As many an open mic poet knows, finding a decent venue that doesn’t run too late and has an audience that’s receptive and respectful seems like a myth.
Bushwick warehouses at 2 a.m., are filled with drunks and bitter writers. Greenwich Village hideouts are brimming with “flower power” ghosts from the past.
But then there’s An Beal Bocht Café.
On top of being home to Eric Sullivan’s longest-running open mic night, An Beal has played host to the Poor Mouth Writer’s Night, a monthly poetry open mic headed by Melinda Wilson, a visiting professor of English at Manhattan College, and Erin Lynn.
“I was an undergrad at Manhattan College,” Lynn said. “I wanted to start the open mic when I realized that, while I knew there were a lot of great writers in the area, I didn’t hear them very often. I was talking with the manager at the time and convinced him we should do a poetry-only open mic night.”
Within a few months, the open mic would boast a full evening of participants. At the time, Wilson taught poetry at LIM College. She brought her entire class up from Manhattan to the Irish café on West 238th Street to take part.
“Most of us teach,” Lynn said. “Not really possible to be a full-time poet.”
And yet, performing and hosting for a decade is worth much more than a shrug.
“We’ve been doing this for literally 10 years,” Wilson said. “It’s been great. We hear from the best and brightest.”
That best and brightest came from as far as Brooklyn and as near as Johnson Avenue for the 10th anniversary of the An Beal tradition last month.
Ron Kolm stood before the empty fireplace decorated by yellow Christmas lights on the chilly December evening, reading a series of brief poems to the barely illuminated audience.
One poem from the publisher of Sensitive Skin magazine was a celebration of An Beal Bocht Café itself.
“I’ve been writing for 60 years,” Kolm said. “And I’ve been reading here for years now. An Beal has been so important to me. And this is what I do. This is what I’ve always done.”
Kolm wasn’t the only one sharing rhymes about the café, but there was only one poet that read it in Irish: Matthew Ryan Shelton, who has been an active reader since 2011.
“I got a master’s degree in Belfast,” Shelton said. “I’ve been publishing in Irish for three years, but it’s not like I can read it aloud in many places. It’s amazing to bring a language that not a lot of people speak to a place where maybe, just maybe, someone would understand.”
The Poor Mouth Writer’s Night has never been a member’s only deal, however. Anyone can sign their name to this list, walk up to the mic, and perform.
Jocelyn Carlisle was one of those who performed for the first time that evening.
“I didn’t even know it was their 10th anniversary,” Carlisle said. “I would have brought something a little more recent. I wrote the one I performed when I was living in Beirut.”
Carlisle hasn’t lived here for long, but she’s a regular at An Beal.
“There’s an energy I just don’t find anywhere else,” she said.
Last on the long list of performers was probably one of poetry’s most decorated: Timothy Donnelly. He’s the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Kingsley Tufts poetry award, and the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award.
Donnelly first performed at An Beal in 2016, but after an impassioned introduction by Lynn, it seemed as though Donnelly was a part of the café’s ocean of poets from the beginning.
“Many of us here have been his students,” Lynn said. “Some of us have been his students in a classroom, and some of us have learned just by watching him read aloud and perform.”
Donnelly read from his recently published book, “The Problem of the Many.” His body moved in rhythm to his words, in front of an audience both tense and quiet.
“I’ve been living in Brooklyn for years and years now,” Donnelly said. “I came up here once or twice with my wife, and we’d stick around with friends and just listen to the interesting poets here. I only performed once, but recently Erin suggested I read for the anniversary, so I agreed. It’s an exciting place.”
With a decade of performances and readings now behind them, Lynn and Wilson ended the night by speaking with old friends and visitors, shaking the hands of poets and appreciative audience members, and having a beer with Donnelly. Despite the expectations of life and teaching, educating and writing, Lynn and Wilson considered the night a success.
“It’s the institution of An Beal that’s let us feel this good,” Wilson said. “There are sometimes people that say, ‘Oh what’s the point? Why perform? What’s the fun?’ And to those people I can only say that we know we’re having a good time.
“That makes us proud. That makes us excited for the future.”