Preview: Scott Woods’ 24-Hour Poetry Reading Returns April 16
Columbus is lucky enough to have a poetry scene many cities twice our size would turn green at. There are many people over the years responsible for starting and nurturing this: Vernell Bristow and Steve Abbott, Is Said and Hanna Stephenson, Rose Smith and Louise Robertson, Maggie Smith and Ed Mabrey, Will Evans and Hanif Abdurraqib, many people I’m forgetting to name and many people I don’t even know the names of. High on that list is poet, MC, and organizer Scott Woods.
Woods is a writer first and foremost – with multiple books published, most recently this year’s Urban Contemporary History Month on Brick Cave Books, poems published in many journals, and read on NPR. But he’s worn many hats that helped and still help the community here and the national community. Co-founder (with Vernell Bristow) of Writers Block, an almost-20-year-running poetry series that helped establish poetry with a heavier performance element in town. First person to bring a team to the National Poetry Slam from Columbus. President of PSI (the body in charge of the National Poetry Slam).
One of the gems in that poetry scene Scott Woods is single-handedly responsible for and, personally, my favorite event of the spring, is the 24-hour poetry reading. Started in 2006 at Acme Art Company, and performed yearly through 2012, this event shows a jaw-dropping range of different poetic voices and styles through the lens of Woods’ voice. In 24 hours – with minimal breaks – he goes through rougly 300 poems over the 24 hours and, because this isn’t challenging enough, he doesn’t repeat poems from one year to the next, there’s no coasting on a greatest hits set. When I spoke with him earlier this week, he said, “The challenge to not repeat any poems makes the hunting of poems fun. I love introducing people to poets they don’t know or digging deeper into the catalog of poets they do. At the same time, poetry is so vast it’s not that hard to find stuff I haven’t done, even after 1000+ poems.”
Few artists ever attempt something of this duration and scope. Woods said, “I’m a bit of a mad scientist when it comes to poetry, so I’m always looking for different ways to engage the art in ways that have concrete impact. That usually involves taking something simple and complicating it with a process that’s generally ill advised…At some point my whole body has to get involved just to keep me going. That’s beyond tough; that’s a baptism, breakdown and redemption. ” Scott talked about the influence of Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum, “She’s probably my biggest performative influence for this particular event each year, and after all this time maybe my performances at large. She used to do 90 minute songs based on the feel of the room, had to stand feet away from the microphone because she was so powerful, trying to bring the room into an ecstatic state. I do that every Wednesday with the open mic with banter and poet choice, and in the 24-hour set I get to apply those lessons in an intense solo capacity.”
This return after a three year gap coincides with the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month but there are more concrete reasons for the revival. “There is a lot of turnover in the poetry scene, so there are a lot of poets who are making their marks now who only ever heard about the previous readings. Some of them really wanted to see one, and that helped grease the wheels. Also, I want to know if I can still do it. Each one tries to kill me in a different way, so it’s kind of the same thrill daredevils get, but at a much slower pace.”
A key feature of this reading is the wide variety of poets featured without ever feeling forced. Woods’ curatorial eye is both specific and ranging, giving the audience a look into the taste that animates the work of an artist and as good as introduction to modern and contemporary poetry as exists. Better than almost any intro class you could take. Asked about how this year’s shaping up, Woods commented, “I can pretty much look at a poem and instantly determine if it should be a 24-hour poem. That took a lot of practice and some long hours, and it’s a great tool to have in your belt in general. And any year Kevin Young puts out a book, rest assured it’s getting read in one of these. I lucked into a couple of collections of newer African poets that’s pretty amazing – the Tatu annual series of chapbooks edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani – so I’m looking forward to seeing how those play out. Louis has a new book just in time for this. Someone new to the batch of note is Saeed Jones. I like what he’s doing, stripping away tired ideas of black masculinity and replacing them with these powerful yet sensitive reconsiderations. But I’ve got to keep people on their toes, so even now, I’m poring over books to see how I can get people to flip their tables over poetry.”
Come for something – and yes, I know other people do it now – unique to our town. Stay for the table flipping.
The 24-Hour Poetry Reading begins at 6:00pm on Saturday, April 16, 2016 at Kafe Kerouac (2250 N High St). For more details including a schedule of poets by the hour, visit the Facebook event.