There are wild mood swings. One minute it's a somber kid with too much metal in his face. Then there's a slightly out-of-focus Vietnam vet. Religious nuts, fey singer-songwriters, schizophrenics, jittery college students, even some yuppies. Pure Kona Poetry may be Rochester's best and longest-standing forum for spoken expression.
Norm Davis has been the ringmaster and midwife for 10 years. "Nobody expected it to go that long," he says. "We had no plan to begin with." Still, week after week, year after year, a dozen or so poets get up and push their words into the air. Sometimes the audience barely outnumbers the readers. Sometimes it's packed.
Davis is proud of the variety of poets who've read at Pure Kona. "We've had rappers, performance idiots," here he nods toward his co-host Rick Petrie, "political poets, love poets, haiku poets, angst-driven teenagers, storytellers, complainers, ranters, ravers, and a few academics.
"We don't impose any structure on the reading," Davis says. "You'll look out there some nights and you'll see bikers, born-again Christians, soccer moms, some skateboarders, and a couple of high-school kids. The gay community has been very supportive of us. We've provided a venue for them to speak out too.
"It's totally different from week to week. It's a surprise to us what we'll get."
For instance, Major Tony Nelson, who Davis describes as "the homeless chicken-wing legend, the poet laureate of Rochester's streets," will be the featured reader July 3. It's unlikely he'll be getting an NEA grant any time soon. Still, he puts on a good show, better than many writers with government money in their wallets.
Most well-funded arts organizations would look with envy on the numbers Davis has racked up. Every week for 10 years, an average of 15 poets get up and perform their work. Roughly 200 readers have had feature spots. And about 1,300 people have taken part in the open-mic portion of Pure Kona's events. Though, as Davis says, Pure Kona has "never asked for a penny's worth of grant money," they've managed to distribute roughly $10,000 to local poets. Every week, the hat gets passed for the featured reader and between $20 and $50 dollars gets collected. Over a 10-year run, this adds up.
Pure Kona has been in six locations so far. Starting at Java Joe's, it then went to Moonbeans, Christian's, the Rocket Coffee House, and the Hungerford Gallery. Currently, the Thursday night weekly reading is at Daily Perks. Usually the readings get moved when new management takes over a venue. "We've been dead so many times," Davis says. But every time, he finds a new spot and the words start pouring out again.
Davis sometimes calls the reading series "a ministry." "Readers do it to get over their fears," he says. "People will listen to what you have to say. It doesn't have to fit into any category."
Rick Petrie puts it this way: "I need to do it. I need to read. I always feel better afterward."
Performance poetry can certainly be self-indulgent. There's always the Kerouac clones and Mommy-look-at-me! types. Still, Rochester has a long and healthy history of respecting the spoken word. This is the place, after all, where Frederick Douglass, Charles Finney, Susan B. Anthony, and Aimee Semple McPherson ripped the roof off with their fiery rhetoric and over-driven voices.
Yes, there will always be the Nth-generation Beat rip-offs at a poetry open mic. Yes, some folks will be wearing the all-black poet costume and exposing us to all their precious feelings. But there will be real voices too; strong, idiosyncratic, wild voices. There will be music made out of words and real truth made out of apparent gibberish.
"I like the sound level," Petrie says. "I prefer the sound of voices. I like listening better than reading. It's better in the air."
"It gains something in the translation," Davis says. "Truth comes through."
Pure Kona Poetry, every Thursday from 7:30 to 10 p.m., Daily Perks, 389 Gregory Street, 244-3485. Free.