The Awaken Café is so California, they declare 4 days a week to be wi-fi free. Little signs on the tables remind you what people did in coffee shops in the pre-router days—reading, for example, or conversing.

On certain Thursdays, Awaken patrons also can (and do) support the live arts, as our host Dre pointed out, at the monthly poetry night. With a dedicated stage, overhead speakers, and the no-nonsense DJ Kate filling the space between poets, it’s probably the best coffee shop venue I’ve seen (and that’s saying something).

Like the Green Mill in Chicago, Oakland splits the night up—part slam with judges and scores, and part open mic. Unlike the Green Mill, the slam comes first. Oakland also drops a feature set in between the two.

They let the judges volunteer rather than being picked at the door, and they make them call their scores out loud—no napkins, no white boards, no nothing. Just hold up your fingers and shout so the host can hear you.

Open Mic, Slam, and Feature

Like most slam crowds, the audience at the Oakland Poetry Slam and Wide Open Mic was mostly—but not all—20-somethings wearing plaid shirts, monster hoop earrings, tattoos, dance flats, and ski hats in June stayed all night and listened with energy. (A nice switch-up from my local venue, which lost me a few weeks back the night I watched singer after singer breeze in to play his/her own set and then leave right after.)

The poems were what I’ve come to expect: Breakup poems. Identity poems. Cultural tragedies. Personal mythologies. Heavily sprinkled with words like reality, authenticity, freedom, hypocrisy, capitalism, warrior, and essence.

“Real shit,” as we shouted at the host’s command.

The biggest surprise of the night was an open mic comedian who was actually funny. Least surprising: That there was a mediocre poet hawking a self-published book and an awkward girl-with-guitar who forgot both her words and her chords but claimed to have “just finished recording an album.”

I worry about hopeful artists who are handicapped by too much encouragement. I really do.

It’s Not About the Points

The host randomized the sign-up list (which I mostly hate) and I was drawn second to last. Having had plenty of time to think about it, and after all the real shit we’d witnessed, I forewent my funny divorce poem and went with something less confessional.

I doubt the judges would’ve scored me well, but it seemed to connect as well as I usually hope for. And besides, like Dre said, it’s not about the points.

The poetry is the point.