Rambling Poets find a safe, snug harbor in North Adams

`Open Mic' events have become a hub for local literati to commune in an environment that celebrates creative courage


NORTH ADAMS — They came with sonnets, haiku, free verses and gratitude.

"Bless this space for being open again," host Alex Hicks-Courant said during the latest Third Thursday Literary Open Mic at The Parlor Cafe.

Years after its last event at the recently reopened cafe, community organization Rambling Poets has once again taken up residence at the Ashland Street outpost. Held at 7 p.m. on the third Thursday of every month, "Open Mic" invites attendees to bring poems, lyrics, stories, essays and other forms of written work that can be presented in five-to-eight minutes before fellow creators. Coupled with less frequent Poetry Open Stage nights at the Ashland Street Project Space, the Parlor's "Open Mic" events have already become a hub for local literati to commune, fostering an environment that celebrates creative courage.

"I appreciate when people can share a piece of their soul with other people," poet Damion Cotter said at the December gathering.

Cotter was standing at the far end of a bar that serves coffee and other treats, waiting for the night's sign-up period to conclude. Business owners Julia Daly and Nick Tardive were behind the counter. The former Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts students often attended Rambling Poets' open mics when The Parlor Cafe was owned and operated by Elizabeth and Jason Morin. The original events began in 2013, growing out of the MCLA poetry club scene and other North Adams gatherings, according to regular host Christian Phiffer.

"Rambling Poets was birthed because we had seen an interest in poetry in the community already," Phiffer said by phone.

Its popularity, particularly among area undergraduates, attracted the attention of poets hailing from well beyond the city's reach.

"At the height of Rambling Poets, we were bringing poets to feature from around the country," Phiffer said.

Phiffer eventually burned out, he said, contributing to the series' demise in advance of the Parlor's 2016 shuttering. But when open mic regulars Daly and Tardive revived the cafe, Phiffer was inspired to restart the series, which debuted in November.

"I didn't consider doing these events until the new owners of the Parlor opened their doors," Phiffer said by phone.

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A desire to "provide a safe space for writers onstage" also motivated Phiffer, who had to miss December's event. The gathering drew writers from around the county and its surrounds. Cotter recently moved to Stamford, Vt., and had been searching for spaces to connect with the local literary community before finding Rambling Poets' series at the Parlor.

"I'm really happy I stumbled upon it," Cotter said.

December's "Open Mic" had a warmth to it, both in the confines of grasped coffee mugs and in the enthusiastic applause each speaker received from spectators occupying stools and chairs in the cozy space. Some had memorized their works; others read. Tardive drew cheers for sharing a poem about ghosts that stemmed from his time working in security at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

"All this talk about orbs and shadows is unsettling me," Tardive read from his phone.

Some of those in attendance had also stopped by the Ashland Street Project Space's Poetry Open Stage nights, which William Tavish Costello started in June 2018.

"I was really jonesing to hear some local poetry," the North Adams resident said of his motivations for beginning the series.

Unlike the Parlor's series, "Open Stage" isn't scheduled too far in advance. (The next edition's date has yet to be determined.) That's because visual artist Ashley Strazzinski founded the Ashland Street Project Space at 50 Ashland St. as part of Assets for Artists' North Adams Project, which offers creators training and funding to help further their careers. Strazzinski was originally intending to run the community space for six months, but the building's owners have allowed her to stay longer. She isn't sure when she will ultimately leave.

"We've just kind of continued the relationship for now," she said.

So, the "Open Stage" will persist for now, too. Costello said that new faces are common. Some have never recited prior to coming. Even if attendees don't present anything, they can still encounter fellow poetry lovers.

"I really just wanted to meet those people, commune with those people," Costello said.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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