Sunday Star-Times (18/10/98)
It’s Standing Room Only for the Rekindling of Live Lines:
Poetry Live at the Alleluya Café
Some scream; others mumble. Some recite from memory; others cling to their little bundles of scribbled or typewritten pages. There’s only one microphone – one reader, or singer, or musician at a time – but anyone is free to use it. At most of the tables there are heads bent over, testing words, chewing pens, writing down those elusive few lines which will somehow come across.
The audience is as mixed as the performers. Some, a few, are there every week; others just drifted in off the street for a coffee, or because they were attracted by the din. The Alleluya is, after all, usually just another Karangahape Road café. “Poetry Live is three hours on Wednesday nights,” says Peter Hawkesby, the owner. “I’m here seven days a week.”
His café boasts one of the best views in Auckland. During the day, the gentle green of Myers Park predominates; as night falls, the Chinese-blue sceptre of the Sky tower looms up behind the high glass windows. And St. Kevin’s arcade, though a little dilapidated, is an Art Deco gem. It was built in the 1920s, and still has its original ornamented shop-fronts and plaster ceilings. In the 1950s it played host to the Beats; now, in the 1990s, it’s home to the moveable feast called Poetry Live.
Founded in 1979 by the performance poet David Mitchell, Poetry Live has been migrating ever since from venue to venue – a kind of Cook’s tour of the older Auckland pubs: the Globe, the Gluepot, the Albion, the Shakespeare, the Empire. Most New Zealand poets have read there at one time or another, in one or other of these incarnations. Is this the end of its wanderings? Almost certainly not.
Probably only one person, Tim Bush, has been coming all that time, though even he admits to missing “a year or two. This’ll be my eighteenth or nineteenth. It’s not absolutely every week, though. We do finish a bit before Christmas, and then break till the end of January.”
It’s slightly staggering to think of that many poetry evenings, over that length of time: not a thousand and one, but more like 9,000 nights of guest poets, musicians, and MCs (different each week), as well as all those readers (and hecklers!) from the floor.
“David Mitchell was clear on the rules: ‘Read your own. Anyone can read, so long as they read their own.’”
Tim goes on to say, “I’m not always the oldest – I’m 63. It’s all ages, though it’s true they’re mostly young. Over the years it’s got more political, loud, and relevant. We get students, balladeers with pamphlets to sell, ‘poet laureates’ from the suburbs … all sorts, really.”
Judy McNeil, who has been administering Poetry Live since 1995 – as well as producing its magazine (started by Briony Jagger in 1992 as Auckland Live, and now called Tongue in Your Ear) – insists that “the whole idea is to provide an accepting kind of audience who don’t sit in judgement, who aren’t there to be critical.”
It hasn’t always been like that, though. Robert Sullivan, guest poet on one of the nights I was there, says he found the old Albion “gloomy and intricate,” with an audience to match. “People got pushed away from the mike, and the crowd would throw things if they didn’t like you.”
Briony Jagger, another guest poet, back after a long absence, agrees: “It was so smoky in the Albion that I had to go out every few minutes to breathe. The Shakespeare, on the other hand, had lounge chairs and sofas, and on a cold night there’d be a roaring fire to warm you up.” The audience at the Alleluya can get a bit thin in winter, but there’s generally someone at every table. “Some nights it’s standing room only,” puts in Judy.
“The other day we had a seventeen-year-old who came in for the first time, got inspired, and started to write on the spot. The next week he got up and read it,” this week’s MC, Annora Gollop, tells me. “It was good. Some of what we get is more therapy than poetry, admittedly, but people here are as tolerant of that as they are of a more literary style.”
Annora used to attend live poetry readings in Wellington. “There are the Poetry NZ readings for the really well-established poets, and then places like the Angus Inn in Upper Hutt which offer a mixture: pub poetry as well as the rest.” Other visitors from Christchurch, Dunedin, Nelson are anxious to tell me about the open mike venues in their own cities.
Even in Auckland, Poetry Live is not without competition. Over the years there have been numerous other places for live poetry, as well as workshop and performance groups. Just in the last month a rival has started up across the road: Friday nights at the Ron Riddell’s Live Poets’ Café. Most of the people I spoke to saw this as a healthy thing. They were happy to go to both.
“It can be a little forbidding at first, but there’s good will under the surface,” one young poet, Damian McGregor, confides to me. “I started coming at first because it didn’t cost me any money, but then I found I had a lot to learn from it.”
One thing is certain. As long as every table is full on Wednesday nights, as long as there’s a real need for a place that’s simply “creative: where people can just stand up and sing” – or recite – or shout – this long-running show is unlikely to close.
Poetry Live: 7.30-10.30, every Wednesday night, Alleluya Café, St. Kevin’s Arcade, Karangahape Road, Central Auckland.