By Mark Bennett
TERRE HAUTE — The last syllables of a percolating hip-hop poem still echoed in the minds of the audience.
Then Andrea Stevens took her turn at the microphone. Pulling back her long, black hair, Stevens gently recited “Mountains” and “Beauty.” They were two of many original poems Stevens has penned in her 63 years.
“Poetry is a mirror that shows us who we are,” Stevens said, moments later, “an inescapable mirror.”
Eventually, 16 people stood before a full house at The Coffee Grounds while dusk fell on Wabash Avenue the evening of April 16. They came to read aloud poems they’ve written or admired for Poetry at the Grounds. The event, conducted on the third Thursday of every month at that coffeehouse at 423 Wabash, has attracted poets of varying experience, ages and styles since it debuted last October.
This month’s session included 39-year-old Indiana State University professor Carl Klarner, reading Eugene V. Debs’ testimony to a federal court from 1918. Emily Brown, 18, read “The Hug Poem.” Twenty-seven-year-old Sarah Long read “Campaign Slogan” and “The Death of the Word Mouth.” And Joe McGlone, 18, read a trilogy of poems on his observations of ecological changes at a beach.
“It’s like poetic note-taking, I guess,” said McGlone, a Terre Haute South Vigo High School senior.
The mix of readers impressed Aaron Morales, an ISU English professor who dropped by to drum up interest in the school’s creative writing courses.
Morales jumped in, too, reading a humorous poem “Rednecks.”
“You’ve got everything from romantic people to bitter people to political people,” Morales said during a smoke break on the sidewalk outside the rustic shop’s broad front window. “I like to see the representation of young people and older people. It’s a disparate group. They have no real reason to be talking to each other, and yet here they are.”
The crowds have been equally varied, and they’ve grown. Fittingly, the audience in April — which is National Poetry Month — was as large as any of the previous six.
“We fill up the Coffee Grounds,” said Long, co-organizer of the readings. “We have more viewers than readers.”
Poetry at the Grounds has revived a past tradition. Terre Haute poetry enthusiast Zann Carter recalled the readings at The Coffee Grounds in the 1990s, and approached current shop owner Pete Wilson last year about restarting those literary forums. With Wilson’s approval, Carter and Long planned and spread word about the initial reading Oct. 16.
“We were nervous about it,” Long said, “but it was a good crowd.”
Within a couple months, the poets and listeners were filling every table, the couches and the stairway to the loft.
“Sarah and I were just looking at each other and saying, ‘Wow, we built it and they came,’” Carter said.
The guidelines for prospective readers keep the two-hour program moving quickly. Carter and Long open the evening with a 20- to 30-minute introductory set. Then the other poets step up to the mic. Each is allowed five minutes to read no more than three poems. The pieces can be original or favorites by others. The subject matter needs to be appropriate for the all-ages venue. To ease planning, Carter and Long encourage readers to sign up in advance, but they also can register at the door.
The poets and the audience take it from there.
On three occasions, a participant has penned a poem, and read it, on the spot, “which I think is really fascinating,” Long said.
Some began composing poems during childhood. Carter was raised in Florida, where a Miami newspaper often published her mother’s poetry. “I sort of grew up like writing was something you do, just like brushing your teeth,” said Carter, 57.
Long, a Terre Haute native, started writing Japanese haiku verses at age 7. Later, she earned a bachelor’s degree in English and creative writing from ISU. Now she’s pursuing a master’s degree in mental health counseling. Poetry at the Grounds allows Long “to keep my writing going and my love of poetry going. It’s therapeutic for me as a writer, because some of my poetry can be confessional.”
She writes in a “free verse” style that avoids strict meter or rhyme, but still employs poetic patterns.
Some other young poets at the Grounds use hip-hop or “def” poetry styles familiar in popular music.
“The wide ranges of life situations are apparent in these poems at these readings,” Long said, “which I think is great.”
Stevens, who moved to Terre Haute from Bloomington two years ago, was pleasantly surprised to find something like Poetry at the Grounds. “The arts are hidden,” she said, but nonetheless alive.
Christina Blust listened to the poetry, and snapped a few photos from a table near the stage. The 25-year-old Blust works for the Sisters of Providence at St. Mary-of-the-Woods, and came to Terre Haute from northern Kentucky.
“If there’s bits of culture in the Haute, I want to support it. I love poetry, and this suits me,” Blust said, as readers and listeners shook hands and chatted afterward. “I’m just excited to see people of different backgrounds being thoughtful and creative.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.