There are few things that would keep me waiting outdoors on a cold night. Poetry is one. (Tom Waits is another, but that’s a different story.)

After missing the Urbana Poetry Slam’s open mic the prior night on account of a Nor’easter that delayed me in Raleigh, no way was I leaving my place in line at the legendary Nuyorican Poets Cafe for anything as ordinary as warmth.

Nowhere else have I ever seen a line for poetry; this one ran a half block which, according to a regular ahead of me, was shorter than usual.

Once inside, it turned out that aside from a small bar and bathrooms, there’s not much to the Nuyorican other than one mic and rows of folding chairs. But that’s about all they need seeing as the rules prohibit pretty much anything but one human reading words out loud.

Blurry view from the balcony as the audience at the Nuyorican settles in

NB: Actually, the host didn’t specifically say no animals or duets, but he did say no props, no music, no fire, no standing on your head, no flips, and keep your clothes on. So by extension, I assume animals are disallowed as props and the one lonely mic speaks clearly enough on the subject of group pieces.

What they do is a straight-up competitive slam format:

  • 20 or so slots in the first round
  • Limits = 1 poem, 3:20 min
  • Introductions are discouraged
  • Random audience members serve as judges, scoring poets as they go
  • 5 highest scorers read a second-round poem (introductions prohibited)
  • Winner takes home “not $9…not $11…” but a snappy $10 bill with which s/he can buy a Metro card and a beef patty (said the host).

Winner also gets to read again Friday night and maybe win a spot on the slam team, which made it to the 2014 National Poetry Slam in Oakland. As an open mic tourist, that’s well outside my quest, but awesome for anyone who is.

Which is good because I scored pretty low, though not dead last. I fared a little better than two others—one was angry but deadpan woman who mixed metaphors like a Cuisinart, and the other was the only poet clearly older than me, who forgot his lines three times and may have left out some key information. It was a little hard to tell.

The point is, I achieved my goal. I went. I read. And as always, I listened and learned a little something maybe.

From what I could tell, righteous anger and a loud voice will earn you judge love. Also telling a coherent story, especially something that rings a confessional tone. Many a poet that night addressed the audience like fellow patients in a group therapy session, and if what they read was truth (which is not necessarily to say Truth), then we may all have walked away knowing things that might surprise their very mothers.

Speaking of mothers…yes, once again I found myself the oldest female poet in the room and once again I felt a bit like a den mother. Reckon I’m used to that by now.

The host Jive Poetic was welcoming and energetic and clever and charming (and handsome, which isn’t required but a major plus). And most important, the audience came to listen and showed it with their concentrated attention during poems and generous applause (and snapping and hooting and the occasional yawp) during and after.

I heard a handful of good lines and a one or two really great ones.

And I can stick a pin in the Empire State on this snazzy map of open mics in the U.S.…one state and one step closer to goal.