All photos/art by Reena Bammi
In Portsmouth, NH, the Press Room bar’s simple wooden tables are crowded with young and old, unified only by the bulging journals they keep close at hand and the rapt attention they pay to the poet behind the mic. She whispers a few instructions to the bandleader, he signals his group, and they cobble together a melody that coalesces more and more with each passing measure. The poet begins to weave her words through the rhythm like a vine through a lattice. We put down our glasses and sink into our seats.
Beat Night is the creation of Larry Simon, the bandleader. A New York transplant, he craved the opportunity to experiment with fusion between art forms. He formed a band and then started looking for poets willing to take the beat plunge. He didn’t have to search long.
Rooted between Portland and Boston, Portsmouth is the neglected middle child of New England’s seacoast. Like so many in that position, the city has found solace in art. Although poetry is increasingly marginalized in the rest of our country, Portsmouth has enjoyed its amazing grassroots renaissance over the last decade, aided in part by the city’s own Poet Laureate Program.
Beat Night is now only one of several thriving readings taking place around the city on a regular basis, although it’s still the only one set to music. The event is going into its 10th year and shows no signs of slowing down. Simon is barraged by requests to read, and performance slots are booked nine months in advance.
Poets say it’s worth the wait, though, for such a unique experience: eight artists on a stage trying to improvise a few minutes’ worth of beauty out of words and notes and beats. Sometimes the combination is triumphant, sometimes somber, sometimes funny. Occasionally they just never get on the same page, and the whole thing falls apart. But that’s art. The poet just shrugs it off, flips to another poem in her journal, while the band plays on and on…
When You Go
The Press Room
77 Daniel St. 603-431-5186; pressroomnh.com
Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce