Poetry, Beer, and the Duality of Man
Open the door and walk into The Shepherd and the Knucklehead in Haledon, N.J., and you’ll usually find a cramped, dimly lit collection of people chatting and nursing one of the several craft beers available on tap. You’ll have a little difficulty navigating your way to the bar, despite its proximity to the door – it’s a pretty small space – and it might be hard to read the white board that lists the night’s microbrews, especially when you’re being jostled by all the other bar-goers due to the limited room available (which should soon change with the bar’s anticipated expansion).
On this particular Sunday evening, however, walking in is unusually easy, since everyone has taken a seat and turned their attention to the one microphone and speaker set up by the bookcase full of board games and cards. A general din of conversation typically permeates the pub, but tonight there is only one voice to which everyone is listening, and the focus is on a woman named Elizabeth Stelling, a chef and poet from Texas who is reading pages from her latest novel Lesbian Zombie Crush. Both flippant and emotional, Elizabeth creates fleeting impressions of the experience of cooking and laces her writing with humor for the participants and enthusiasts of the Shep’s recently incepted open-mic night.
The mic is not limited to written work, though, as a bar regular named Jean-Pierre “JP” , a self-labeled subjective expert, takes the floor to talk a little bit about his favorite subjects, ethics and philosophy. JP offers some insight into the idea of reality and the perception thereof, the conflict of relative versus absolute, and ultimately arguing that in fact, reality consists of both. On paper, it sounds like grabbing the microphone for queries of existence might lose listeners, but JP’s conversational approach and genuine interest in what those listening have to say about the matter keeps everyone on board.
Annmarie Lockhart, editor of Vox Poetica and unbound CONTENT, as well as poet and medical writer, follows JP with a few short pieces she reads from her iPad. Beginning with a poem she leaves untitled and explains was inspired by her experience biting into a bad tomato, Annmarie gives an animated rendition of her poems that are humorous and accessible about food, overheard conversations, and her daughters.
Chris Schiavo, the owner of the pub and the night’s emcee, spends some time talking about his early youth as a disenchanted 20-something, who went from bar to bar posing to unsuspecting beer-drinkers the question “Fellow citizen of Athens, do you know what the meaning of truth is?” and getting kicked out of every single establishment he frequented. This is part of a series of conversation with the microphone week to week, ending with a request to ask others the meaning of truth and to report back next Sunday.
Jen, a poet who has never read her work in public before, reads a couple choppy but promising pieces typical of a young writing student, with concern for the way the words sound taking precedence over their meaning. Still, she delivers sharp images and plays with the classic Rock-a-bye Baby lullaby, twisting the cradle into a cage for an overgrown child, ending with the comment that this is “a terrible song to sing to children.”
Dave, a friend of the owner, gets up to read for the first time in his life and gives something akin to a comedian’s stand-up routine. It’s a bit hit or miss, but there are sparks of humor in an entertaining collection of thoughts and observations that spans wine in juice boxes, the etymology of hysteria and its cure (an orgasm), spandex tights, and making meth.
He is interrupted at one point by Elizabeth returning to the front of the room to show off the spandex tights she happens to be wearing after he mocks the people who wear them, and she comes back again to give a quick rant about the unwanted advance of some misguided man, that “if I wanted dessert, I would’ve fucking ordered it.” This is the really interesting aspect of the night: rather than passively listen and wait for their respective turns, everyone involved plays off of each other and their work. The night becomes a collaborative effort that everyone is welcome to participate in, creating a dynamic that celebrates the community of art as well as the creation of it.
Other performers included Eddie Kamenitzer, a guitarist (and the bar’s “First Official Minstrel”) who plays folksy, quiet songs on the ukulele; Patrick Boyle, Lamplighter’s own editor-in-chief, with his short poem Memories Like Walls – only ten lines, but immediately powerful; and Alex, another friend of the owner’s, who recites a short poem from memory that’s lyrical and flowing, denoting him clearly as a musician.
Chris opened the night reading the last page of Kerouac’s On the Road, and closes it out with an excerpt from The Shepherd and the Knucklehead, the bar’s namesake novel written by Chris himself.
Nights likes these are a fun, inexpensive way to check out talent from local performers, and they’re open-invitation as a rule, but this particular one at the Shep is especially inviting; people really listen and pay attention to whomever has the floor. It’s open-mic in the truest sense, with no restrictions for length or topic or genre, just an opportunity for anyone who wants to be heard to have the respect of those empathetic of the experience of putting pieces of themselves on display. It’s an intimate and informal environment that’s more of a conversation than a sequence of performances, a creative space for sharing and exploring writing and thought.
Open-Mic Night is held every Sunday at 9 p.m. Everyone, and that really means everyone, is welcome. Visit the Shep’s Facebook page for more information and for other events they’re planning (such as Filibuster Night, the political counterpart to Open-Mic Night).