Upscale Open Mic Poetry returns Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton Stabroek News
November 12, 2006

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The weekly Tuesday night sessions of poetry called 'Upscale Open Mic Poetry' have returned at the Guyana Upscale Restaurant in downtown Georgetown after a period of absence. This is a fairly free-form programme of readings and performances in which all poets are invited to read or recite their work and members of the audience have the opportunity to participate and to present anything they might have written, or to introduce, read or perform the work of any other poet.

This series, founded by Asafa George, started early in 2002 and proved quite a success before it faded and then ceased altogether some time ago. It was, except for a few special sessions, generally informal, the activity on stage blending in with the normal flow of drinks and dinner. The range was wide, covering serious poetry, noteworthy performances, some discussion, amateur efforts, popular pieces, humour, some risqué items and presentations for fun. While the general trend was free form, there were a few select evenings with organised programmes and special sessions featuring the work of particular selected poets.

The most memorable of these might well have been the evening devoted entirely to features on Martin Carter. Phyllis Carter was the honoured guest and a number of others participated in different ways, some asked to come in because they were well placed to make specific contributions. There were presentations on his life, the social and political environment, and readings of his poems. The contributors included the poet's contemporaries who could relate personal encounters and set interesting background and environment, as well as those who could offer biography, critical setting and interpretations, or place the poems in relevant contexts. While those contributions anchored the programme, the usual contributions from the floor carried much of the proceedings as many of those present came forward to present their own selections from Carter's work.

A few of the programmes were as rich and informative as that one, while most were fairly popular; but they were rarely less than entertaining. For the most part that is what the 'Upscale Open Mic' series was for most of its participants and audience: an evening's entertainment of poetry accompanied by drinks or dinner. These sessions became very popular and soon developed into a prominent item on the weekly time-table of events and places to go in town. Because they were uncensored and often spontaneous there were huge differences in the quality of the various pieces performed or read. There were even instances when someone came to the microphone to read a 'poem' which had just been scribbled while sitting at the table. Such pieces were mixed with genuine items of real poems and much in between.

That, however, is to be expected, and considerable value can accrue from the free allowance given for the offering of bad work. The overall cause was the promotion of poetry, which gained some ground as a popular commodity. It mattered that poetry, sometimes regarded as exclusive or difficult, was popularised; that an audience could go to sessions without the fear of being bored or not being able to understand. It helps that people feel they can be entertained by poetry. The fact that Georgetown knows there is a place they can go on a certain night in the week to hear poetry, just as they might be able to go somewhere to hear jazz or Latin music, cannot hurt. Despite the fact that this means a good deal of bad compositions may be applauded, in the end poetry is the gain.

Another advantage of sessions like these is that they are participatory events. In the open sessions there is little separation between performers and audience, and really, the open mike idea dissolves any such barrier. The structure is that members of the audience come forward to perform. Yet, there are other ways in which the audience is involved. There is an event known as 'Poetry Slam' which is quite popular in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe, and in which poets perform their work to audiences in a club, a bar or a pub. They compete with each other and are judged by members of the audience. These can be quite lively affairs.

The Slam idea has been tried out at Upscale when the sessions were running, and the restaurant has promised to reintroduce them. In those contests, a few popular performance composers emerged. The open mike in the past has allowed several fledgling poetic pretenders to try out their wings and has exposed many with real talent to an audience for the first time, or provided them with additional exposure. Some experienced writers have been included in these, such as those like Bobby Fernandes, who are able to write seriously while cultivating a popular audience. What is more, the sessions in the past have also allowed persons to introduce to the gathering important, new or interesting poets and their work that the audience might not have heard of before, thus increasing their store of knowledge and widening their experience.

There are therefore many advantages to the existence of 'Upscale Open Mic Poetry,' and its founder Mr George, a young entrepreneur, in re-launching it, has made reference to others. "We intend to take our efforts to new heights. Guyanese performing culture has enormous commercial and social transformational potential. Our goal is to formalize and harness the local performing arts without stifling it. The timing of these initiatives are ideal to ensure that local performing artistes play a prominent role in presenting the best of Guyana during the WC '07 activities."

That an entrepreneur like Mr George can use his restaurant as a stage for the development of the arts and invest in it is very encouraging. It can, perhaps, prompt others in the business sector to pitch in, since direct private sector support for poetry has not been enthusiastically forthcoming. Of course, one can name a number of outstanding examples of such support, but it is not easy to get. We are told that Upscale Guyana Restaurant has already secured the contribution and participation of Scotiabank in the new revival of the open mike series. Much can be expected from this, and when the details are announced it might well be very good news for the participating poets.

The new reactivated Upscale sessions will be held on the first Tuesday of every month under the same formula as the previous series. It appears that to guarantee that the most comes out of each evening, the programme will begin with some prearranged items or presenters before opening the microphone to the floor.

In keeping with the spirit of this re-launch, here is one of the several poems about poets and poetry, favourite subjects of writers, it seems. It is a new one by Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming published in the latest edition of Poui, a production of UWI, Cave Hill, Number 7, December 2005.

The Poet

- for Lorna Goodison

A poet is someone

who can pour light into a cup

and then raise it to nourish your beautiful

- perhaps parched - holy mouth

- Hafiz

A poet is one who finds the rents

The ruptures in our quilt like cores

Unravels the broken threads

Collects them into balls of fibres

Spins them into rainbow coloured yarn

Weaves an unpatterned fabric

With which she mends by hand

Gently ever so gently

Crevices in quilted psyches

Lelawattie Manoo Rahming