July 12, 2007

Support your Local Poet (?)

Astrologers tell me I have a "Virgo Ascendant," apparently why I pay attention to such details as whether the accent is acute or grave. Of course, if I was from France it would matter, but in America it usually doesn't, & in Saratoga Springs, like so many other things there, it apparently is just one of those meaningless pretentions to something, like over-priced dinners or flouncey hats.

So when I got a flyer recently at Caffe Lena ("It's time to renew your poetic license") my eye was immediately drawn to the end of the very first sentence: "For the last two years, the New York State Council on the Arts has been picking up the tab for the open poetry mic here at Caffe [accent grave] Lena." Now I know there must be a way to do the accents properly in HTML, which this Blog uses, but haven't figured that out yet. In any event, this paper document clearly had an accent grave over the "e" of Caffe. Not just once, but 7 times; every time "Caffe [accent acute] Lena" was mentioned. Also, & not so by-the-way, it's not a "open poetry mic," it's a poetry open mic, a small but semantically meaningful difference, just like the accent. It's enough to make me pay attention to whatever else might be wrong with this picture.

Now I have a lot to say about arts funding, in this region, in this state, & Nation. I've been running an open mic for poets on the third Thursday at various locations around Albany since December 1997, as well as special events, & setting up poetry readings with the Hudson Valley Writers Guild & for 3 Guys from Albany. I admit to at times applying for, & even to accepting, funding for reading & performing poetry. Money is good, as most will admit. And artists should be paid for what they do. But if you figure all the time & effort it takes to go through the bureaucratic rigmarole to get them to cough up a few bucks (& then have them tell you how to run your program in the bargain) you net about a-buck-three-eighty, as they say.

The key to running any event (especially here in the great North East) is having a place to put it, a venue, a home. You can only do Poets in the Park about 3 months out of the year. The reason the old QE2 open mic was on a Monday night (the last Monday) was that on Monday nights Char, the owner, was paying the bartender to stand around & watch TV. If you have a poetry open mic & 5 poets showed up & bought 3 beers (that's 3 beers between them, you know what cheap bastards most poets are), that was still 3 more beers than you would normally sell. It's not charity, it's good business. That's why poetry open mics at bars and cafes are on weeknights, never on the weekends. The business of business is money.

And those of us with long enough memories will recall that Caffe Lena was not exactly enthusiastic about having a poetry series. Over the years there had been attempts at various open mics, including some music open mics, that hadn't lasted very long. So Carol had to work hard to convince the folks at Caffe Lena to give it a try, & with the support of the poetry community in the region it has been a success. Quite frankly there are few reasons for me to drive 45 minutes from Albany for a poetry reading -- there are plenty here where I live. But I, & others, felt that it was important that this open mic succeed -- & it has. The reality is that if Caffe Lena management decides that the first Wednesday is prime folk night & kick out the poets, Carol would be able to find another venue in the area; poetry will survive in spite of Caffe Lena or the New York State Council on the Arts.

The open mic at Caffe Lena was happening for a couple years before the NYS Council on the Arts "picked up the tab" (excuse me, but don't my monthly contributions & purchases help towards that tab?). And contrary to the flyer's assertions that "With the Council's support, the Wednesday Night Open Poetry Mic [there it is again -- doesn't anyone look at what Carol's flyers call this event?] has flourished," the open mic has flourished from the first night 4 years ago due to the poets & fans & listeners who show up each month. And with the support of the folks who run Caffe Lena, & their volunteers (great cookies!).

Certainly it is a matter of money, the venue has to pay bills. And I have nothing against fund-raising, poets should be paid. I pay my featured poets at the third Thursday reading & at Poets in the Park -- not from grants, but from passing the hat, from the support of the community. But the poets who show up each month are already supporting the event, indeed they have been the only ones who have kept it going . For my part I would be willing to pay more at the door & more for the coffee (it's good coffee). But who are the "writing groups" or "poetry friends" that are being solicited for funds? They're the same ones who are also trying to squeeze a few bucks from that great "supporter" of poetry, the NYS Council on the Arts. There is a lot, a lot of money in Saratoga Springs (try renting a motel room for a night in August), & people there like to brag about it. But if they can't support poetry, fuck 'em. We'll find someplace that will.

7 comments:

Tim Verhaegen said...

Dan, I have to respectfully disagree. Caffe Lena is awesome precisely because it is NOT a restaurant or bar. I think Caffe Lena is so well attended because it does not have the loud distractions and the negative connotations that come from a bar atmosphere.

Caffe Lena is irreplaceable because of the specific venue. I certainly wouldn't drive 45 minutes for the nightmare of trying to listen to a poem over loud drunks, and loud jukeboxes in the next room. Sounds so artsy and beatnik in theory, horrible in practice. If it was wonderful, there would be 20 readers at Valentines and Lark Tavern, not five, or seven.

Caffe Lena is wonderful because the only people showing up the first Wednesday of the month are poetry lovers. Theres no people in attendance surprised or displeased or indifferent, or DRUNK, while a poetry reading is in process.

I would certaintly contribute to support the most poetry friendly venue in the capital region.

All poetry open mics, all poetry venues, ARE DEFINETELY NOT EQUAL

Anonymous said...

While I respect my friend my friend Tim, I actually agree with Dan. I think poetry has always been playing second fiddle to the musicians. I find it hard to believe that Caffe Lena is so hard up that they can't help Carol in some way. I noticed too once a couple of years ago that the poetry open mic wasn't listed on the Caffe Lena website. Also, as a board member of Albany Poets, I'm very dismayed that our offer of giving $100. to sponser poetry in April was soundly turned down with no negoations. Why couldn't there be 2 groups or co-entities sponsering the same month. Carol can, if she wants, to go the media and try to get corporate sponsorship but I think ultimately she should find a place more poet friendly. Carol had at least 20 audience members fro her 4th of July reading and I know she has such a following that people would flock to her reading. I'm just sorry that it is happening to such a good and classy person like Carol.

Dan Wilcox said...

I'd certainly be willing to pay more at the door if I knew that Caffe Lena was splitting it with the poets & Carol.
DWx

Anonymous said...

The silence is large.
No money? Then: no poets.
An empty café



Tim is right about how great Lena is. It’s one of my favorite open mic venues. Tim, however, misses Dan’s point. Tim writes about how Lena is an ideal reading venue, and how other spots are flawed in some way. These are just Tim’s beliefs about what makes a venue great for an open mic, not everybody’s. Other people are okay with Cafes espresso grinders (you wait the 20 seconds until it’s done) or bars with other patrons (if somebody is looking for a bar reading with only poets present then Albany Poets presents on the first Tuesday of the month at Valentine’s is perfect. We’re the only ones there). Every venue has their flaws: The Social Justice Center can get too hot, Live from the Living Room could not host a large crowd to name two, the Night Sky Café is in Schenectady (and serves espresso), and at Lark Tavern the poets have to compete with people who only came out to have a good time or eat dinner. Depending on one’s temperament a poet can or cannot overlook these flaws and decide which readings to go to. So it’s not that some venues are less equal than others, but, rather, some venues are less equal to an individual.
I digress. These are all obvious flaws. Lena may have a hidden one that-up until now-only Carol had to deal with. What I believe Dan is saying is: “Yes, Lena is a great venue for a poetry open mic, but why all these financial issues? Why not charge more at the door? Well, if we can’t have it at Lena, we can always move it someplace else.”

It’s the people that make an open mic, not the venue.

sb

Anonymous said...

I have a problem with just about every sentence in this post, and I have talked to Dan about it in detail. For this comment, I’ll try to stick to the main point.
Caffe Lena is not threatening to kick me out. The fundraising is an effort to maintain poetry night as it is, with the hope of even expanding the program. I’ve benefited both personally and artistically from my many experiences with Caffe Lena, as have all of my kids; it’s by and large a very positive, community arts organization. I welcome thoughtful, informed criticism of the poetry fundraising efforts, and fully support people choosing to NOT give. I am hurt, however, when someone, under the guise of support, knowingly promotes negative misconceptions.
--Carol Graser

Tim Verhaegen said...

I have talked to Dan in emails more about this and agreed with his counterpoints. I'm so glad theres been so much reaction on Dan's blog. I agree with everyone's counterpoints. I agree my preferences are my own. Because much of my stuff is openly gay, i have the concern about non-poets being a captive audience to what they may not want to hear. I think much of my views stem from that performance anxiety. I look forward to Caffe Lena and the little kid in me just doesn't want to see anything with that change. I do love the Live in the Livingroom, Third Thursdays and Caffe Lena because I feel pretty certain I will not be offending someone and no one will be offending me as a knee-jerk reaction. Sean is right, all poets have different preferences.

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