mood and create a whole new piece of work, just by adding music.”
Coombs is another of the featured poets on Nelson’s CD. She regularly drives 45 minutes from Deerfield to attend Beat Night. “I have found that it has become like a family … We are expressive together,” she says. “Obviously the poets change, but there is a continuity thanks to the musicians. There is something that is eternal about it. The atmosphere of this place is creative all on its own. This is a one-of-a-kind. You cannot find this anywhere else.”
The word “family” comes up a lot when you chat with the Beat Night crowd. Although the father of this baby is no longer living on the Seacoast, he is proud that his initial vision lives on today.
Musician Larry Simon, who now lives in the Brooklyn, N.Y., says he stared Beat Night out of a yearning to create with others. “The impulse that led me to create Beat Night—beyond loving poetry, and music, both together and separately—was that, as a musician I always loved collaborating with artists from other disciplines,” he says. “Before I moved to Portsmouth, I wrote music for theater, dance, film, etc. In Portsmouth I found I was just playing music gigs. With New England’s rich tradition of great poets, it was natural for a person like me to end up collaborating with poets.”
When Simon moved from Portsmouth to Brooklyn in 2011, Press Room general manager Bruce Pingree took over hosting duties. Over the years, he says, attendance and enthusiasm have remained consistent, although the audience members and participants revolve. Occasionally, theme nights, like the yearly young poets night, lure in new people. “The energy is very good consistently,” Pingree says. “On any given night someone can walk in and blow us away. You never know. When the combination of the readers, the audience, and the band clicks, there’s a magic that happens.”
That magic is what Nelson says he was trying to capture with “View From the Mic.”
Those who collaborated with him on the project say it worked.
“I’ve worked with other poets, and the best of them—of which Mike is one—assemble a group of people in the studio and pretty much say, ‘Do what you do best.’ Not that Mike didn’t know what he wanted—but he’s wise enough to understand that you get the best out of people when you give them a clear space within which to play and then give them the freedom, and responsibility, to perform at a high level,” says Laurino.
For Nelson the album and his latest book of poems are a way of capturing Beat Night’s spirit of inspiration and collaboration beyond The Press Room.
“Creative energy gets stimulated by others’ creative energy,” he says. “In working with Mike Albert on editing the book and with Chris Magruder (the engineer at Thundering Sky Studios), the band, and the other poets on the CD, I saw all this writing that I did alone become something wonderful that I never could have imagined.”
Other poetry-and-music nights have been started in the region but none have lasted like Beat Night. Nelson postulates that it’s the atmosphere of support and enthusiasm for creativity and individuality that The Press Room harbors and its overall kinetic energy.
“Stepping onto that stage feels like plugging into something,” he says. “Everyone is looking at you. They’ve come there to be moved, changed or at least entertained. To be the one delivering that for others is a heightened state of being and a beautiful privilege … Now I tell people that whether you’re a poet, or a musician, or a painter, the process isn’t complete until you share your work with others.”
—Denise J. Wheeler