“My dad, he was like my Superman. Now Superman’s in a wheelchair.” His voice breaks as he performs. It’s less a poem than a confessional and he pauses to wipe his eyes. He gets through, voice wavering and beginning again in the arc of his sorrow, and there is a collected audible silence broken by the most raucous clapping of the night. A tight embrace greets him as he steps away from the microphone and the MC takes his place.
“A lot of people treat this show like church,” says the MC. That’s the feeling. This is a congregation, not just a gathering. This is a non-blood family worshipping the ideas of togetherness and art. This is a celebration of brokenness and a manifesto of the marginalized. The MC’s name is Fable (yes, Fable). And so there is Lewis-ian mythology alive here too—just with more cigarettes, black skinny jeans, and LGBT pride tattoos. The room is adrift with the sickly sweet smell of spilled alcohol and a tentacled purple octopus graces the walls. A boozy sacrament and the fumes of stale cigarettes hang in the air like divine incense. This is Stella’s on a Monday night.
We arrive two and a half hours late and slip through two-toned doors into an area labeled “club”. It’s our first time here. An Irishman and a Midwesterner walk into a bar to dip their toes in the water of Grand Rapids spoken word scene…. not a bad set up for a joke. It’s apparent in the first glance that the room is raw. And a little drunk. But mostly seething with a raw emotional tide. We sidle to the back, find a graffiti-ed wall to lean against, and prepare to listen.
A girl walks confidently up to the microphone. She recites her first poem and it lands with familiarity into waiting ears. The next poem is new and unedited, half-formed and unpracticed. She bashfully offers it forward. The content is anything but—passing former lovers in bars and visions of their faces disappearing beneath the covers. Paddy and I look at each other and there is an unspoken agreement: we are long overdue for a first round. He disappears at the bar and returns with two Irish whiskeys.
This room revels in the expletives. It echoes in a cacophony of fucks spiraling upward like a communal hymn. Fable, the pastor with early access to the communion wine, weaving, introduces guest speakers to deliver their personal sermons and stories of salvation. A palpable sense of common experience reaches upward and outward, hovering over every sharing.
A few performers come and go. The featured artist is announced and, perhaps in anticipation, I order the next round. Kentucky bourbon, in the interest of symmetry. Through it all, the core group of performers sits behind the microphone, whooping and hollering and encouraging and drinking; the rowdy deacons always ready with a muffled prayer and not so quiet affirmations.
The evening contains its own holy words and it’s own sense of liturgy. At the beginning of each poem the artist states “old shit” or “new shit.” The room responds always with a slightly upward inflected, deeply enthusiastic call and response. “Old shit!” they call back with practiced ease. And it’s not binary. Really any shit will do. There is “vulnerable shit” or “funny shit” or “metaphoric shit.” Throughout the poem any particularly creative flow of the syllables and wordplay merits a congregational call of “REWIND” and the artists repeat themselves in a feedback loop of familiar words.
A sense of raw confessional pervades it all. No one is booed and everyone is heard. The only righteous anger or judgment comes down upon those refusing to participate in the holy writ of listening. They are told, loudly and colorfully where exactly they can go if there’s a conversation to be had. This side of the bar is about art.
But I don’t think it’s ultimately about the art. I think it’s about people. Here in this hazy and broken and whiskey soaked room this group of poets and drifters has created a space where it’s okay to not be okay. Brokenness is flaunted and the marginalized are welcomed with open arms. This is a city of refuge, and performances offer a chance at redemption. This is a space for the quadriplegic who speaks slurred words about sparrows from his wheelchair only to be greeted with the most reverent silence of the night. For the single dad who spends money on a sitter he can’t afford so he can stand and deliver his words about raising a child on his own—why did she leave? And a son struggling to make sense of a new world where his father is suddenly mortal, he can find the healing and support his soul aches for. Fable is right. This is a church.
Matt Medendorp (’14) graduated with a writing degree held together by duct tape and a few trips abroad. Currently he lives in Grand Rapids, works for Chaco, and claims to be producing a book of writing and photography from his time in Alaska.