It’s the second Tuesday of the month at Aromas Café in Newport News. Outside the storefront’s wraparound window, the sun has just set over the City Center fountain, limning the “LOVE NN” sign with the day’s last light. Inside the coffee shop, a microphone and a music stand set against the glass wall let patrons know a show will soon take place.
The “Word-4-Word” open mic has been meeting at various locations for over 25 years, but they’ve settled in at Aromas for the past nine. “Now we like to call ourselves the ‘Word-4-Word Family,’” says Ann Shalaski, the long-time host, “because we really are a family. We’ve grown with each other over the years. Lifelong friendships have formed, and a few romances have blossomed. We know everybody’s stories, the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Mixed in with the regulars are plenty of first-timers. Everyone is welcome, with one caveat. “There are many, many words in the English dictionary,” Shalaski says, “and if a four-letter word is the only one you can think of, then you’ve come to the wrong group.”
As always, Shalaski announces this rule to the crowd before kicking things off with one of her own poems. Her style ranges from laugh-out-loud silly to sultry verse that inspires catcalls from the audience. But tonight, the sassy, gray-haired Italian stuns the room with a poem about her mother battling Alzheimer’s and slowly forgetting her name, the day of the week, her daughter’s face. The crowd holds their breath in wide-mouthed awe as painful memories unspool line after line.
Afterward, audience members tell her it was as if she were writing about them, describing their emotions, the depth of their despair, their sadness, their reluctance to let go of their own loved one suffering from dementia. That is the power of poetry. It transforms what’s in our hearts into music that every ear hears differently. It takes one person’s story and makes it universal.
The gathered poets are as varied in age and ethnicity as Coastal Virginia itself. Calling names from the night’s sign-up list, Shalaski invites them up to share what they’ve written. First on the list is a librarianly woman in a light blue cardigan who glides to the mic and reads a poem about her grandfather during the Depression. Next up, a bearded hipster who goes by the name “Grilled Cheese” gives a spoken-word performance seemingly about zombies that actually tells of a failed romance. Then a little girl walks up, 3 feet tall, skinny as a wire hanger, her plaits knotted with colored beads. She clutches a piece of lined paper in her trembling fist.
Shalaski pulls out a chair for the girl to stand on and announces, “First time reader!” The room erupts into applause. Yes, people have come to read their own work; but they are also here to support and encourage others. “Open mic is not just about reading your own work,” Shalaski explains. “It’s about listening. It’s about letting other people’s lives come into your life and opening yourself up to something new—the feelings and connections, the joy and light and knowledge and insight and compassion and understanding. Understanding that we might look different and act different but inside we’re pretty much all the same.”
The little girl on the chair is no longer shaking. In a loud and steady voice, she reads a poem about the day her family moved into a new house. When she finishes, the clapping is even louder than before. The little girl beams. Beside her, helping her down from the chair, Shalaski is beaming too, as proud as if she were this girl’s own mother.
“I love to walk down the path with a young, eager, brand-new writer,” says Shalaski. “Especially after months go by and years go by, and then they come up to the mic and you instinctively know that they own their space; they have firmly planted two feet in front of the mic and they are speaking from a place of ownership and authority. Nothing makes me happier or prouder than to see that happen, because maybe something that I demonstrated or encouraged took hold and gave them the nourishment and the push that they needed to spread their wings and fly.”
Mentoring others is Shalaski’s way of paying forward the help she received. Nancy Powell, Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda, Hollis Pruitt—each of them gave their time, knowledge and friendship; each of them nurtured Shalaski’s talent and fed her passion for the written word. “The generosity and openness and the embracing nature of writers in our local community is remarkable,” she says. “Just being amongst them is gratifying and uplifting; it gives me a feeling of unity and belonging. You might be on step one or you might have seven books under your name, but in here we’re all the same. And we all lift each other up. Birds of a feather that flock together fly higher.”
After the last poet reads, Shalaski returns to the mic to give everyone their “challenge” for next month. She provides these short prompts to kick-start ideas for anyone with writer’s block. After Shalaski issues this optional homework assignment, everyone mingles for a little while, the crowd slowly disappearing into the night, everyone returning to their lives enriched for having come here.
“Word-4-Word has brought a whole different sphere of activity and feelings and connections into my life,” Shalaski says. “We’re all here for the same reason, to celebrate our histories and share our thoughts and passions through the spoken word. I would be lost without poetry. I would feel a great emptiness without it. It has made every space full. And that’s kind of neat. That’s the kind of thing that keeps us young. That’s the kind of thing that keeps us alive.”
Ann Shalaski reads her poem Sign Here on Virginia Poetry Online: