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Word on the street

After a lull, Portland's spoken-word scene is getting loud
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  December 26, 2007

Dark-haired, mustachioed, and blessed with a bona fide Maine accent, Phil takes the stage, the first performer of the evening. He reads to us the story he’s written in his black book — a story, as far as I can tell, about a local Red Sox fan who schemes to steal that triumphant team’s trophy when it comes through town (spoiler: fake blood — ketchup — is involved). Phil reads fast; his narrative arc is simple and offers few surprises; the audience, scattered through the North Star Café, seems alternately bewildered, appreciative, and amused.

“Phil is like the unofficial mascot here,” whispers host Nate Amadon, before Phil finishes up, closes his book, and hops off the stage to applause.

Next up is Sean, a young man with an open face, big eyes, and a hip-hop tone — if Phil wasn’t your stereotypical spoken-word performer (bespectacled, patchouli-doused), neither is Sean. He blasts his way through three pieces about poverty, classism, and hating George Bush; he finishes with the soft admission that he feels safe in his woman’s arms. The audience is stunned silent — until they clap wildly when he’s done.

Such is the start of a Tuesday night at the North Star Café, where Amadon, Port Veritas (the word-arts group he co-founded), and other local spoken-word/poetry enthusiasts have reincarnated the tradition that once thrived in Portland — first at The Skinny and Geno’s, and then at Acoustic Coffee (after a short-lived, ill-advised stint at the Alehouse), before that establishment closed its doors at the beginning of 2007. In fact, the open mic night is popping up all over — Slainte, Threeways, the Big Easy, and Dogfish Bar and Grille all have their own versions, in addition to the North Star — and modest (but not meager) crowds are attending.

“Some are writers who won’t tell you,” says Gil Helmick, who helps to organize the nights at the North Star, of the audience members and performers. “Some are writers who will tell you too often” — we’ve all met those — but most of all, Helmick sees evidence of “talent, energy, openness, and eagerness.”

“It’s people expressing what’s in their souls,” says Marie Villanucci, 52, an audience member who shyly admits that she’s a “closet writer.” Getting up on stage, she adds, takes “amazing bravery” — which she has yet to muster.

But David Viney, a goateed 20-year-old from Scarborough, thrives on sharing his work with others. “To express yourself in front of the crowd is like relief for me,” says Viney, who speaks regularly at North Star Tuesdays.

Part of the draw, for performers and spectators alike, is the diversity of forms that the open mic can take. Many focus on acoustic music; the Big Easy’s Monday events are specifically called “hip-hop open mics;” there’s the Second Tuesday Slam at the North Star, where poet-participants compete in three rounds for “$10, a Twinkie, the championship belt ... and a chance to go to the National Poetry Slam Championship in 2008.” Helmick also helped launch the first Tuesday Speaking Jazz Series at the North Star, at which local jazz musician Jesse Lynch performs spontaneous musical improvisations with feature acts as well as random open-mic’ers.

“You find some real gems,” Helmick says. “They run the gamut from people who come out of nowhere and take your breath away, to people who should be saving this for a group therapy session.”

But then, isn’t that part of the allure?

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