What a pleasure it was to be interviewed by poet laureate of Portsmouth Diannely Antigua. We talked about garlic bread dipped in my mother’s sauce, my teenage beginnings with poetry, love, divorce, and ghosts. Listen here on Simplecast or look up Bread & Poetry on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Stitcher.
Twenty years ago, the first time I read a poem in front of anybody in my life, I was at Beat night at the Press Room in Portsmouth and I fell in love with the community. I learned that community is not just a gathering of people, but something sacred and necessary. That community gave me so much love and acceptance, I became devoted to it.
Larry Simon, who created Beat Night and ran it for 14 years is one of my heroes. He set the stage for that community of poets and musicians. Larry and the band: Mike Barron, Frank Laurino, Chris Stambaugh, Scip Gallant, Dave Tonkin, Scott Solsky, Cynthia Chatis and Don Davis, along with Bruce Pingree, General Manager of the press room who gave beat night its home at the Press Room, did it all with such love and jazzy coolness and it was so inspiring.
When Larry had to leave in 2014, we all wanted to keep it going. And because Larry didn’t make himself the center of it, he had built something that could live without him. Over the last eight years this community, now at Book & Bar in Portsmouth, has continued to thrive with more poetry, music and joy than ever.
Beat night gets its name from the beat poets of the 50s and 60s who created that style of poetry where they would often collaborate with musicians. But, as Larry has said, it’s also “a reference to the word beat just as a musical element hopefully implying that there will be music with poetry of all types.” Larry understood that he was building off of what others did who came before him and so do I.
During the first hour of Beat Night we get to hear some great featured readers, but the heart of Beat Night is the open mic. The open mic is so important because there are individuals in the audience who have something to share, but are terrified to do so. And if they keep coming and they keep watching their fellow poets do it, one day they’re going to get up and take a chance at that microphone.
The more they listen and the more they feel that connection between reader and audience, they’re going to start to believe in themselves and the power of their own words and share them with the community. They’re going to realize what I did twenty years ago, that the poem isn’t done until you share it, until you make that connection with the community.
They’ll come to understand that there’s nothing to fear, because there’s no ego, no kings or queens in this community, no one person in the center. The community of readers, the band, and the audience are the heart of Beat Night and the interplay of poetry and music is the lifeblood.
No matter what stage you’re at with your writing and your reading abilities, you will be loved just for getting up there, just for having the guts to share, because that’s all that matters. When we are loved, we grow. Come to Beat Night to listen and be heard and to be part of a beautiful community of poets, musicians and audience. Then watch what happens when vulnerability is applauded.
Now in its 23rd year, Beat Night is at Book & Bar in Portsmouth every third Thursday of the month at 7pm
On June 16 2022, for the first time in Beat Night’s twenty three year history, we have sitting state poet laureate Alexandria Peary featuring along with soulful newcomer Gina Puorro.
She has an MFA in poetry from the Iowa writers workshop at the University of Iowa, a second MFA in poetry from the University of Mass Amherst and a PhD in English composition from the University of New Hampshire.
Her work has received many awards including a 2020 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship, Best of NH, the Iowa Poetry Prize, and several Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations.
She specializes in mindful writing and gives frequent talks on the topic including a TED talk on how mindfulness can transform the way you write.
Her activities as poet laureate include the 2020 North Country Young Writers’ Festival, helping NH writers get published, and facilitating mindful writing workshops for people affected by the opioid crisis.
She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Under the Madness, a new literary magazine edited by NH teens.
She is a professor in the English Department at Salem State University where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in creative writing and mindful writing.
She was born in Dover and lives in my home town of Londonderry New Hampshire
Gina Puorro says on her website, she is a student of magic, love, grief, intimacy, myth and story, ritual arts, and the wild and vast terrain that we call nature and that her writing is inspired by the exploration of good questions, by relating with her human and non-human kin, and by her pursuit of beauty and awe.
Former NH state laureate Maxine Kumin called Mary Oliver “a guide to the nature world.” I think Gina Puorro is a new and important guide and voice for the natural world and our place in it. in her book The Wild Will Call You Back, she implores us to be, not passively, but profoundly and actively with ourselves and each other and the world in this moment.
The opportunity came along to give back to the program that gave so much to me as laurerate. The Portsmouth Poet Laureate Program was looking for a new chair and I couldn’t pass up the chance to once again be a part of the program’s twenty five year history of building community with poetry.
The twelfth poet laureate, Tammi Truax, needed help finishing her challenging term that happened almost entirely during Covid lockdowns, and a new laureate needed to be chosen. Myself and the new board helped Tammi finish in style with her new book A Bridge to Japan and assembled a new laureate selection committee.
After meeting Diannely Antigua, hearing her read and then reading her book, I felt the magic of her presence and her words and nominated her to be the next laureate. Myself and the board were very excited when the selection committee chose Diannely to be the thirteenth poet laureate of Portsmouth.
Diannely is the youngest person to be a laureate in Portsmouth and the first person of color. Diannely is an incredible poet, she’s extremely motivated to make a difference, and her representation is sorely needed in a town and state that is not exactly known for its diversity. The next two years are going to be a blast as we help Diannely achieve her community building goals and usher the program into the future.
Diannely is already doing great work with her new podcast Bread & Poetry. Check out her first episode on Simplecast or look up Bread & Poetry on Apple Podcasts and Spotify!
Poet Laureate of Portsmouth, Tammi Truax, came up with a really cool project, a Japanese themed poetry broadside contest. A Broadside is generally a sheet of paper 11×17 with a poem and an image.
For this contest, Tammi asked that a poet team up with a visual artist to inspire each other and create the broadside together. I challenged my friend John-Michael Albert to come up with a poem that I could work with visually. He sent me almost twenty to choose from in the Japanese tanka form. But it was his poem about the crows and the question he asks that grabbed me.
In Japan the crow is both messenger of God and a bad omen. In Greek mythology, Apollo, the God of poetry and plagues sent a crow to spy on Coronis. Alberts poem captured all this mystery and intrigue about the crow for me. And being in the middle of the pandemic, the question that the poem asks feels especially appropriate as we learn the hard way that we are not the most powerful force in this world.
Another important aspect of the contest is that it brings attention to and celebrates Asian culture in a time when Asian Americans are experiencing new levels of prejudice and violence.
All the other entries for the contest can be viewed here on the PPLP website
I’m happy to say that our Broadside won the contest judged by poet and translator Patrick Donnelly This is what Donnelly had to say about our broadside
“I loved so many things about this broadside: the handmade feel of the whole production, and the integration of art and poetry, the dynamism of the artwork, and the surprise of scale in which an assertive crow surmounts the planet itself; the charming metaphors of the poem which evoke sound, sight, and even taste, and its skillful syllabics—of course, a gesture towards the ubiquitous syllable-counting of traditional Japanese poetry; the witty allusion to the inkan, the red mark of the artist’s stamp, with which Nelson and Albert sign their work; and the fact that the poem ends with questions, wondering whether crows or people are the rightful owners the world. The poem itself is, “smart, hungry, and curious”, which are extremely valuable qualities in making art.” Patrick Donnelly
Well, it went so well the las time and we’re still stuck in a pandemic so what better time for Alexandria Peary’s brilliant and fun communal Submit-a-thon! She asked if could help again and of course I said yes. It is so fun helping our fellow poets overcome those fears and imposter syndromes and get those poems submitted. Alex is a big proponent of mindfulness and submit-a-thon is another opportunity to practice. The group setting is very effective in getting participants to let go and have fun especially when you see everyone is carrying around the same fears of rejection and I’m not worthy feelings. All that and special guests Tom C. Hunley and John-Michael Albert!
Well, because of that Covid thing, Beat Night had to be cancelled for the entire year of 2020. EXCEPT for that one we got to do outside in a parking lot with PopUpNH. With the entire Beat Night Band in attendance, Jeff Stern as our feature, guest hosted by Myles Burr, and a wicked open mic with myself and a whole bunch of other poets, it was a night to remember. Everyone was eager to read and connect with the band, the crowd and each other. With the music and our voices echoing through the streets and walls of town, it was a pleasure to forget for a couple hours about that whole pandemic thing.
When State laureate Alexandria Peary asked me to co-host her Submit-a-thon event with her I was super thrilled. It was Covid lockdowns and Alex had this really great idea to take the process of submitting poetry to magazines and turn it into a fun group project. Using Zoom and the Submittable website with some time limits the group would see how many poems they could get submitted at once. With Alex’s encouragement combined with the energy of the group many poems were effortlessly submitted to multiple zines. Also we had a tutorial on how to write a cover letter and special guest Alice Fogel!
Alexandria Peary: I interviewed Mike Nelson, host of Beat Night and former Portsmouth Poet Laureate, and Frank Laurino, Percussives in The Beat Night Band. (Other band members include Scip Gallant, David Tonkin, Chris Stambaugh, and Mike Barron.) In its twenty-first year—and continuing online during COVID Spring—Beat Night is the oldest regularly scheduled poetry event of its kind in the United States. Find Beat Night at Portsmouth Book & Bar, 40 Pleasant Street, Portsmouth every third Thursday of the month at 7pm.
AP: How would you describe Beat Night to someone new to the New Hampshire writers’ scene?
Mike Nelson: Beat Night is a poetry reading with a unique twist. Every poet gets to read his or her poem with a full band backing them up. The poet gives a few words to the band about the tone, style or mood of the poem, and the band improvises something brand-new just for that poem.
Frank Laurino: Beat Night is a performance of spoken word and improvisational music modeled on the Beat Poet coffeehouse gatherings of the 1950s and early 1960s. Beat Night features Seacoast poets and writers with the Beat Night Band providing a musical backdrop. Nothing is rehearsed: it is spontaneous, free-spirited, and “never the same way once.”
AP: What are three or four words that immediately come to mind when you think about the essence of Beat Night?
MN: Poetry, music, community.
FL: Creativity, improvisation, community.
AP: Pre-COVID-19, what was a typical Beat Night event like?
FL: Structurally, most nights are divided into two one-hour segments. The first hour typically showcases one or two featured readers; the second hour is an Open Mic where anyone in attendance may read.
AP: Beat Night recently celebrated its twentieth year of operation. What’s involved in sustaining a writers’ event series for the long-haul as you and your colleagues have so clearly done to great success?
MN: First, it’s great success started with a great idea from Beat Night’s creator, Larry Simon. Larry started it back in 1999 with a simple idea of having poets read with the band in the tradition of the Beat Poets of the 60s. Larry ran Beat Night for seventeen years, and it gained a loyal following. I discovered Beat Night when it was in its fifth year at The Press Room, and I’ve been hooked ever since. The thing about Beat Night is that it’s never the same thing twice so you never know what’s going to happen, and that’s a big part of what makes it exciting every month.
FL: It’s a “jazz thing,” in my opinion. If there was a deliberate strategy behind the event, it either would not have lasted so long, or it would be decidedly “academic.” Very much like a jazz performance, Beat Night has an environment where creativity can flourish. The readers are free to express themselves any way they wish. The band listens and reacts appropriately, on the fly. The audience is very attentive. The cumulative effect is emotional, engaging, and without artifice. I’m not sure the Beat Night experience can be manufactured; it’s got its own energy.
AP: How did this event come to receive its name?
FL: Literally, Larry Simon named it in honor of the Beat Generation poets.
AP: Is this an open-mike venue?
MN: Yes, an open mic hour always follows the feature hour. I think the open mic is extremely important because reading your poetry out loud to a group and getting that communal feedback is an integral part of the writing process. You can’t grow as a poet without the open mic, and when we only have features we’re shutting a lot of people, mostly young new writers.
AP: Why Portsmouth?
FL: Portsmouth has, for whatever reasons, been regarded as the most creative (if not politically open-minded) city in New Hampshire. Portsmouth also is an attractive destination for creative performers and audiences from Boston and Portland.
MN: Beat night is in Portsmouth because that’s where Larry was when he started it. Beat Night can be a little rough around the edges, as art should be, and Portsmouth has a great history of being home to many unconventional poets, artists, musicians and actors.
AP: What’s the role of the Beat Night Band?
FL: The band provides an added dimension to the stereotypical “poetry reading,” and helps cement the Beat Generation vibe (although the band’s style goes well beyond “cool” and “be-bop” jazz). Like the readers, the band’s musical explorations are all over the map. We only have two rules: #1, “Listen first”; #2, “Play appropriately.” From a more philosophical and personal level, the music restores an ancient power to the words, something lost since the advent of printing. Historically, the poetry and music were part of a singular – and communal – event. The idea of the poet agonizing over the arrangement of words in a quatrain, or the reader pouring over a volume in quiet solitude, is a modern invention. Words, music, community – to me, this is the essence of poetry. The band helps Beat Night tap into that power.
MN: The role of The Beat Night Band is to give life to the words of every poet that reads at the mic by improvising a brand new piece of music just for them. They have the hard job. They set up all their equipment and play the whole two hours. They are the heart of beat night and I give all the credit to them. There would be no Beat Night without The Beat Night Band and the dedication of those guys coming back every month for twenty years.
AP: In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, you’ve taken steps to make sure that the Beat Night tradition continues. Could you describe how people can still participate even with social distancing?
MN: I decided instead of doing an online reading or something I wanted to create some lasting and sharable content. I’ve asked poets to record themselves using their phones or whatever reading a poem and emailing it to me and the band has been sending me recordings of music from their solo material and other projects. I listen to the poems and then I go through the music that the band has sent me and I pick something that fits the tone of the poem. Then I use a program on my computer to splice them together. I find or take a photo that encapsulates the piece and create a video that gets uploaded to the Beat Night YouTube Channel in a virtual beat night playlist.
AP: Mike, what most motivates you as Beat Night event manager?
MN: When Larry left Beat Night, we had to keep it running, and I wasn’t just a participant: I really believed in it. Keeping that mic open is a sacred duty to me. Every month I see the effect that the opportunity to be heard does for people. And the band only intensifies that effect because that writer is receiving a piece of music made just for them for every poem. Beat Night is bigger than me. I’m just a steward. I didn’t create it and they’ll be others after me, but it’s my honor to be that steward every month.
AP: Could you describe one of the most memorable evenings at Beat Night?
MN: One that sticks out is back when Larry got Eric Mingus, the son of Charles Mingus, to perform, and he was off-the-charts amazing. Also David Amram, who was friends with the likes of Kerouac and Ginsberg and a forefather of the beat poetry and music scene. In the realm of beat poetry and music, he’s a holy man. He can play any instrument; he’s full of stories and an immensely positive person.
FL: Prince Shapiro recently gave a stunning performance based on his native apartheid South Africa. Riveting. A while back, Heather Lessard read a Valentine’s Day piece that was – how should I put this – electric. Many years ago, Young Dawkins read his own work, describing the poets, the band and the venue (the Press Room at that time) as “his church,” a very moving tribute. Any Halloween Beat Night with Jonathan Stoker is also a must-attend event!
AP: Thanks for the advice. I’ll keep my eyes open for him.
AP: It’s practically a truism that writers want to give readings since sharing one’s work often validates a writer’s efforts. What would you most want writers and their audience members to understand and appreciate about the endeavor of making a performance space available to them?
MN: I think the audience is there to be validated as well because just like with a concert or a play, the communal sharing of poetry is necessary. We can’t move forward as individuals or as a society without that process. I tell people that I work with in classes and at Beat Night that their poem isn’t done until they read it to an audience even if that audience is just one other person.
I like to think of poetry as personal mythology and we need mythology to put our life in perspective. That connection between artist and audience gives context to the moment we find ourselves in. For me it’s no less than a sacred rite that everyone should have the opportunity to participate in. You get to deliver your personal three minute mythology with a live band providing an original score and the audience experiences something they can’t get anywhere else. What’s better than that?
FL: From the musician’s perspective, it’s the writers who give us validation. We’re essentially jazz players – the play(ing)’s the thing for us, not crafting something in a studio and then replicating it exactly in performance, as with most popular music. We sincerely appreciate the chance to make live, spontaneous sounds.
AP: What are your future plans for Beat Night once we’re able to safely congregate in public again?
MN: The plan is to pick up where we left off and keep doing what we’ve been doing for 20 years. I’m really looking forward to seeing all the work that has come out of this situation and to be with our amazing community of misfits again. I think the first one back will be a two hour open mic with no features to let everyone get up and read their new stuff and feel the live connection again.
AP: What advice would you give to a New Hampshire resident who writes poetry but has yet to share his or her work at a public reading?
FL: Come to a Beat Night. Check it out. Sign up to read during the Open Mic. Just do it.
MN: I would tell them that their work isn’t done until they share it. If you go to a concert, you can’t get up there and play your own song. If you go to a play, you can’t get on stage and do your own performance. But at an open mic poetry reading you can stand up on stage and express yourself. You don’t have to have any education or training. You don’t need a list a publication credits. You just need you and your poem. I know it sounds scary and yes your heart will pound the first time but that’s what it feels like to grow. Come listen and be heard and you’ll find love in the audience and in yourself.
I’m really excited and honored to be included in Covid Spring,
an anthology of Covid pandemic themed poems
by New Hampshire poets from New Hampshire State poet laureate Alexandria Peary and published by Hobblebush Books.
“Fifty-four of the state’s poets are represented in this anthology, writing of job loss, loneliness and love, masks, social distancing, surreal visitors, uncertainty, graduations deferred, grief, neighborly and less-than-neighborly acts, observing the beginning of the pandemic and making projections about the future, recalibrating or confirming what it means to be human, to be a resident of this region. In a remarkable range of poetic form and style, these writers provide a thirty-day snapshot of what life was like in the Granite State in April of 2020.” NH State Poet Laureate Alexandria Peary
Below is my contribution to Covid Spring which can be purchased from Hobblebush Books
A corona is a halo of light:
ring of fire of solar explosions,
aura of a holy person,
steady burn of the only love we’ve ever known.
Quarantine is a lazy pattern
of slowly bouncing off the walls.
Now, I would trade a lifetime of hug-less safety
for one warm deadly embrace.
The virus erases all borders.
No wall can mitigate its migration.
Segregated just out of reach by six feet of air.
Confined to the cages of our own homes.
There’s no change without pressure.
As the crushing gravitational fusion of hydrogen lights our star
so does the gravity of our situation break our hearts
to forge some new element.
We can’t go back to the way it was.
That was the path that led us here.
Cleaner air and water around the world
shows us an answer we’ve been looking for.
The drama, thriller, horror, comedy of this moment
can’t be watched from the couch.
Re-enter the wild world, rubbing our eyes in the sun
like newborn bees emerging from the honeycomb.
The nurse and the grocery clerk are all of us.
Despite their masks, I see them more clearly:
the corona glow around their holy heads;
the steady burn of the only love that’s ever mattered.