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Open-mic night encourages creativity, benefits library

| Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013, 7:47 p.m.

Laura Lovic Lindsay remembers other English majors reciting poetry and short stories at open-mic nights during college at the Behrend Campus of Penn State, Erie.

“Other students did that up in Erie at a coffeehouse,” Lindsay says. “I never did. There was a big divide between the creative-writing folks and the literary-analysis side — that was me.”

Years later, with a newfound sense of confidence and creativity, Lindsay, of Freeport, will be one of the presenters at the upcoming Open Mic Literary Night fundraiser at the Library Place at the Galleria at Pittsburgh Mills Sept. 20.

The benefit evolved from a brainstorming session by members of the library's weekly literary group, which meets at 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays at the mall library, says the library's Debbie Sanchez.

The library is seeking poets and writers to present their work to other literary fans. Performers will donate $3 to present an original poem or short story, which must have a PG-13 rating, because there may be youngsters in the audience. The reading must be kept under five minutes. A seat in the audience goes for a $5 donation.

“It's a chance to share what they've been writing,” Sanchez says. “They do science fiction, fantasy, short stories, full-length books, memoirs, children's stories, poetry, playwriting.”

Unlike a genuine poetry slam, the Library Place open-mic night will not be rated by judges.

“It's just a chance to share your work and listen to others,” Sanchez says.

Lori Beth Jones, director of operations for the Pittsburgh Poetry Collective, praises the library's event, which benefits the future of creativity, poetry and writing.

“There's so much content out there and so many people re-sharing content,” Jones says. “To be brave enough and excited enough in what you can create yourself and share it with other people, I think that's always positive.”

At an official poetry slam, participants have three minutes to deliver their piece and are judged by randomly selected audience members.

“It can get very theatrical with hand and arm movements and singing,” Jones says.

She doesn't believe the late '50s and early '60s trend of Beatnik poets uttering their verses while perched atop a stool on a darkened lounge stage, cigarette smoke swirling about their heads, is comparable to today's poetry slams.

“Beatnik poems were a lot more relaxed. A lot of it may have been darker, in jazz clubs with music and those bongo drums. Slam is really high-energy and performative — somewhere between stand-up comedy and a monologue of some sort. It can be funny. It can be seriously political. Or not. There's total freedom in subject matter and delivery.”

Lindsay, who writes poetry and short stories, says she's never shared them out loud with others, although others have read what she has written.

“I've sung in church, but when I do a solo, my throat tightens and breathing gets hard and I feel my throat shutting down,” she says. “So, this could be a fairly comedic thing for the audience — unintentionally.”

Despite her apprehension, Lindsay appreciates the creative outlet and wants to try

“A piece you've generated out of your own being is really great to share,” Lindsay says. “It's humbling and terrifying, but if I want to try (the) oral story-telling tradition, I have to get over it. And this seems like a nice, friendly place to do it.”

Jones suggests participants who are not accustomed to getting up in front of an audience record themselves and listen to what they sound like, plus, have someone else read the piece aloud to hear how it sounds.

“The more familiar you are with the piece, even if you read it off the paper, the easier it is to deliver it,” Jones says.

Jones also applauds the library for establishing the open-mic night and promoting a creative outlet for the spoken word.

“Even though the world is becoming more writing-based with texting and emailing instead of talking to one another, there's a special creative energy that comes with making something and sharing it and adding a personal touch to it,” Jones says.

“Recited poetry can be more accessible to people who don't think they like poetry,” Jones says. “It can be fun, entertaining, high-energy and still have a lot of message to it.”

Sharing original writing is becoming more popular. Jones says the number of teams competing in the National Poetry Slam is 72, up from 48 about six years ago. It's also becoming more popular among young people since cable network HBO began producing “Brave New Voices,” a show where teen poets compete.

Locally, she said about five years ago, there was just Steel City Slam with 80 to 100 people attending. Now, there is also a youth poetry slam and Eargasm, another Pittsburgh open-mic event. Jones says about 20 percent of participants attend all three.

Jones says poetry slams are becoming more of an established art form, as exhibited by the slam poet who performed during opening ceremonies of the winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, four years ago.

“It's a marker of the times that here's a slam poet on this ginormous international stage,” Jones says.

Maria Guzzo is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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