Poetic License

Poetic License

I f you’ve ever caught a Wednesday open mic night at The Space performance complex, 37-year-old performance poet Devlin Grunloh likely closed out the evening, reading just before last call. In 10 years, Grunloh has missed just three of the weekly come-alls.

Two of the absences were caused by a ruptured appendix. The third came from an incident near Grunloh’s Westville home. One night as he dragged his trash to the curb, a visibly drunken man approached on foot. A few moments earlier, Grunloh had noticed a car full of intoxicated men driving by slowly, but didn’t think much of it—it’s a college town, after all.

Now the car sat idling across the street. The wobbling man eyed Grunloh and pointed. “Do you recognize that car?” the man said.

Grunloh glanced over, and when he turned back, a fist was hurtling toward his face. The impact of the punch knocked him backwards, breaking his jaw in several places. As Grunloh tried to stand, he realized the man now held a .38 revolver. In shock and not feeling much pain, he took off running, stopping at a neighbor’s front porch to hide “between a reclaimed church pew and the house,” he recalls.

Eventually he called an ambulance. Five days later, after a surgery requiring seven metal screws to piece together his busted jaw, Grunloh stood onstage at The Space and performed two poems about the experience. “I was there in the hospital bed,” Grunloh says, “trying to think of a way to get something positive out of it.”

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In the poem, Grunloh shifts between hazily recounting the violence and trying to understand how much it all meant: “…The strike of a left cross / whose heft could not toss consciousness / from the one only begun to impress / anyone who’ll listen with the lesson that being the recipient of / something so malignant might be important…” It was cathartic, he says, helping him confront the uncomfortable emotions tied to the incident.

Grunloh’s poetic roots can be traced back to his days at the ACES Educational Center for the Arts (ECA) magnet high school downtown. At ECA, an English teacher named Eugene Mattingly started a student literary magazine. Grunloh describes Mattingly as a “6-foot-7 Santa Claus” who assigned odd creative tasks like writing an autobiography as if it were an epic poem.

Grunloh submitted 7 poems to the magazine, even though the maximum allowed was 3. That sort of output, he says, “became a pattern”—after all, Grunloh has written and performed at least two new pieces almost every single week since 2003, though he bristles at the word “prolific.”

“I don’t see it as trying to be prolific,” he says. “I see it as ‘what can I play with?’ How can I take something that hasn’t been done before and do it?”

But there’s no equivocating on the fact that it’s a gigantic body of work. Grunloh shows me one of his three-ring binders, which he keeps in a worn Priority Mail envelope. Each binder contains about 100 pages, or about a year’s worth of work. He writes each piece in capital letters on college-ruled notebook paper. The letters crowd the lines, leaving little empty space. When he runs out of room before completing a poem, he takes to writing sideways along the margins. He does this, he says, to save time during performances, not having to pause and flip through multiple pages. He’s now on his ninth binder.

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Grunloh writes outdoors as much as possible and says he works best in the middle of the night. This is partly inspired by Sylvia Plath’s love of that particular time of day. Plath, in an interview, once called it “…the blue, almost eternal hour, before cock crow, before the baby’s cry, before the glassy music of the milkman, settling his bottles.”

He honed his voice while attending Whittier College in California. There he connected with local poets while regularly attending and performing at a cafe in a spoken-word show called “Pooh, I Try.” Eventually, the show’s emcee retired, and offered the slot to Grunloh, who accepted immediately. He hosted the show every Thursday night for a year and calls it his “light bulb moment.”

“Every Thursday, I got to go hang with non-college people and see what their lives were like. That’s where I got the rude awakening that the world is bigger than college.”

Grunloh is not commanding when he takes the stage, but he gets you to sit up and pay attention anyway, his deep voice filling the room. He delivers poems to the beat of an egg shaker held in his right hand, a remnant of an old collaborative project called PWE, which didn’t actually stand for anything. “We were always taking suggestions for what it stood for. It was more interesting to puzzle people with the acronym,” Grunloh says.

Grunloh fronted PWE, reading his poems alongside a rotating cast of backing musicians. The band eventually disbanded, but Grunloh kept the percussive touch, as he feels it livens the performance. His words follow the rhythm he creates, and somehow, it works.

By day, Grunloh is a graduate student at Southern Connecticut State, pursuing his master’s in library science, something he expects to complete in the next few years. You’ll still find him Wednesday nights at The Outer Space, though. Apparently only near-death experiences can keep him away, and not for long.

Written and photographed by Jake Goldman.

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Jake is a writer and a teacher whose fiction and non-fiction can be found in Abe's Penny, The Huffington Post, The New York Press and elsewhere. For a spell, he made a living writing 'comedic ringtones,' which meant hundreds of really bad cellphone-related knock-knock jokes and puns. He lives in New Haven with his wife and cats.

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