Hey, Mr. Microphone
Like all establishments on Dixie Highway in Boca Raton, the Hideout Bar & Grill faces the railroad tracks. The Hideout is the only establishment, however, whose sign promises, "You were never here." Inside, every night, Pabst Blue Ribbon is on tap, as is Guinness ($4 a pint), and the air may be heavy with Marlboros and cloves. But only on Monday nights is there a handwritten sign posted on the wall near the pool table yelling "Sign Up Here," with an arrow pointing down.
The arrow points to the clipboard for Coffee House Mondays, the Hideout's weekly open mic. Signups start at 8:30 p.m., a time when, on a recent Monday, the list already had 15 names, including those of spoken-word regulars Sasha Levien, Raff Adams, and two guys known as "The Warrior Poets." They're the ones earliest to the trough (it seems, stereotypically, that poets make early risers and musicians sleep late). Sasha sits in a corner sipping Red Bull. The Warrior Poets huddle at a table drinking beer. They're patient. It might take a while before the party gets started, after all, especially on a night when a documentary crew is setting up to film some South Florida talent who now can't say (as per the house's existentialist slogan) that they were never here.
When the show starts in the packed bar, though, the poets are in the capable hands of a dude who goes by the name Renda the Writer, the open mic's slim, ponytailed host and creator, who will be there through the whole thing. "We'll go until 2 a.m. if we have to," he says. "That's when they close the place." Renda's first open-mic flier for the Hideout gig, back in March, was homemade, reading, "Open to poets, singers, and rappers." A month later, the fliers carried a picture of a 40-ounce beer next to a coffee cup. Now they've evolved into glossy postcards with a laundry-list invitation to "poets, singers, rappers, musicians, bands, vocalists, comedians, American Idol wannabes, punk rockers..." and 18 more categories, including, um, yodelers. "I've been making that list longer," Renda concedes. "I think I'm done now."
As interesting and valuable as the open mic's musical performances might be -- and they make up most of the night at the Hideout -- I'm most interested here in the words people. The poets. A motley assortment of high-energy emotional exhibitionists, they are. First is 33-year-old Sasha Levien, a confessional poet whose work is more academic than hardcore, bringing a welcome touch of subtlety to the proceedings. He whispers a poem called "Osmosis," disarmingly soft in a place that had just been echoing classic rock: "You thought you could just stop by/And say hello/There is no hello/Go back to your shells of ice." Levien's been writing poetry for 20 years and performing for ten, with a hiatus of about six years in there somewhere. What started him writing again? "Desperate heartbreak," he tells me. Ah, the life of the poet.
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There's also Raff Adams, a big bear cub of a white boy whose signature poem is a desecration rap maligning his college years in a long sputter. "I've never licked tequila off some girl's boobs," he declaims, to which someone in the bar yells, "Speak it, poet!" It seems like there's a lot of that same heartfelt longing going around at the Hideout. Adams, in his mid-20s, has been performing his self-deprecatory tirades for several years now, in Boston as well as South Florida. The poem that started off his career? "Getting High Off House Supplies." "You can guess what that's about," he says. "I got a lot of props for that." He's eager to relate, though, that he's not just a comedic poet. "There is funny stuff in there, but there's also a lot of hidden message too."
And then there are the Warrior Poets -- 36-year-old Anthony Pepe and 28-year-old Tori Morgenstein -- tattooed, Henry Rollins-like, big-boy, Fight Club rhymers. "If only I could fix all this shit with my fist... if only I wasn't so helpless to save her from the razor's scars of incision, elbow to wrist," spits warrior Morgenstein from his poem "Jennifer." The tag-team poets, verbal bruisers who can elicit a startled hush from the audience, are on a mission to spread awareness about domestic violence and sexual abuse. Their loudest point is that it's not just a woman's issue. As one finishes a verse, the other jumps in -- "Did you really think that your special brand of despair was your teacher's invention?" Pepe shouts from his poem "Mommy's Little Daddy."
"The name 'Warrior Poets' is not something we chose lightly," Pepe says. "We both came from rough backgrounds." The duo met about three years ago at one of Delray Beach's Dada poetry slams. Morgenstein was shouting "Jennifer" that night. Pepe immediately recognized that Morgenstein was versifying experiences similar to his. "It became the adhesive for our friendship," Morgenstein says. The two became partners in rhyme.
All of these boys rage, rage against the dying of the... something... in this watering hole, even as musicians are still piling in carrying guitar cases and drums. They have CDs or books for sale, some self-published and self-promoted (like Levien's Luncheonette and Other Poems and the Warrior Poets' ...that defines the light), and while they're seemingly outside the mainstream press (for now), they're not outside the reality that spoken-word poetry has ascended as serious literary venture. The open-mic milieu might seem laid-back and casual, but these guys are nothing if not dead serious about their work.
No one at the Hideout is more casual, and serious, than Renda the Writer, who clearly loves his performers and loves his role as artistic enabler. He's a true promoter -- one who earned his chops by hawking comedy-club tickets on Manhattan street corners -- who also hosts a Wednesday open-mic night at Boca Raton's Funky Buddha Lounge. "If I'm providing two open mics every week within five miles," he says, "them I'm doing a local service."
Performers love him too. "We try to support Renda as much as possible," Warrior Poet Morgenstein says. "He's one of the best hosts I've ever seen. He's clever and kind of passive in his own way, but he takes control of the night."
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