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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Saturday, May 18, 2024

Hosting open mic brings risk, inspiration

At first I hadn't noticed the alcohol on Johnny's breath, nor the redness of his eyes and the quickness of his temper. Had I realized the shape he was in, I may not have been so quick to let him read his poem. 




He'd told me it was just a short poem, and he said he always carried it with him. He said it would only take a minute to read, and I figured we all had a minute. I wanted to know what kind of poem this man carried with him. 




He was sort of dirty, as were his clothes, and he looked a bit lost behind the dreadlocks that hung in front of his eyes. I didn't realize he was drunk until he sat down next to me. 




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'Hey man, my name's Johnny,' he said loudly as he took a seat. 




I offered my hand to shake, and I whispered my name to him. I didn't want to disturb the kid singing at the microphone less than 10 feet away. Johnny and I were in the front row, and everyone could see and hear us. 




'Hey, thanks for letting me do this,' Johnny said. 'I think if you just give me a minute to say my poem the Mexicans will go away.' 




'What'? I thought. He'd struck a nerve somewhere inside me, and I had no idea what he was talking about. I had no idea what he was going to say when he got up to the microphone, and I had no idea what I was going to do when he got up there. 




The last time I'd hosted open mic, someone had used his 15 minutes of free speech to say he was happy the World Trade Center had been destroyed. He'd read a poem about the coming of the apocalypse, and he said we should all get ready to die. After he was done, I'd gone up to the mic and thanked this man for sharing his views. 




I didn't think I could get up after Johnny was done to thank him for being a racist. That's not why I agreed to host open mic. I host because I'm a sucker for open mics. I'm a sucker for cheap art with feeling. 




'It shows that art doesn't have to be exclusive,' my roommate once said, and that's exactly it. It took me nearly three years in Madison to find an open mic where everyone's got heart, and no one has prospects of getting a gig at the Overture Center. It's a place where they've got a few kids with guitars and a few poets, and maybe a preacher and a storyteller. 




I knew Johnny had heart, and that's why I trusted him to take the stage. I knew Johnny didn't have a message of hatred, yet I swallowed hard for a moment when it was his turn to take the mic. 




'I'm going to read a poem I wrote in prison,' he said, and everyone was silent. 




Johnny sat at the mic, took a piece of paper out of his pocket and began reading. He read quietly at first and then got louder as he read about poverty and oppression and injustice. He read about things I didn't catch and wouldn't understand anyway. He read, and I thought, 'Wow, Johnny's an artist'? 




He read, and I wondered what Jerry Frautschi would think. 

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