+ By Chris Kalman + Photos by Joe Karr
My palms are sweaty, my mouth is dry, my legs can barely hold my weight. I start slowly, voice quaking, apologizing for what I’m about to do. Then, looking around the room, I remind myself to relax. After all, it’s just a poetry reading. People are here to have fun.
The Spiral Staircase poetry reading is an interesting iteration of an intimidating art form. As if poetry were not difficult enough. For millennia, poets have spilled their deepest, dearest thoughts upon the page. Those whose work wins accolades and prestige have those incredibly personal passages broadcast widely for anyone interested to see and read. The art is as intimate as it is intimidating—and that makes it a tough sell for many readers and writers alike. Now, combine all the challenging aspects of poetry with reading your work out loud in a cozy room packed to the gills full of eager listeners, and you have all the makings of a squirmfest that would make a spawning ball of newts blush.
Sitting down with Barrett Warner and Susan Sonde—two well-known poets who are the featured readers of this Sunday’s event—I find myself opening up to the slightly terrifying idea of reading a poem or two. “You have to be completely unselfconscious about the questions you are asking of life,” Barrett reminds me as I confess my fear of poetry readings. “We’re all on this nude beach together.” While I understand the metaphor, I can’t help but think that it’s a heck of a lot easier coming from a guy like Barrett. If poetry is a nude beach, then Barrett and Susan are the French equivalent of David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson. It’s easy to stand nude in front of a crowd if you’ve got the goods to show for it. My own canned, unoriginal, and somewhat whiny poems leave me feeling a bit more like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons—the antithesis of voluptuousness and virility.
Of course, for all my self-deprecation, I do decide to partake in the reading—mostly due to encouragement from Barrett, Susan, and Dan Kagan, the host and creator of Spiral Staircase —and I am not alone. Looking at the sign-up list, fifteen other intrepid souls—roughly half the room—are here to share three poems or read for five minutes, whichever comes first. “This is what Spiral Staircase is all about,” Dan says to me as people mill around, waiting for the reading to begin. “You’ve got twenty-eight people here, including several good amateur poets; a professor of writing at the local community college; a 15-year-old high school kid reading his work for the first time; an internationally recognized Shakespeare scholar and published poet; a best-selling novelist; a rising young poet with a new book about to be released; a commercial real estate deal-maker who also writes poetry and plays in a 50+ travelling rugby league; a writer for the Washington Post; and a working stage and film actor and playwright. And then you’ve got Barrett and Susan. It’s a great group!”
I’m impressed not just with the crowd, but with Dan’s familiarity with it. It’s obvious that this event has both a healthy smattering of regulars and first-timers. Once the reading gets fully underway, there’s standing room only in 49 West’s back room. When the Spiral Staircase reading began in January of 2013, at the foot of the spiral staircase leading down to the basement of the Annapolis Bookstore (hence the name), nobody anticipated how big or quickly it would grow. At an earlier meeting, Dan regales me with the story of Spiral Staircase’s beginnings. He’s emphatic that the poetry reading was generated by the businesses in Annapolis that are active participants in the arts community.
“Janice Holmes and Mary Adams, who own the Annapolis Bookstore, are friends of mine. They asked me to organize and host a monthly poetry reading there,” he says. “We had discussed it before, but it was their idea,” he says. “I’m a marketing guy, so I promoted the reading very aggressively. I had a lot of support and guidance from a friend who runs the other two monthly poetry readings in town, and I know people in the Baltimore poetry scene, which is large and very active, so I was able to book feature poets who would draw. And the bookstore is well-loved in town. Everything came together for the launch.”
For the very first Spiral Staircase, they had a whopping forty-eight people turn out—almost unheard of for a poetry reading—and had to turn people away. After a few months, the bookstore just couldn’t continue to run the event; it was simply too big for their facility. “That’s when Brian and Sarah Cahalan, the owners of 49 West, approached me,” Dan explains. “49 West is a nucleus of the arts and music scene in town, and Brian and Sarah are always looking for ways that the café can add to it. So, we moved the reading to 49 West’s back room.”
The rest is history. Now, Spiral Staircase is a regular feature of the downtown Annapolis arts community, occurring on the third Sunday of every month at 4 p.m. And while the size of the crowd fluctuates, there are always one or two featured poets, at least a few open mic readers, and an audience to fuel the event. This is a good thing, because the whole idea behind Spiral Staircase is to get people out there reading, sharing poems, and shirking off whatever hoity-toity connotations have somehow become erroneously attached to this funny, raw, and raucous art form.
I eventually wallow through my shaky reading and finish up the second poem feeling almost courageous. My own two cents delivered, I kick back and enjoy the other readers. Barrett and Susan’s excellent work transports me—at least momentarily—into fascinating worlds of oyster-shucking love affairs and the secret lives of arsonists.
Listening to Susan’s poems about people who make fires, I find Dan’s words coming back to me with crystal clarity: “Poetry originated around the communal fire, with someone chanting the story of the hunt, a battle with a rival tribe, or some mysterious occurrence,” he tells me, “not in a library or a classroom. The whole point of the Spiral Staircase series is to promote poetry as a form of entertainment and cultural engagement. It doesn’t require academic parsing; it’s a participatory art that’s full of sex, laughs, and drama more than anything.” Dan says: “This is what the Spiral Staircase series is about—getting poetry back around the campfire.”
As poet after poet stands before the mic and speaks his or her verse, I realize that—at least today—Dan’s dream has been fulfilled. And while there is no soot, ash, or smoke to speak of, each poet’s inner flame combusts just brightly enough to light up the entire room.