An Open Mike Poetry Slam-pler

Ah, the 21st-century Open Mike Poetry Reading: Shameless public self-gratification or shamanistic poet/audience communion? Embracing social event for fledgling writer/performers, or embarrassing evidence that we never got enough attention as children? God knows what possesses us to ever write a poem in the first place, much less to read it aloud. But we do it. Have been doing it, probably, since the first homo erectus got dumped by his girlfriend.

Houston's literary underbelly offers a plethora of open mikes on school nights, from Mondays at No Tsu Oh downtown to Fridays at Borders on Westheimer. We -- a pair of stand-up poetry circuit vets -- set out to rate the readings.

Monday. No Tsu Oh. 10:30 p.m. We immediately recognize Al the Plastic Clown as our host/leader because he's wearing the most vibrant outfit in the room -- a red, sequined muumuu. Also, he says he's stoned on codeine. The microphone/PA System is held together by masking tape (not even duct tape), but the acoustics are good anyway (except when the cappuccino machine hisses). We hear from a bitter pizza delivery guy, a gorgeous Goth girl and a folk singer from New Mexico. The performers were spontaneous and collaborative, feeding off each other's work. Our favorite for poetry reading virgins.

Tuesday. Mary Jane's. 11:30 p.m. Not a stage for the sober or insecure, since readers have to compete with lots of background noise: pool players, bar customers, and host Glenn Latham in his gold spray-painted snakeskin suit. Unfortunately, the tone is set by someone calling himself The Next President of the Next United States and ranting about absolute shite for more than 20 minutes. The rest of the evening follows a "Ladies Are Pissed" feminist theme, brought to you in part by The Screamer (so named for her microphone abuse and shrill poetic "meter"). Not much of a community feeling, but good potential.

Wednesday. The Mausoleum. 9:00 p.m. Not recommended for neophytes hoping to break into The Scene. Each week, talented poets share their work here, and are very supportive of each other ... if you're in the clique. Although we arrive early and sign up to read before most of the others, all of the host's friends get to go before us. The cigarette smoke is unbearable. (All poets, of course, smoke with a vengeance.) The poetic perspectives are diverse: gay, straight, male, female, minority, majority ... it's all here, highlighted by K.A. Thomas, who reads her quietly seething, raw poems with an excellent scratchy (smoker's) voice.

Thursday. Lamenting the death of tonight's open reading at TemplO, we stand around at Cafe Artiste and wonder where their Thursday night event went. (It's on Tuesdays now.) Attention poets: Thursday nights are up for grabs. Haiku at my place, anyone?

Friday. Borders Westheimer. 8 p.m. Kudos go to the organizers of this monthly event out in the hinterlands. First surprise: People are there. To read. On purpose. Second surprise: They're good. The emcee, Josh, reads some deeply personal and thoughtful work, but the high point of the evening is Psycho Joe (a regular fixture on the open mike scene), who latches on to words from other poets' works and babbles incoherent rhyme marked by long bouts of loud squawking. Highly entertaining. The retail cafe setting is not very intimate, but the readers themselves are very supportive.

-- Liz Belile and Melanie Haupt

No Tsu Oh, 314 Main, 222-0443
Mary Jane's, 4216 Washington Ave., 869-JANE
Mausoleum, 411 Westheimer, 526-4648
Cafe Artiste, 1601 W. Main, 528-3704
Borders Westheimer, 9633A Westheimer, 782-6066.

For more listings go to www.houstonpress.com/extra/urban/

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Liz Belile
Melanie Haupt