There's a man down inside Robert Goodman Wines. It's hot in here. Steamy. And standing-room only. Plates and glasses clink gently behind the bar where the bartender, her persimmon dress a bright shimmer in the dim light, prepares food and pours wine. Otherwise, it's caught-breath quiet. An orange glow bounces off full, round glasses and illuminates the landscape paintings on the walls and the 40 or so faces, mostly young, all tilted to watch Sumner Stuart, the man who is lying on the floor.
Then a few people giggle nervously.
Moments before, he'd been upright, mesmerizing his listeners with an impromptu spell of words and ideas he reaped from the night air, from the mouths of others who read before him, from his own fertile mind. The piece had started with something about a toddler, morphed into an appeal for trust and respect. "Invite everyone into your hearts," some of it went. "Because you don't know who that stranger is that can't see you." And then he had started talking about finding a place that is "downdowndownddowndowndown to the earth."
"I accept that place," he chanted, softly. "Because it is divine. And I'm crawling crawling crawling crawling" -- and that's when he dropped suddenly to the floor.
Now, after a pause, he begins again. "I don't really know what else to say," he says. More people laugh this time. Then he brings the story back to a child learning to stand up. He rolls over and pushes himself up, stands. Loud clapping erupts, and everybody is smiling.
The performance is over. If you picked apart the words, you might find nonsense. But somehow the piece was exciting. Even profound. As the clapping subsides, Emily Adams -- who founded the open mic here last October after an impromptu audition of one of her own poems in front of Robert Goodman himself -- speaks up.
"All right, take a break," she says. "Get some wine, chat it out."
For the next 10 minutes the noise level rises with laughter and greetings. It's a Monday night in early April, and almost everybody in here is a college student. It feels like a club of old friends, but many came here first as strangers. A few wander outside into the cool night, where hula hoopers gyrate slowly on the sidewalk, circles of pale light spinning around them while, above, a thick ring of white vapor circles the moon.
Then everyone's back inside, their full attention on the next performance. Over the next two hours 20 people read, recite or sing -- the only rule is they cannot play a musical instrument. One guy stands next to a brightly flood-lit painting and tells of a sky that "fades from blue to black" and of all that's in between. In the shadows by the door a woman reads a terse revelation of love misplaced. Another reads a sweet ode to her father. Back in the light, Josh Hart raps his piece "Today's Forecast," which starts, "It's two somethin' in the afternoon./Today's forecast: psychological gloom./What do you consume? What do you give back?"
On another Monday night in Arcata, an entirely different spoken word open mic scene unfolds inside the Jacoby Storehouse, upstairs in the big-windowed room that overlooks the Arcata Plaza. This is where Poets on the Plaza, which began in the 1970s at the Jambalaya, meets.
Robert Vaughn, slender with thinning hair, arrives first, bearing a notebook, coffee and hot water pots, ceramic mugs, tea bags, pretzels and cookies. Then salty-bearded, scraggly haired "Haiku" shows up. Haiku -- first name Joshua, last name a well-guarded secret -- sips his tea and says The Mattole Forest Defenders nicknamed him after he recited a haiku for them. "And it goes like this: 'Ancient Douglas fir/Living high on Brushy Ridge/Happy to be here.'"
Finally here comes Carl Miller, also wooly haired with a rusty beard going white, carrying a laptop and a small sound system. Miller drives up from Briceland for these sessions, now that the one in his town has shut down. Vaughn comes from Valley West, and Haiku from Blue Lake. Vaughn is 57. Miller is 62. Haiku says only that he is in his early 60s. Vaughn and Haiku tease Miller for being so high-tech.
"I'm a handwriter," says Vaughn. "And Joshua, he just memorizes his."
Nobody else shows up, so the men ignore the sound system and a nearby lectern and sit around the long, gleaming wood table, taking turns reading or reciting their material. A constant racket of dishes, chatter and music rises into their space from the restaurant and kitchen in another part of the storehouse. The men power through it, and as the next two hours pass they chat less and read more, moving faster and faster from piece to piece, as if all time were running out, not just this evening's, and they may never get to read to an audience again.
Vaughn's pieces range from rhythmic sermons to narratives about raising kids in a college town. Haiku's are pithy, like messages from the birds or the trees or, sometimes, the newspaper. Miller's are stories and vignettes -- straightforward scenes from childhood, Alaska, Old Town; puzzling love stories; sly digs at his subjects (including himself) delivered in a funny Andy Rooney-like voice that's oddly uplifting: "Reality/is a pain/in the neck./I ignore it/whenever/I can."
In between reading, the poets pass around a sheet of paper on a clipboard where they're compiling the "group write" -- a poem comprised of a line from each. Later Vaughn will email it to everyone.
They're surprised to hear there's a happening spoken word scene a few blocks away. "We do this to keep the tradition going," says Vaughn.
There've been days when 80 people filled this room, he adds. Back in the Jam days, heck, they even put out chapbooks. They've had low turnouts, lately, but it'll pick up.
Actually, age and turnout notwithstanding, maybe these two spoken word scenes are not so different from each other. Each resonates with energy -- and with enthusiasm for a live audience. For the catharsis of reading aloud, says Vaughn. For the chance to watch listeners' faces to learn if your poem is working the way you want it to, says Miller. For undivided attention, says Hart.
"Other open mics I've gone to, at coffee shops, people don't listen," Hart says. "Some people are there just to drink their coffee, and they're reading the newspaper and wishing you would just shut up. At Robert Goodman's, we sort of take it over. And when someone's speaking, everyone else shuts up."
The spoken word open mic at Robert Goodman Wines happens every other Monday night (the next one is June 11). Poets on the Plaza's open mic happens on the second Monday of the month (the next one is June 11). Both start at 8 p.m.