Open mics showcase poets in their ‘rarest form’ 1

After more than a year, Kew & Willow Books is starting up its poetry readings once again, which will take place virtually for now.

Virtual or in-person, the poets of Queens are just happy to be sharing their work with each other once again.

After more than a year, Kew & Willow Books brought back its monthly Poetry Open Mic in June. Its second installment is scheduled for July 30 at 7 p.m. and, like the first, will be conducted completely virtually.

“We just want to be cautious, and some of our poets are not in Queens,” said Vina Castillo, one of the Lefferts Boulevard bookstore’s owners.

About a dozen poets performed at the first online event, about as many as were performing before the pandemic shut down the regular readings

In fact, little about the performance has changed besides the venue. Sure, the wine and snacks typically offered at the in-person readings won’t be available, but the positive and motivational atmosphere is thriving.

“Everyone was encouraging. We are a little community,” Castillo said.

That encouragement has only blossomed after open mics were converted from in-person to virtual events, according to host Chanice Cruz. Before, poets and audience members could only snap and clap after a performer shared his or her work, and maybe exchange kind words at the end of the night. Now, the chat box is lighting up with words of love throughout the entire event.

“We’d comment our favorite lines, we’re highlighting their prose, but not in a way that’s distracting. It’s all eyes on them,” Cruz said. “It’s positive feedback and we’re encouraging them to keep reading.”

The constant positive feedback inspired Cruz to change her plans as a host. Typically at in-person open mics, she wraps up the night by giving poets an optional assignment. Sometimes she’d tell them to come back in two months with a poem about love, for example.

At the first virtual open mic, Cruz asked the poets to take their favorite line from one of the other performers’ poems and write their own based on it.

“We inspire each other even when we’re not in the same room,” Cruz said. “When you’re around people who love what you do, that inspires you.”

The inspiration and sense of community are especially important to help one another alleviate any stage fright, which is still prevalent even in a virtual open mic. Cruz said in some ways the stage fright can feel more intense because it’s difficult to gauge how the audience is responding. All she and the others need to do is take a peek at that positivity chat box to feel comfort again.

“People take their heart and they just put it in front of people. It’s their rarest form,” said Cruz. “It’s that need to be around each other, that need for our poetry to be heard. People have been writing throughout the pandemic and they’re waiting to be heard.”

And as with any other Zoom event, meeting virtually presents the opportunity for guest performers from across the country, and even the globe, to participate.

When the readings were in-person, Kew & Willow would feature more established poets to share their work and speak to the audience. Because of Zoom, the bookstore was able to continue the practice, and even invited a slam poet from Africa to participate at last month’s open mic.

Anyone can sign up to perform. Veteran poets and newcomers alike share the space, and Castillo said a new performer as young as 10 years old read last month.

The only rules are in regard to time limitations. Poets are asked to either share two poems or spend five minutes onstage in order to respect the others who are just as eager to share their work.

Poetry open mics will take place virtually for the next several months, maybe even until 2022, Castillo said.

Those interested in participating can email their full name to Kew & Willow at info@thequeensbookshop.com. For more information, visit kewandwillow.com.

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