Last month, Cleveland Poetics kicked off a monthly spoken-word series at the Beachland (15711 Waterloo Road) that's attempting to resuscitate the local scene. Its inauguration wasn't particularly auspicious, however. While one aspiring poet dangled a cigarette from his hand while reading a poem scribbled in a notebook and another made references to beat icon Jack Kerouac, the room, which was only sparsely filled, had a higher quotient of caricatures than characters. But that's to be expected. After two high-profile movies (Slam and the documentary Slam Nation), poetry slams (performance-oriented poems delivered in three minutes or less) have become clichéd art forms. It's a reality of which organizer Michael Salinger, who went to Kent State on a wrestling scholarship, but doesn't have a college degree (he works part-time as the purchasing agent for a local machine shop and has also been teaching, touring, recording a CD, and writing a play for Cleveland Public Theatre), is all too aware.
"Performance poetry is at the point that it's popular," he says, sporting the prerequisite goatee and wearing a red, Ecko-embossed T-shirt. "CDs are out, and people are trying to make a living doing it as entertainment. That's never happened before. Poetry has always been this academic bastion where it's held in some kind of ivory tower. Poetry slams bring it back to the spoken-word tradition, but at the same time, as its popularity explodes, that whole aspect of competition can lead to writing stuff you know is going to score well with judges. I call it the dead puppy syndrome. You write a poem about how bad it is to kill puppies, and the judges have an onus on them so that, if they score it bad, it makes them look like they support killing puppies."
While there were no "dead puppy" poems, there were plenty of references to drug abuse and poor white trash in the poems read at the Beachland. At the conclusion of the event, Cleveland's poetry slam team combined for a mic-sharing performance of the piece it performed at the recent National Poetry Slam competition held in Providence, Rhode Island. While poetry slam events are often raucous, with heckling and catcalls aplenty, the Beachland crowd was a quiet but supportive one -- even the bad poets received applause and congratulations. Salinger admits the lack of any quality control opens the door to mediocrity.
"Poetry slams are an accessible way for people outside of academia to move into poetry and have some success with it," says Salinger, who started performing in the early '90s and helped lead a Cleveland team to national competition before "retiring" to "open it up to a new crew." "You don't have to be an English major doing grad studies, and it doesn't mean what you do is any less valid. Say if you have 1,000 poets, you have 200 good ones -- that means you have 800 bad ones. It's good, because a lot of people are talking about things they need to talk about -- they need to vent. Generally, good poetry will rise to the top. You can only go so far with shock and good performance and nothing to say. You still have to be a writer."
The slam series at the Beachland will be held every third Sunday of the month, and Salinger hopes to "bring in academics and ethnic people" in addition to having open-mic sessions. The next event, scheduled for October 22, will feature Boston poet Jack McCarthy. For more information, call the Beachland at 216-338-1124.
After a four-year run in the Warehouse District, the Bop Stop, one of Cleveland's only legitimate jazz clubs, will close for seven months on October 23 as Ron Busch and partner Anita Nonneman prepare to occupy a building they bought at 2920 Detroit Avenue. That near West Side spot will eventually become the new Bop Stop.
"I want to control my environment," Busch says, adding that the Detroit building will have both rooftop and patio areas. "That West Sixth Street area is trash, really. It wasn't that way when we opened, but it didn't take long."
Busch dates the decline of his West Sixth Street spot to the closing of Hilarities, just three months after the Bop Stop opened its doors. He also says he hopes faithful Bop Stop patrons will support his Detroit Avenue club.
"I have to figure out how to get the Bop Stop on people's minds, other than the times that we open and the times that we close," he says.
One way would be to stop preaching to the converted; while the Bop Stop showcased some of the best local talent and featured homeboy turned international sax star Joe Lovano in December birthday concerts, its outreach efforts have been dismal. Busch isn't known for his diplomacy, either to fellow musicians or to the media, and his attitude toward singers is decidedly negative.
If the temporary shuttering of the Bop Stop marks an end of an era, it also may usher in a new, creative period for the Bop Stop Jazz Unit, a 12-piece band of Cleveland jazz players that has been working the Bop Stop every night for four years. Unit leader Jack Schantz, a gifted trumpeter-fluegelhornist, says the band "has really evolved a lot" since it released its first CD, Choices, two years ago. Not only is there a live album in the can, but the Unit is also writing fresh material, and the time off might be just what it needs to start recording.