Scott Woods: Why I Ended an Artistic Institution
As the Writers’ Block Poetry Night wraps up after 24 years, its founder reflects on the weekly event’s impact and explains his reasons for ending the beloved ‘moment generator.’
After 24 years of weekly shows, the Writers’ Block Poetry Night is coming to an end, and since I’m the one ending it, I should probably say a few words.
Let us begin with a clarification: I will be saying things like “mine” and “I” when, in fact, the WB is overseen by a crew. That’s currently a crew of three people (co-founder and poet Vernell Bristow, marketing director and poet Louise Robertson), but it was originally two, somewhere in there got up to five, and then back down to three. In all that time, I’ve made most of the heavy decisions and emceed the show 95 percent of the time, so if there was ever something you didn’t like about our shows, it was probably my fault.
I won’t run down our resume and all of the things we did during our tenure on the poetry scene. There are other resources and histories recently published that paint a fair and broad picture of what we’ve done, and I thank those publications and writers for doing the heavy lifting so I can do the much lighter kitchen-table talk. Put it all together and you have the beginnings of a compelling art story.
In 24 years, our show has seen and done it all. We went through seven venues, of which Kafe Kerouac has been our longest host. The owner, Mike Heslop, had been telling me to bring our show over to his place years before we actually did, and I should have listened to him. We’ve had nothing but success since plugging in a microphone every Wednesday night there. That’s a big deal, since we played to half-empty rooms in lots of places for large chunks of our existence.
Naturally, the question that keeps coming up these days is why I’m ending the show. You’d think that putting on 1,100-plus shows over 24 years would answer the question on its own. It doesn’t. And I get it. The show is extremely popular. We stopped advertising it years ago, because people were going to fill the house up anyway, and you can only fit so many people in that room. So the question isn’t a bad one. It just has lots of answers.
Something I want on record is that, while there was no argument amongst our crew about ending the open mic, it was my idea. There have been several times in the past when I considered ending Writers’ Block. For the most part, those instances were stalled by my ego or crafting a new mission statement. This time was the first instance in which no one tried to talk me out of it. That’s what us folks in the entertainment business call “a sign.”
This time is also unique because the stakes are different. I have books I need to finish and put into the world. I have other projects I want to launch. I run a cultural arts nonprofit. Your boy got things to do and only so much bandwidth. They’re good things that could be great things if I focus on them, and so I need to clean my plate a bit. Vernell and Louise also have things they’re doing in their lives that could be improved with some more care and attention. After giving Columbus an incredible show and building a community over 24 years for free, I’d say we’ve each earned the right to go be great. I haven’t done a lot of things every week for 24 years straight that didn’t involve a biological function, so I’m more than ready to explore and expand on some ideas.
Perhaps a bit of poetry itself can drive the point home. All this reminiscing reminds me of a poem by Edgar Albert Guest called “On Quitting.” Here is an excerpt:
How much grit do you think you’ve got?
Can you turn from joys that you like a lot?
Have you ever tested yourself to know
How far with yourself your will can go?
If you want to know if you have grit,
Just pick out a joy that you like, and quit.
Is it too late to level a judgment against a response I don’t like? No? Good.
Here is a question I despise: “Why don’t you pass the baton?” This usually comes from someone who hasn’t even been to our show, or hasn’t been in years, so clearly they intend to give someone other than themselves all of that work and responsibility every week. What’s more offensive is the assumption that what I do as emcee can be replicated by just installing someone else who is, I don’t know, also sexy/funny/quick-witted/irreverent? That shows a real lack of understanding how that space works. You can’t hand off communal energy like a basket of biscuits. It takes time and a willingness to fail very publicly to develop that kind of room. It’s not a baton; it’s a trust and a community and an art form that, in this city, needs all the ambassadors it can get. What you meant to ask was, “Do you know if anybody else will be starting an open mic once you’re gone?” See how that’s so much better than treating the people who have done more than two decades of art-building like a cog?
All of the above are great reasons to stop doing something after 24 years, but let me tell you something way more important than why I’m ending it. Let me tell you about the last time I considered killing it before now. There’s a great lesson in that story that I wish someone had told me a long time ago.
The last time I considered ending the open mic was probably five years ago. I was becoming very frustrated with poets. For much of the time that the poetry night has been in existence, I was hoping that it would find and nurture good poets. Almost anyone can write a good poem, but I was looking for literary soldiers, people who would commit to the craft and the art, and in turn elevate the literary presence of poetry in our city and beyond. Poets that would make other poets want to be better and not petty or sycophants. That all sounds very noble, of course. But in practice—and this is true for most (but not all) open mics—it didn't work. There were exceptions. There are always exceptions, and we had enough of them to convince me that maybe we were on the right track mission-wise, even if the ratio was way out of whack. At the end of the day, the math wasn’t math-ing. All of that frustration was starting to bleed into my love for poetry, making me question its merits and my dedication, and that’s when I knew I had to make a change or a decision.
To compound matters, there didn’t seem to be anything I could do to the event itself to accomplish the “make better poets” mission. That’s because the blessing and curse of every open mic that has ever existed is that they are open. If an open mic is truly open, then anyone off the street can sign up on the list, wait for their name to be called and do a poem (or more if that open mic allows it; mine does not). And when I say anybody, I mean exactly that. I have had people on my stage from every walk of life, every political lean, what feels like every ethnicity, and perhaps every profession this city has to offer. The only people who have not stepped on my stage are the politicians. I suspect this is true because, while every poem is a lie of some kind, every person who earnestly seeks poetry is seeking the truth, and, well, I think you see where I'm going with this. Showrunners allow anyone access to the stage on their word that they wrote a poem worth listening to.
And see, right there. That was my problem. For many years I perceived the open mic as a poet generator, when, in fact, it was a moment generator.
A pure open mic is not conducive to the creation of great poets. I'm not saying it can't produce them. I'm saying it is very difficult to sustain and curate them in an environment when quality is not the order of the day. Spontaneous greatness has occurred in the 24 years that I’ve been calling people up to the stage, but that is not its function. I had to learn that people expressing themselves is not an optional aspect of our existence. Self-expression is embedded in human nature. And that has almost nothing to do with the emcee of the show. My job became shepherding—receiving what people had to say instead of teaching them how to speak their truths into a believable prettiness. I can tell you from the other side of the microphone, it’s a much more fulfilling (and easier) gig. Let workshops and mentorship make them better poets.
There is beauty and power in seeing someone who maybe hasn’t spoken to another person that day get up on stage and give up their stories and ghosts. You never know what you’re going to get. I will miss hosting one of the few institutions in this city where everyone in the room can genuinely be surprised by art. And after a generation of representing Columbus poetry, I’m eager to see what comes next. And maybe logging some quality board game time.