Photo by Robert Cooper
It’s Monday night at the new Troy Kitchen, a food co-op with several unique restaurants on one end, and a stage with a microphone on the other. The lights are dimmed in a way that has the poet on stage unable to make out the faces in the audience looking and listening intently to their personal truth. The only thing that lets the poet know the audience is interested and feeling what they are saying are the snaps of fingers or the sounds of emphatic responses of “mmmm,” or “yes!” Those snaps, those vocal responses are re-affirmation to poets that their words are shared and understood by those unseen faces in the crowd, and are also an intoxicating narcotic that keeps them coming back every week to feel that same euphoria of acceptance.
The campaign season is officially over, and the era of Donald Trump is now a reality in America. A reality that has many people upset and frightened over what this means for a country that was believed to be progressing in a positive direction. People will find ways to voice their frustrations: From Tweets to Facebook statuses, Instagram memes to blogs, just about everyone is going to have an opinion. One place that has always been a haven for people to express their feelings and opinions has been the poetry open mic stage. In recent years, the Capital District has seen an increase in poetry venues where poets have a place to openly express everything that they are feeling.
“It’s a great time to be a writer,” says Thom Francis, the president of Albany Poets, a local organization that promotes poets and poetry throughout upstate New York. “Social issues have always been a way for poets to get their craft out there and be heard. Poets are able to speak to people in a different way than essay writers or articles written in [a magazine] that speaks and hits home with people that makes it make sense.”
Many of the poets in the Capital District are socially aware and socially involved in the area, and it is reflected in their poetry. At any of the various open mics in the area, poets such as Amani O, Katelynn Ulrich, Elizag, D. Colin, Poetyc Visionz, L-Majesty, Olivia McKee, and Bless can be heard discussing the hot-button issues of today. Topics such as Black Lives Matter, LGBT rights, dismantling White supremacy, mental health, and ending rape culture are all spoken about in frank, honest, and often times uncomfortable poems.
“The poems I choose to share are often about justice in various avenues because it’s so multi-faceted,” explains McKee, who is also a part of Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ), and Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration (CAAMI). “I feel like as a white person with a lot of privilege to have that mic and to be able to take that space, if I’m not using it to advance messages for human justice and healing [it] is not OK.”
Another poet merging art and activism is Amani O, who relocated to the Capital District from Brooklyn, and in a short time has already made a name for herself on the poetry scene as well as in the local news. She has been involved with CAAMI, organizing for three African-American UAlbany women accused of making up a story about being racially harassed on a CDTA bus, Black Lives Matter in Upstate New York, and Soul Tribe Eats–a program that creates solutions to combat environmental racism and urban food apartheid. Currently she has teamed up with poet/hip-hop artist Kat SoPoetic to form a duo called Katani and will release an album soon.
“We are trying to address misogynoir, specifically hatred against women and racism, and how those things intersect,” she said. “We are challenging the status quo of the radio because we are tired of having to play this game in our minds where we have to blank out parts of a song or pretend that they don’t pertain to us and feel uncomfortable when we listen to popular music.”
As an older white woman, Elizag enjoys being in diverse poetry venues that have poets who are willing to speak about tough social issues.
“I like being around young people and I like poetry that’s aware of what’s going on now politically and being with people who are tuned in,”said Elizag, who has been a part of two Nitty Gritty Slam teams that participated in national poetry slams. “Black Lives Matter–I want it to be talked about at all times. I feel like it should be talked about at all times. If I’m at an all white venue and they’re not talking about white privilege and white guilt, I’m like why am I here?”
For some poets, the stage and the mic can be therapeutic, a place where one can come to terms with personal issues. Katelynn Ulrich uses the stage and her poetry to tackle issues of mental health.
“[For me] nothing is off the table, I’ll talk about anything,” said Ulrich, who is also a journalist. “The way I work is that I write about what is prevalent to me or what’s on my mind at the time, but always trying to keep it broader. For me, in my daily life when something is occurring within me or in my reflection and introspection, I’m always trying to relate it outside of me to why is it this way? Why am I thinking this? What are others who may feel this way thinking?”
The day after Trump was named president-elect thousands took to the streets to protest in cities including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, Portland, and Columbus, Ohio. Protesters held signs disparaging Trump, as well as chanting “not my president,” and “no Trump, no KKK, no racist USA.” During the campaign there were already a lot of poems about Trump; now that he is going to be president, there is no doubt that there will be many more in the weeks to come.
“I think each open mic and each poet will be more energized, more political, and more tragic,” said Elizag, “Or [there may be] more head-in-the sand, and more denying. But in general there might be more fear, more unknowns and uncertainties.”
To find out anything about the poetry scene in the Capital District, one must go to the Albany Poets website (albanypoets.com) which is ground zero for all things poetry. Their website has a list from A-Z of local poets, an audio and video section featuring various local poets, and a calendar of events that lets people know where they can get their poetry fix in the area. They also put on an annual week of poetry titled Albany Word Fest during the month of April which is National Poetry Month.
When Francis started Albany Poets (AlbanyPoets.org when it first started) 16 years ago with R.M. Engelhardt as a website intended to announce the location of poetry readings, the amount of poetry readings were few and far between. Today there are an abundance of readings and open mics, each with their own unique atmosphere and experience.
“Back then there wasn’t many websites to advertise what was going on, so we just wanted a website that had a calendar, [to] put poets’ work up there, and maybe do an event–which is where Albany Word Fest came from,” says Francis. “There was only about five readings then. But now there are multiple things going on every night from here to the Kingston area, to Saratoga and a little bit north of that sometimes.”
The most popular of the poetry venues are Nitty Gritty Slam on the first and third Tuesday of every month at the Low Beat in Albany, Poets Speak Loud held on the last Monday of every month at McGeary’s in Albany, Third Thursday Poetry Night at the Social Justice Center in Albany, and Poetic Vibe which is every Monday in Troy at Troy Kitchen.
Each venue has its own distinct format and atmosphere. For instance Nitty Gritty Slam, which Francis used to host but is now hosted by Amani O, holds competitive poetry slams judged by the audience with each poet having only three minutes to deliver their best poems.
Poetic Vibe, hosted by D. Colin in Troy, boasts the most diverse audience and poets and has a featured poet from New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.
“I wanted to have this poetry night to add to the culture of downtown Troy,” said Corey Nelson, the owner of Troy Kitchen. “When it first started I thought only five or ten people would show up. I never knew it would grow into something where people are coming from all over to be a part of it.”