Long live Writers' Block Poetry Night

Hanif Abdurraqib on the end of a Columbus institution
(Left to right) Vernell Bristow, Scott Woods and Louise Robertson
(Left to right) Vernell Bristow, Scott Woods and Louise RobertsonTyrone Russell

If you were in the room at all, it was a miracle. In any era, it was a miracle, and Writers' Block Poetry Night has had many eras from which to choose. I don’t remember what first sent me there, and I suppose it doesn’t matter. I was hosting a poetry night of my own, a new, barely burgeoning one at what was once Travonna Coffee House in the Short North. The problem was, I hadn’t written many poems, and had never really performed many poems. And not a lot of people were showing up to my night, which led me to believe I was doing something wrong. Something that needed to be corrected through the witnessing of a night done well.

At first, I was simply a spectator at Writers' Block. For a couple of months, I’d come and sit in the back, watching people take to the mic. I’d nervously try and chat with Scott Woods, the host and conductor of the evening. He’d occasionally ask me when I was going to read something on the stage, in a way that wasn’t demanding, but still teeming with expectation.

This was what I first learned from Scott, from Writers' Block: An open mic can be many things, but the tone, the shape, the energy of it should match its architect. And its architect should surely serve the audience, but there should also be an awareness of what that audience should come to expect. Not just out of a host, or a night, but out of themselves. It’s easy to throw the word community around in a flimsy sense, particularly when discussing an open mic night that revolves around an exchange. In a room at Kafe Kerouac, you could pay five bucks, write your name on a list, and for a few minutes, the stage could be your stage. 

But community in action, in a space like Writers' Block, relied on the self-awareness of wanting to get better. I was a new poet, and I had barely written any poems at all when I first started coming out to the open mic, and when I first started awkwardly stumbling onto the stage. But coming back every week, hearing familiar people try new things, and seeing the rewards of that risk-taking play out in a place where risks COULD be taken comfortably, pushed me to be a better writer at a pivotal point in my life. I’m not a poet without Writers' Block, and I can’t say that about any other space in Columbus. It was the first education I had. The first stop I made on the journey from where I was to where I am now.

There are people there who are affixed to my memory, my time in Columbus. My first Writers' Block poetry slam team, I was teammates with the late Gina Blaurock, who – during team practices – would sometimes smile and let out a satisfied sigh if I read a portion of a poem that she thought was good, and so I would highlight that portion, or draw a little circle around it. I was on a team of writers I looked up to, ones that were hard to please, like the great Rose Smith. And if I got through to Gina, I knew I had something.

Most nights, I would sit either behind or next to Bill Hurley. Bill and I were different. Of entirely different generations and backgrounds. He was older, white. He had survived cancer once. We wrote different kinds of poems. His, quiet, tender and insightful; mine still a bit like taking a sledgehammer to any still and breakable thing. But we found a rhythm with each other. He encouraged my work. I asked him long questions about small life meditations. We lost Bill in 2016, but I’d remembered all of the free wisdom he’d passed on to me through the years. Writers' Block was that kind of place. You’d see a person every week for months on end, and through that seeing, they became a part of your world. Their life lifted up your life.

It's sentimental, but it isn’t only sentimental. Or, at least it is sentimental for all of the reasons that build around the softer sentiments. Scott is a brilliant host. One who is not afraid to sacrifice his cool or mystique for the greater good of a night, but is so good that you can’t tell anything is being sacrificed at all. The team at Writers' Block – Louise Robertson, Vernell Bristow – these folks who, for years, worked in tandem to make it a space that treated brand new people like they’d been there the whole time. 

Writers' Block is going away, but I don’t want to eulogize Scott Woods, who I hope we will still have for a good, long time. He’s given a lot to the open mic, for years, and it is certainly time for him to move on and keep up the other endeavors that fulfill the artistic desires of the city. (But also, as I’ll never stop telling him, I hope this allows him to fulfill his own artistic desires, as well.)

But, in a non-eulogizing way, there are a lot of moments where I think about the legacy of Scott Woods, since I’m not sure how much he thinks about it himself. It’s hard to do when you are the person living the work and making the work and witnessing the fruits of that labor all at once. But one thing that I wish I saw written about more is Scott’s ongoing legacy of generosity. 

I work hard, and so I can peep someone who works hard from a distance. Scott may downplay how hard he works from time to time, but he works hard. And that work is not in service of himself. Sure, he may be in the photos, or he may be the person giving the talks on how to make art and make space for people in a city that isn’t especially interested in either. But there are people who benefit from how he operates. And Scott, surely, understands the gravity of those who benefit in the immediate moment, but there is an echo that we (I say “we” and mean, collectively, as a city,) are maybe less aware of, even as the echo produces results that should make us proud. Scott doesn’t need or seem to want credit for those echoes, but he is someone with a legacy of providing artists with an opportunity, and then getting out of the way and letting them thrive (or at least try to thrive) uninterrupted.

Scott gave me my first ever poetry feature in what had to be 2013, though I could be a year off in either direction. What I do know is that I had maybe eight or nine total poems. Writers' Block, at the time, didn’t do a ton of features, giving a poet 30 minutes a night, all to themselves. And they definitely didn’t do local features all that often. I don’t even know if, at the time, Scott thought my work was all that good, but it didn’t matter. Whether or not the work was good in that moment wasn’t significant. It was an offering. A way of Scott saying, “This stage is important to me, and to a lot of people, and I want you to have it for a while and see where it goes.”

I cite this story often, so much that people in Columbus have maybe grown weary of it by now. But I cite it because it’s an important point. What a “real” poet is or isn’t is flimsy math, and I get that. But I felt like a real poet, for the first time. It changed my life. I’m not here if I wasn’t first there. If Scott didn’t say, “Here’s a stage, do your best,” and then get out of the way. Just because he doesn’t make it look like sacrifice, or just because he’s quietest about the ways the sacrifice unfolds for him, doesn’t mean that it isn’t immense. 

If you’ve ever read at Writers' Block, or popped in for a night, or felt like you had a home there, over any era, I hope you’ll come out to say goodbye to it before it all ends at the year’s closing. There was nothing like it. Not just due to its tenure, but also its warmth and the people who began there and ascended. Also, because it was a place where, for three minutes or 30, there was a stage where people in a room could believe in you, even if you didn’t believe in yourself. 

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