This article was first published in Ampersand, the magazine publication of The Red & Black. Founded in 1893, the Red & Black is UGA's only independently-owned and student-run newspaper.
“Godzilla is just an illiterate muppet!” says Alex Johns, an English professor at the University of North Georgia, reading a line from one of his original poems. His toddler son, Joseph, cries out from the front row, seated on a couch between two other poets.
It’s half past eight on the first Wednesday of the month and The Globe’s upper room is full of laughter, applause and the unusual group of friends that calls themselves Athens Word of Mouth.
David Noah takes the stage shortly after and members of the audience begin to simultaneously cry out, “IT’S HIS FIRST TIME!” Noah has been listening to members of Word of Mouth perform for the past year and tonight, he’s decided to try his own hand at poetry.
There are pens in mouths and marbled notebooks in hands and the night is nothing if not magical.
Nights likes these began because of a woman named Aralee Strange. Strange was a poet, playwright and filmmaker who was well-known in the literary communities of both New York City and Cincinnati. After moving to Athens in 2007, Strange decided that the town was severely lacking in a poetry presence and so, in December of 2009, Word of Mouth was born.
“She decided you do it once a month, you pick a day, you don’t change that day, you set up a mic, and the poets will come. And they did,” says Ciera Durden, a junior at the University of Georgia. And they’ve been coming ever since.
Strange, it seems, was as striking as the lightning bolt tattooed across her cheek.
“She was the type of person who walks into a room and the temperature changes. She was so powerful. But still, she was a force and she was a person,” says Durden, who first met Strange during her freshman year.
The group was devastated when Strange passed away in her sleep this past June at the age of 69. Word of Mouth’s main webpage is plastered with poem after poem, all dedicated to Strange and most performed at her memorial reading this past summer. The last line of a poem by Jay Morris reads, “Thank you Aralee/For being so Strange/When we all felt/A little too normal."
Such a loss, however, may have created a sense of togetherness and purpose that wasn’t there before.
“Her passing has definitely changed things. But at the same time, I think….I cling more to it because it’s so important," says Durden."It’s important for the community, but it’s also important to continue this because she created it.”
The concept of Word of Mouth is simple -- sit down, shut upand mouth off. Whereas other open mic nights thrive on critique and competition, Word of Mouth functions more like an open forum. It’s grounded only in the encouragement of the art form and of each other.
“It’s much more of a community and an occasion,” says Johns.
Durden chimes in, “Like a family reunion where every single one of your relatives is a writer.”
Performances are not strictly limited to spoken word, however. Durden explains that Word of Mouth attracts poets of all kinds, including one that regularly performs haikus and another that sent Strange his poetry from jail. The poets themselves are just as diverse and dynamic as the performances they give.
Describing the participants, Johns says, “You’ve got different races, wide gaps in age, different sexual orientations, all these people gathered in one space who actually really like each other and admire each other and appreciate each other as artists and really want to be around each other." He adds, "It’s very unusual.”
It’s such a collage of creative spirits that the group of people sharing their art with one another may actually resemble a piece of art in themselves.
Poets banter among one another between readings and tend to call out during any performance they find particularly moving. It’s almost like sitting in church and hearing members of the congregation shout, “Amen!” during the sermon.
And for some, it is a sanctuary. Michelle Castleberry, one of the regulars, refers to Word of Mouth as her “home church.” When Castleberry takes the stage, she announces her upcoming book release party and everyone applauds. Castleberry is releasing a book of her poems entitled Dissecting the Angel and Other Poems -- most of which were performed for the first time on Word of Mouth’s stage.
“I found a much longed-for community, the place where I feel I can truly worship and our strange congregation has definitely mourned and celebrated together," she says.
Although the monthly meetings are now simply routine for most, the time spent together still comes as an escape from the mundane.
Johns, who has only missed one Wednesday night in the past three years, says “Whatever else is going on, at least there will be a few hours where I can be around people that I like, and I can enjoy interesting, creative, engaging, artistic stuff while I’m doing it.” He added, “That’s reason enough.”
Word of Mouth welcomes new poets every month, regardless of writing skill or performance expertise. There is no criteria to sign up and no critique afterwards, but newcomers should be warned that this is not a typical open mic night.
Castleberry dedicated her book to Aralee Strange and Word of Mouth as the place where she found her heart and her home. “That's the best way to explain it,” she says.
Word of Mouth is truly unlike anything else, and there’s a benevolent force to thank for that.