The Poetry Forum set to exit the stage after 39-year run

Poet and author Scott Woods on the impact of the long-running open mic and the Godfather of Columbus Poetry, Steve Abbott, who best exemplified its spirit.
Steve Abbott
Steve AbbottCourtesy the poet

The Poetry Forum is hanging up its microphone after 39 years of weekly shows. When organizers turn the lights out following a final event on Monday, July 31, it will mark the end of the second-longest running weekly poetry open mic in the country, leaving a gaping hole in the Columbus arts scene. 

I attended off and on over the course of my entire professional career as a poet, which is only about half as long as the Poetry Forum has been around. It was a very different show than the ones with which I associated. It was a house of poetry heads, of people who taught poetry or had been publishing from before I was born. My initial trips to “The Forum” were in its previous home, Larry’s Bar. It was, and remains in my mind, the perfect place for a poetry reading. It was a storied dive bar the likes of which have been all but extinguished from the campus area. Smoking indoors had just been outlawed when I found it but you couldn’t tell. Combined with the carved wooden booths and dark corners, the whole experience had a speakeasy vibe. Poetry had no business living there, and yet, there it was every week with its wide-open sign-up list, waiting for people to commit an act of public art. 

The thing I noticed about the room right away was that the audience didn’t pretend to like your work. The Poetry Forum was not a participation trophy situation. If they weren’t feeling your poem, you’d know. They weren’t rude or anything; they just didn’t show their teeth for work they didn’t like,and clapped even less. I loved that about the room, but then I came up in a gladiator time of poetry slams. I like when a room makes me earn it, and every iteration of the Poetry Forum was like that. 

I followed them from Larry’s (which closed) to Rumba Cafe (which became uninterested) to where the reading lives now, Bossy Grrls Pin Up Joint (which respects the game). I always came to the Poetry Forum with a lot of reverence. As a self-taught poet, every show has its lessons, and the Forum more than most. It was like going to the gym: Some weeks I’d work on my imagery, some weeks were about finding a balance between performance and text.

Every time was about learning how to edit, to find the meat underneath the fat. Most great poetry is about “the economy of words,” capturing the greatest emotional or intellectual impact in the least amount of fluff possible, while still being true to oneself. The Poetry Forum was always a place to find great poems with that value. That it made featured readers do two sets instead of the typical one was a boss-level move, as well. If you didn’t have the poetry to cover 40-50 minutes of time, you better figure it out because that’s the last room in which you want to bomb.

As someone who ran a poetry open mic for 24 years, I’m not sure what my reaction would be if you forced me to do it for another 15 years. Flipped tables would probably be involved. I do know that no matter what mess I had gotten myself into as a poetry organizer, at the end of the day I always kept the Poetry Forum in mind. I could always just stop everything and just start calling poets up to the stage and that would be spectacle enough. If it’s all about the poetry, then that had to be enough. The Poetry Forum was the epitome of, “It’s not about you. It’s about the poems.”

A lot of people made the Poetry Forum work in its nearly four decades, but the person who best exemplifies the mission and spirit of it all is the Godfather of Columbus Poetry, Steve Abbott. Yes, he dragged sound systems into various bars regularly and dealt with (aka bounced) patrons bellied up to the bar for a beer and not public displays of artistic expression. But he also shepherded poetry through various local festivals, recruiting poets into positions of stewardship and oversight so that we could diversify the city’s biggest artistic stages. He would slide someone’s name to an organizer and then that poet would become an organizer. He would often come out to see who was making waves on the scene to give the good word. He would pull together poets for anthologies, many of whom had their first (and in some cases, only) publication credit through such efforts.

I don’t think it’s talking out of school to say that without Steve the Poetry Forum would have died years ago. People like Steve make it okay for other people to do their time and move on because the assumption is that there will always be a Steve to hold down the fort.

That part about art scenes is an unfortunate thing that may never change. There are no succession plans in art. Someone is either making it happen or they are not. It is any easy thing to take for granted – that someone will always want to show up and deal with raggedy artists and disinterested venues, all while losing money and inspiration for their trouble. The Poetry Forum combatted this for many years by always being an organization with several leaders. But few people ever consider that maybe the people who have given up so much time, money and countless moments of their own art should be allowed to go do other things. Like write all the poems they didn’t while they were watching you write poems. 

Many of the poetry roads in this town come out of the Poetry Forum, but all roads lead back to it. If you haven’t experienced it yet, you have one more shot. If you’re a poet and you’ve not graced the stage, you will be forever incomplete as a Columbus artist if you miss out.

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