To some, poetry is something to be deciphered, a metered rhyme that masks an opaque meaning with flowery language. To others, it is something that you read in school. To Maj Ragain, “It's just saying it the best way you can.”
Once a month, for the last 28 years, Ragain has been hosting a Friday Open Poetry Reading.
According to Ragain, a typical Open Poetry Reading contains six or eight core participants, a dozen or so floaters who come and go, and always someone new experiencing a group reading for the first time.
The poets range in age from high school students to well-seasoned adults. Some sit in the circle of readers. Some mingle around the outer edge. Some come just to listen.
In short, it's an anything goes kind of event.
Only a few key points remain the same: there is always a circle and Ragain always reads an opening poem. Other than that, each night has a life of its own.
This long-running event began in 1984 at Kent's legendary Brady's Cafe (a place of "anarchists and angels. You'd find anyone in there," Ragain said) where 100 people turned out for the first reading. Ragain was shocked by the attendance. “I didn't think anyone would come,” he said.
And thus the seed was sown. The readings continued until Brady's closed in 2002 and the event moved to The North Water Street Gallery. Ten years were spent there until last fall when, in search of a larger space, Last Exit Books on Main Street took on the torch.
In the days at Brady's, the group used a microphone and a few feature poets were scheduled to read as the night's main event. This was followed by a list of poets who signed up to read a few poems much like an open mic night.
The North Water Street Gallery, however, was intimate enough that the microphone wasn't necessary. Everyone lined up around the perimeter of the space creating a circle format that has now become a staple of the group. They also ditched the sign-up list and poets were invited to read at will.
This created a space where, after Ragain's welcoming piece and a “reflective silence," the poems trickled out in their own way. Oftentimes someone would hear something in a poem that would trigger something they had written about and then read that poem as a response. It wasn't long until a type of conversation began to form.
This format makes the readings unique and is treasured by Ragain because it not only gives poets a space to present their poems, truths, inspirations and pains, but is also a way for people to connect with each other through their art.
Ragain is “convinced that poetry is the conversation we are really trying to have” and what better way to have this conversation than to tell it face to face.
Here we are at the heart of what touches and inspires us through art. To Ragain, writing poetry is a way to animate the world and acknowledge that, even though we are different, there is a lot that we share through life and language. It's magical when a poet can find the words to express something and, through listening to a poem, we feel something too.
This is the lifeblood of art. This is why I am drawn to art. And I am betting that this type of intimate and meaningful exchange is why an event like this has persisted over the course of almost three decades.
Ragain notes that another important ingredient to the growth of this event has been its dedicated and supportive sponsors “who want us there,” he said. Jeff Ingram of The North Water Street Gallery and now Jason Merlene of Last Exit Books open their respective spaces because they see the importance in this type of event. They attend the event themselves and put their energy into keeping the momentum alive.
I would add that it takes a passionate and inspirational host, as well.
There is something about the way Ragain speaks that captivates the imagination. He has an easygoing demeanor, intelligent speech and quiet passion that is kind of like flipping through the pages of a really good book. Even when he is not reciting a poem, his words have a way of transporting you to a specific place in your mind that feels familiar and exciting at the same time.
During our afternoon conversation, Ragain spoke of the annual Jawbone Poetry Readings, the popular weekend poetry festival that draws poets into Kent from across the country.
He described the Saturday afternoon reading that occurs at John Brown Tannery Park as occurring on “spiritual ground,” alluding to the feeling infused into the land “where John Brown scraped the bloody hides into the river,” he said. Case in point. If I didn't feel something special about that section of the Cuyahoga River before, I do now.
"Poetry belongs to everyone," Raigain said. Whether you are a writer, reader or listener, these Friday Open Poetry Readings offer a space to connect with the things that we all share.
The next reading will be at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24, at Last Exit Books.