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.