It's clichéd but true: We don't appreciate what we've got until it's gone. Like many locals, I'll sometimes lament how lame Orlando can be, complaining about things that people in other cities envy. For example, I may whine about the many hours I spend each week doing research at local attractions, fighting through hordes of Brazilian teens while alternately being roasted and rained on, but I can't imagine living where a roller coaster ride requires a multi-hour drive to a second-rate Six Flags.
Although it's easy to underappreciate what our town has to offer, every so often I'm awakened by the ending of something I assumed would always be around. While I try to split my focus in this column between performing arts, the theme-park industry and pop culture events, with my limited number of words to fill each week, Orlando's vibrant literary scene often gets short shrift. So I was a bit ashamed to read Thaddeus McCollum's recent tribute in our pages to the final Speakeasy at Will's Pub ("Speakeasy, Orlando's oldest spoken-word open mic, closes down after 13 years," July 15 ) and found myself searching my memory for the last time I had attended the open-mic institution hosted by Tod Caviness.
The Speakeasy may be shuttered, but in its time it nurtured numerous other spoken word nights, one of which happens to be held a few thousand feet from my front porch. That brings me to another great underutilized resource in my life: the neighborhood I live in. Though I spend much of my time in the tourist corridor, I make my home in the Milk District, one of the most walkable communities in the city's core, crammed with a Best Of-worthy collection of bars and restaurants that rivals any similar downtown district in the region. Yet all too often, I find myself lazily driving to Wawa when I could be walking a few blocks to Pom Pom's or Gringos Locos.
Last Friday night I finally killed both those birds with a single stone by strolling down the street to the Milk Bar for the monthly S.A.F.E.! Words! Poetry! Slam! (Yes, all those exclamation points are absolutely necessary.) Milk Bar is like a Wild West watering hole had a baby with a hipster hangout – vintage beer ads hang on the wall above flatscreen TVs screening Star Wars – and I can't decide which I love more: the sky-high ABV Belgian ale on tap, or the friendly resident dog roaming the room. I settled in with my brew as the bar started to fill, and discovered that I'd popped in on the perfect night, as the evening's competition would determine which local artist would represent Orlando at October's Individual World Poetry Slam in Washington, D.C.
After some initial confusion, during which organizer Curtis X. Meyer paced furiously while a fellow poet ran home for an extra microphone, the evening's dozen contestants kicked off their first round around 9 p.m., each delivering a four-minute spoken word piece. No props, costumes or musical accompaniment were allowed, per contest rules, but participants could read their poems off a page or iPad. A three-judge panel scored each entry on a 10-point scale (after deductions for going over the time limit), with the cumulative scores from all four rounds determining the winner.
It's an inside joke that the acronym S.A.F.E. stands for whatever you want it to, but one thing it isn't is safe. Aside from the inherent bravery required to stand up and perform anything you've penned, many of these poets mined unimaginable personal pain to produce their gem-like verses. In the first round alone, Monica Titus framed her poem about "drink[ing] music like a parched man" with beautifully sung snatches of "Down to the River to Pray"; Tim Rumsey told of an Iraq veteran with a "bruised head" and a guardian angel; Mary McGinn gave a gleeful ode to "your bipolar disorder"; Wallowe Jones recounted rolling radioactive snowballs while doing Japanese earthquake relief; and Troy Cunio gave a tongue-in-cheek toast to alcohol for being "what keeps us civilized." But from the start, it was clear that Aleathia "GG" Dupree would claim the crown and the invite to D.C., after her searing soliloquy on child rape earned the evening's first perfect score.
The S.A.F.E. slam will be back at Milk Bar on the last Thursday of every month, and I hope to be as well. As the evening's co-host, Heather Bedor, explained the event's appeal to me, "When you're little, you get to have bedtime stories; as an adult you don't have them. These are my bedtime stories." On this night, the stories continued past midnight; lucky for me that my bed is just blocks away.