Interview with Mike Geffner (“The Inspired Word”, Journalist, Poetry Patron)

Interview with Mike Geffner (“The Inspired Word”, Journalist, Poetry Patron)

I was referred to Mike Geffner by poet Jane Omerod who has performed at Mike’s weekly event “The Inspired Word”. We spoke for about 30 minuets before his spoken word/poetry series, which he began earlier this year. Geffner is a life-long journalist who held a substantial career for 33 years with various publications. He now has shifted to the world of social media, event coordination, and patronage to a hungry community of poets and spoken word artists. I was curious about the motivation behind him shifting career paths and the true state of the poetry community in New York.

AA: Tell me a little about The Inspired Word?

MG: It was something that happened completely by accident. The fact is, I’m not a poet, but a lifelong journalist. In fact, before I produced my first Inspired Word event in March of 2009, the last poetry event I’d attended was back in the late 1970’s.  It was Allen Ginsberg, along with William S. Burroughs. I got to hear Ginsberg reading “Howl” and Burroughs reading “Naked Lunch” on the same day. What an amazing night. A year later, I’d begun a career in journalism, became a sports writer, and poetry became the furthest thing from my mind.

AA: Did it plant the seed, you think?

MG: No, it planted no seed at all. When I was younger, I read poetry only as an exercise, a necessary thing to become a better writer, to learn about concise writing and writing with a rhythm. But I really had no interest in poetry other than that. And I didn’t know very much about performance poetry other than what I had seen occasionally on HBO Def Poetry.

So how did I get into this poetry thing? Well, there was this vegan organic restaurant that opened up in Queens, right around the corner from where I live. It was a really nice place, a good place for me to write. So I used to take my computer there to write, and one day, the owner, who knew that I was a writer, asked me if I could start a regular poetry series, twice a month, on Monday nights. The only reason why he asked me, I guess, was because I was the only writer he knew. I agreed, but offered this disclaimer: “To be honest, I don’t know any poets, only journalists.”

One thing you should know about me, though: When I decide to do something, I go for it 100 percent. So, searching through Google and Facebook, I went on a hunt for the best poets in New York City, looked for poets who were already reading at other venues.

At the beginning, I would book these great poets, award winners, anthologized and all that. But as well as they wrote, as wonderful as they were to talk to, they just weren’t dynamic readers. You couldn’t hear them. They didn’t emote. Their poetry was meant to be read on the page, not to sit and listen to. But the Queens gig only lasted four months, even though it was successful in many ways, because the venue went out of business.

It was at that point that I had to make a decision: to chuck it or continue. It wasn’t an easy decision. Putting on a regular series isn’t easy. There’s a lot of planning, more than I had thought before I started. I chose to continue, because by that time I had fallen in love with the art of performance poetry and I sensed that the poetry community needed another great venue in which to perform.

First, I looked around Queens, but couldn’t find a place that felt right. Then I went to Manhattan, stomping the pavement for months. And just when I was ready to give up – with either the venue turning out to be a dump or the venue offering me a deal I could easily refuse – I found the stunningly elegant (Le) Poisson Rogue in the heart of Greenwich Village.

The first event at (Le) Poisson Rouge was on January 15, 2010, on a Friday night. We featured 19 poets and drew 87 people! A great debut!

AA: We are talking about a niche market here as far as poetry, do you have a goal to reach out to the general public to show them the world of poetry like they have never seen? What is your mission statement?

MG: My vision is diversity. It should be young, old, all kinds of different ethnic backgrounds, all types of different styles. Once I got into the scene I started going to every poetry event. Many times, it seemed to be one thing. It was either white poets with a white audience or old poets with an old audience and so on and so forth.  I thought it would be more interesting to mix it all up, to merge various segments of the New York poetry scene that seemed so fractured, so all over the place. I wanted the young people to see what the old school people were doing, for the so-called page poets to see what the performance poets were doing, and vice versa. I have had a lot of the old-school poets tell me they’ve learned a lot about performing from young poets. And the young ones have said they’ve learned a lot about writing from the older ones. That’s my goal. Broaden the network. Go as much sideways as possible.

AA: Do you think that is possible in the jazz community today?

MG: I love jazz, but I have been out of jazz scene for a long time. I mean, I saw Dizzy Gillespie at the Blue Note and Miles Davis twice in concert. But that stopped for me in the 1980’s. Funny coincidence, (Le) Poisson Rogue is where the Old Village Gate – a hotspot for jazz and the greats – used to be.

AA: There is history in all these venues. When you go to Smalls, it used to be the original location of Cafe Wha. There is history in all these venues. That is what I am getting, these venues cultivated both of those art forms. Is it possible that people such as yourself, who are fostering these new poetry communities, join forces with the jazz community, or are so removed from each other at in this time?

MG: I am a big believer in being entertained. I had one poet early on in my series named Darian Dauchan and he told me he was going to bring two musicians with him and I was confused, didn’t know how that would work. He ended up bringing a bass player and a violinist, and he did poetry to the music. It was brilliant and the audience absolutely loved it. The group is called The Mighty Third Rail. Later on, I had a hip-hop artist doing it a cappella. And since then, I’ve had several other poets coming in with their own musicians. The way I see it, anything that is interesting is fine with me. If music makes it more interesting, great.

AA: The accessibility factor is what I have noticed from people who are trying to cater towards jazz and poetry, they see that the audience might enjoy the poetry more if there is music behind them, or if there is a certain thematic musical material, just to please both sides of the spectrum.

MG: It is just a way to introduce them to it. Then they realize like it, like I did. I didn’t think I would ever like it. I was going to do it only because of the restaurant wanted it, but I didn’t think I was going to like it. I thought it would be fun to organize it, but I didn’t think I would enjoy it. I wouldn’t say I was closed-minded, but I wasn’t entirely open-minded either. But it just won me over. I mean, talent is talent, entertainment is entertainment. To me, I will put anybody in the line-up who I think is talented and entertaining.

AA: That is a great philosophy – and it sells in New York. There are enough people around to find a talent.

MG: I think it sells everywhere. Talent and entertainment will sell anywhere. I don’t care if we put this show on in Wichita. It will sell. People want to be entertained. You know I covered sports for so many years, I could never figure out why grown men would show up with a Yankee shirt. They want to escape their hum drum lives. Coming down to this series, they want to escape, they want to think.

AA: Do you think people go to these sessions in hopes they will be surprised, see something new as opposed to a regular reading when they know what to expect. What is your typical open mic action?

MG: The open mic is pretty strong. Which I’m convinced is a result of strong feature performers in the lineup. I am very careful with the lineups now. They have to be people who I really think are at a high level. As a result, I think it draws in, for the open mic, a very high level as well. A lot of the features even come back to do the open mic, to my utter surprise. In fact, on occasion, I’ve asked, “Why do you do open mic? Isn’t that a little beneath you?” They said “no, it is great for me to practice a piece I am working on.” I am delighted, of course.  Of all our open mics, I would say 90 percent of them have been high quality. I think it helps that we charge a ten-dollar cover. It keeps away some of the flakes that would show up for other events. That ten dollars acts like a filter.

AA: So you have experience with musicians, not particularly jazz musicians, not yet at least, would you be open to holding an event particularly just to cater to a jazz-poetry situation or a music and poetry event?

MG: I have no idea where we are going with this. I know that we are evolving every show. I don’t want to do something entirely off the wall. Because we still have to remember what we are and what we are at the core is a poetry and spoken word series. So I want to stick with that as much as possible. But I will always do something to keep it fresh, to throw in a comedian or singer or musician every now and then. The first show we had, we had a poet [reading] to bongos. Which goes back to the poets of the Beat Generation. Again, I am open to anything as long as it is entertaining. I am not against jazz entering the form as long as it still falls within the parameter of what we are trying to do.

AA: What would you say the main separation between spoken word and poetry is?

MG: A lot of people have a tough time defining this. Poetry as I understand it, as I talk to my older poet friends, is condensed life, condensed language, meant to be read on the page. Spoken word is, obviously, words spoken out loud. It also seems to be a more fluid form, more free-form storytelling.

AA: Do you tend to see more political driven spoken word versus book poetry? Because I have heard some of the sessions at The Nuyorican, they can be very politically driven spoken word while as you may go to smalls and hear a poetry night, it is more academic or more narrative. Is that also one of the themes, politically driven?

MG: I like diversity. If I have a night that is all political or all love poems or all any one thing, I am going to be bored to tears. I think I told some of the poets who tend to do only political material, “You know what, you would be more effective if occasionally you did a love poem or something light now and then. So, then, when you come with the hard stuff, people would lean forward, pay more attention, rather than push back from you because you’re always yelling at them with political views.”

AA: What’s your preference, what do you see…

MG: Inspiration. That is why I called it “The Inspired Word.” I want to be inspired. I do not want to leave the room feeling worse. I want something to move me to the next day with adrenaline. Almost every time I’ve left my event, I can’t go to sleep because I am so pumped up and inspired by what I just saw and heard.

AA: Are you still writing for any sports columns?

MG: No. I’ve pretty much put journalism on the back burner for the moment. I’ve concentrated on this and on the cutting edge field of social media. Journalism is in flux now. It’s in a bad place now. And I am going to let it settle itself out. Maybe I will go back, maybe I won’t. But I did it for 33 years. That’s a pretty good run. I did pretty much everything I ever wanted to do in journalism. I got to interview President Nixon, Marvin Gaye, Dennis Hopper, Forest Whitaker, as well as pretty much all the famous athletes of the 20th century, including for 10 days straight Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I’ve also worked for major magazines and newspapers. I’ve covered the World Series, the NBA finals, Super Bowl parades. So I feel very good about what I’ve done, even if I never wrote another sports piece. I pretty much did it all.

AA: Do you see any correlation between the poetry has made you feel and the way sports have excited you, the adrenaline?

MG: It is very different. Just running the series…well I don’t really enjoy it while it is happening, I enjoy it when it is over, the next day especially. That is similar to sports writing, I guess. You don’t enjoy it when you are sitting there trying to think of the next word. Especially when I was a deadline columnist it is very tough. You don’t really enjoy it until it is over and look back and say, “Wow that is a really good column I can’t believe I did that in 45 minutes.” Sometimes, because events changed in a game, I had to write a column in 15 minutes after ripping up what I had written for 45 minutes to an hour. In that sense, I do have the same focus as I did as a journalist I apply it to the series and don’t really enjoy any of it until after it is over.

AA: This is irrelevant to the poetry thing but I just heard that Iceland will be incorporating a new form of open journalism, related to their free speech act in order to boost their economy. They are going to remove these restrictions Journalist feel elsewhere, such as sources. Do you feel the freshness of the internet is sucking the validity out of journalism? Is there room for any creativity left in journalism?

MG: There is too much creativity! In other words, there is so much creativity that it’s inaccurate, less fact driven. Some reporters, too many, don’t seem to care about facts anymore. If it is an interesting story, that is all they care about. Back in the day, when I started, I had to double and triple source some stories. Now if you have one person saying it, some reporters go with it. Why? Because they are afraid the next reporter will go with it and beat him/her to the scoop.  Everybody wants to be first now, as if being first is more important than being accurate. They feel that if they’re wrong, well, they’ll simply make the correction later. I don’t like that.

AA: Everyone can comment, everyone thinks their opinion is the best because it is on-screen.

MG: Once it is out there, once the cat is out of the bag, you can’t put it back in. Once this information is out there, It goes around and around the internet, you can’t go pick up the missing… it just keep multiplying and multiplying.

AA: I want to be in a creative setting and I want to be able to reach people. Journalism used to be this way to feel connected with the world and express you opinions and still be creative.

MG: I was with the Village Voice. That was the best gig I ever had. It was incredibly creative environment, the talent level of the people there was just incredible. We were all trying to do something great. I did that from 1984 to 1996. I may never see anything like that or even approaching that ever again. I can go through a slew of names of great writers I worked with at the Voice – Pete Hamill, the late Jack Newfield, Michael Musto, Bill Bastone, Mike Tomasky, Mim Udovitch. The place oozed epic talent. Other than Musto, they’re all gone now. They either moved on to bigger and better things or died.

AA: Things are on the rocks now…

MG: I have no great desire to return to journalism, especially daily journalism. That is why I am taking a hiatus. I want to see what happens, how it all shakes out. My feeling is, as much as there is a lot of interesting opportunities for journalist. I don’t like where journalism is. Most of my friends who are still in it don’t like where it is either.

AA: Do you feel a certain patronage to give back to poetry? Do you feel like a poetry patron?

MG: I want to do something great. I’ll let other people describe me as a patron of the arts. Whatever I try to do, I try to do it great. And for some reason my heart was pulled in the direction of this community. Again, it is not a monolith, but poetry and spoken word. I talked to a lot of them. Some of them seem hopeless and wonder whether this will lead to anything, whether they will struggle. But there are some performance poets that actually make a living doing this. They make anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 in a single night. Most of them do it for nothing because the love doing it. I wanted to give them something they could look forward to every week. A stage they could be proud of, an audience that is paying attention to them, that appreciates them. I am one of the few people who gives back most of the money we get at the gate to the talent on stage. I pay my poets. A lot of events, they do not pay the poets. I am so proud of the fact that since we started in Manhattan, we have paid every single poet that has come through.

If it gives them a nice dinner, something to say thank you for doing this. You entertained an audience, thank you. Unfortunately at this point I can’t pay them as much as I would like to pay them. My goal is to build this audience to the hundreds. I want to have a hundred people, then two hundred people, then three hundred people, then I want to fill an auditorium, then the poets can get paid real money.

AA: Do you want to have your own venue eventually as well?

MG: I don’t know about having my own venue, but I would like the series to grow where we attract hundreds of people instead of several dozen. I do know this: The talent is there. The question is: Is there a demand for this type of talent? I’ll find out eventually, because I am putting everything I have into this to see what is really there. To see how high we can go. To get people just like me, who had no interest in something like this, to experience it and find out how much fun it is, how riveting, how inspiring.

AA: What’s on the line-up for tonight? What can you tell me about tonight? What should I look forward to?

MG: We have 10 people in the open mic. We have a feature named Conscious, who is out there, a real artist. He loves pushing the envelope, and I love that. I love edginess. Edginess is interesting, entertaining, and my series is all about being interesting and entertaining. I like Conscious very much. Before we even talked about doing something together, we just talked about art, exchanged ideas. Those kinds of talks are inspiring. I liked the way he thought and I knew that we were on the same page. And we have a poet named Joanna Hoffman, who has been in the slam scene for years. A terrific and very talented woman. She does a lot of political stuff, but she does it in a way that I think is palatable. She doesn’t come across as preachy as much as providing commentary that forces you to see things differently. Then we have Caridad De La Luz, whose nickname is La Bruja. She does music and acting (she’s known for creating different characters) as well as spoken word. She is one of the most likable people I’ve met on the scene. She has incredible likability, great appeal. The audience loves her. And she’s very funny. All in all, it is a nice mix of a lineup, which is what I strive for. I don’t want people leaving my shows feeling as if they saw only one kind of thing.

AA: Do you find the people coming out to the shows are general poetry fans or just artistic people in general and they are visual artists?

MG: I don’t think there is any one way to describe them. I think they all come for different reasons. Some come because they just want to do something interesting on a Thursday night. Some have friends in the lineup and want to support them. Some are into the community and go to all of the different events. Some, thankfully, come because they love what we’re doing. We have definitely developed our own audience, our own culture. It’s an attentive, observant, sophisticated group. They come because they’re serious about the written word, the sanctity of it.

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