Freeing Verse

Freeing Verse

S ilas Mullins was ushering in the latest Chapter & Verse, a monthly reading series he curates and hosts in the back room of Koffee?. The night’s theme was “Listen,” and his opening remarks contained great little moments, like this: “Our ears, unlike our eyes, are never shut…”

So did the poems and stories that followed. Cole Depuy, a poet who’s about to enter SCSU’s MFA writing program, likened a whorl of toilet paper, offered to an embarrassed lover trying to stem a mid-makeout nosebleed, to a bouquet of flowers. Rebecca Hill, who’s living locally while finishing a PhD in English from UCLA, mused about an ingredient that was once a salve for real suffering but is now a foodie gelato flavor. Danny Stone, an ESOL teacher and employment specialist for IRIS as well as a published novelist, read a short story with a fun interactive element. Carla Pinto, a local public school teacher, delivered a devastating poem about young students who’ve already experienced too many of life’s losses and disappointments.

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Also performing were Ben Chase, a regular reader and WCSU MFA candidate, whose poems are moment-sized to begin with; Mike Rosetti, a software developer and first-time reader—at Chapter & Verse or anywhere else—who rhymed about matters of life and death; Mark Fitzpatrick, another frequent reader, who riffed about dance parties in far-off lands; and, finally, Mullins himself, who first read some original verse—including by a reader in absentia, Connor Orrico—before finishing with E. E. Cummings’s poem 53, for which he enlisted the audience’s help.

Two days later, he and I met in the same room at Koffee?, where a skylight steeped us in hot noontime sun cooled by the occasional passing cloud. “I had an interest in poetry from a very early age,” says Mullins, who has degrees in English and Philosophy from Cornell University and teaches ESL most days and some nights. “I come from a family of would-be writers,” by which he means “people with aspirations to write.” As an example, he mentions his great aunt, who “spent most of her life doing secretarial work, which is writing,” even if it’s not usually classified that way. “I think one of the things that confuses people about writers and writing is that the label is somehow reserved for just a few people.”

As Chapter & Verse proves, it’s not. Featuring up to 10 or so writers reading at any given event, there’s often a mix of the trained and the self-taught, the experienced and the fledgling. Reviewing emailed submissions, mostly poetry, up until about a week before a given reading—then going so far as to provide take-it-or-leave-it feedback for those he invites to read—Mullins says he tries to keep a balance between selectivity and opportunity. “I didn’t want it to be an open mic. There’s something nice about open mics, but it’s not what I was looking for… I also try to be as inclusive as I can, and it’s grown up to be more than just a curated presentation of work. It’s also a community.”

That community includes the people who come to listen, many of whom attend regularly, and who are about as supportive as could be. Perhaps because they tend to be artists themselves, they seem especially aware that making art is an act of courage, and that performing it is doubly so—maybe triply so in the case of poetry, whose words are usually fewer than prose’s and more solitary than music’s, leading to heightened, even excessive, scrutiny. With poetry, for example, the reader or listener is sometimes “focused entirely on the words,” Mullins says. “The words themselves have sound and music. But you’re so focused on trying to wrest the meaning from the words that you maybe don’t appreciate the music.” Naturally, he advises finding a balance.

Poetry also has some good things going for it. Its liberated nature—freer from the syntactic or even semantic confines of prose—gives it a certain permission and, even if it’s sometimes realized only in fragments, a stratospheric potential. “Poetry doesn’t need to be understood in the same way prose is understood,” Mullins says. “In poetry, it’s okay if a few lines of a poem light up and resonate with you, even if the poem as a whole doesn’t.”

It’s an open, un-snobby perspective that echoes the broader vibe of Chapter & Verse, which makes sense of the series’s therapeutic effects not just for readers but also for listeners. In this kind of environment, which values both achievement and attempt, observing others bare their hearts and minds provides an encouragement to more bravery of one’s own.

Chapter & Verse
Koffee? – 104 Audubon St, New Haven (map)
Next Reading: “Belong” – Fri 8/11 at 7:30pm
Submissions and Questions: koffeereading@gmail.com
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Written and photographed by Dan Mims. Photo depicts Silas Mullins in Koffee?.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories, helped in no small part by a small team of dedicated contributors.

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