Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

Poet’s Playhouse

Either you’re caffeinated or sweaty or drunk—perhaps all of the above. When the room’s capacity has been overfilled to the point of discomfort, when people lean on the wall to wall bookshelves or sit behind performers on stage because that’s the only floor space available, you’re most likely at least two out of the three. And the crowd is usually like this Wednesday evenings for Writer’s Block Poetry at Kafe Kerouac, but on this particular night, things are different.

The Writer’s Block Poetry Grand Slam Women of the World competition is taking place, an event for “lady poets or those who live their lives as ladies.” It’s hosted by stand-in emcee Vernell Bristow, a spunky, verbose woman who isn’t afraid to joke about her fictitious sex lives with performers in the audience. She is filling in for legendary emcee Scott Woods, who keeps his bit cheeky at all costs as well.

“Scott Woods keeps it very light-hearted and hilarious against a backdrop of such good poems and sometimes very deep and hard-hitting poems,” said Betsy Clark, a 23-year-old hair stylist who’s been performing at Writer’s Block for two years (she’s also a competitor this night). “So you’ve got that contrast of amazing artistry next to Scott emceeing in a very irreverent style, which is cool because he does that knowing if he can break that ice and say the most ridiculous things, you can go up there and do whatever you want.”

Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

Photo by Megan Leigh Barnard

Before the competition begins, open mic runs its course per usual. Some people are on the weekly roster, but a similar amount of first-timers are in attendance. Three past national competitors take to the mic during the night, including Bristow.

There are poems about dinosaurs, poems about the holidays as hellfire, and poems about vaginas. One person, who two days prior had been incarcerated, loosely freestyles on his trials and tribulations. There are no requirements, no off-limit subjects, and no rules.

Well, there’s at least one rule: no cellphone chirps. If a cellphone does interrupt a performer, that person must read from a truly intolerable selection of poems. On this particular night, Bristow’s cellphone rings on high volume, which prompts her to read a poem that features dialogue between a man and a woman about how often he gets laid, using broken language and sexually explicit profanity in every sentence.

Audience members take swigs from liquor and lattes, hoot, holler, laugh, and audibly gasp at poets’ performances, occasionally snap (an ode to the beatniks), and whisper to their neighbors mere feet from the stage. It’s respectfully informal because, as Bristow notes, “Can anyone really make money from poetry?” It’s an art free of pretension. 

Of the three finalists in tonight’s event, one will represent Columbus in March at the national Women of the World Poetry Slam in Albuquerque, so it’s a big deal. Spoiler: Clark won and she spit absolute fire, making the audience cringe and laugh during the six minutes she performed.

And it wasn’t a typical front-row-judge, audience-sits-in-silence competition.

If 19th-century poetry is a snooty rooftop restaurant, Writer’s Block Poetry is the cash-only dive bar in the basement—Bristow says nobody knows who’s stoned in the room, which is true. Judges (random audience members) score on sheets of notebook paper and erasable white boards.

This spontaneity is the essence of Writer’s Block, where no two nights are alike. Clark underscores this point by describing a scene from a previous Wednesday involving Woods and an audience member.

“The young man had insulted Scott,” Clark recounts. “And so Scott said, ‘We’re going to resolve this with poetry.’ And literally, after the show, there was like 30 people outside of Kafe Kerouac, and they poetry-battled in the street, and I will never forget that.”   

The camaraderie does shift toward a more muted tone once performers take the stage. It quickly transitions into a forum for artistry, a soapbox for those who wish to share their poetry thats often very intimate. Listen to a few poems and you’ll quickly realize slam poetry is one of the few mediums where people can get visibly passionate about something in less than 60 seconds.

“There’s a lot of respect for Writer’s Block,” Clark says. “What’s cool is that you get people who’ve never heard people talk [about] some stuff that is serious as they talk [when] they’re on the mic. I think there’s a huge amount of respect and admiration from the audience-to-performer relationship at Writer’s Block.” 

Judges round up scores with a calculator while audience members try to come to their own totals by using their fingers. Clark wins by less than a point over both her competitors. And as Clark leaves the stage after being announced the winner, the audience boos. They’re not upset that Clark won; they’re upset that not all of competitors could win.

Writer’s Block takes place every Wednesday at Kafe Kerouac, 2250 N High St. Bring $5 for admission and remember to silence your cellphone.