Notes from the Green Couch

"Poetry. Prose. Anything Goes."

The story of Speakeasy.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

To describe Speakeasy is easy: it is an open-mic night at the Writers House. Or, as the programs coordinators like to say, "Poetry. Prose. Anything goes." To describe the profound effect Speakeasy has had, however, requires a few more words.

"Speakeasy is as old as the Writers House itself, so I think the series gives the House some sense of history and continuity," says Yumeko Kawano, who helps coordinate and cook for Speakeasy.

Notes from the Green Couch

In the fall of 1997, English 10 creative writing instructor Rebekah Grossman contacted two rising sophomores, Emily Cohen and Courtney Zoffness, about getting involved in the recently founded Writers House. The students proceeded to plan an open-mic night, and Zoffness coined the program's tagline. With the help of fellow student Adam Kaufman, the trio began marketing Speakeasy to be held not at the Writers House, but at Chats - a small, windowless space beneath 1920 Commons across Locust Walk.

"We chalked up Locust Walk with big arrows, put flyer-tents on all the Chats tables and plastered all the telephone polls on campus," remembers Zoffness. "Alas, our attendees consisted mostly of our friends and roommates and a sprinkling of suspicious onlookers. It was only when we plugged into the now-officially-built Kelly Writers House that we acquired the resources and support we needed to grow and thrive.

"For us, back then, Speakeasy was a way to connect to the writing community on our own terms."

Today, Speakeasy's coordinators carry on the legacy of Zoffness and her friends.

"It's an institution, not in the dramatically grand and important sense, but in the sense that it is its own thing that has had the opportunity to be shaped by a revolving cast of directors, and I guess somehow links the people who have participated," says current co-coordinator Dan McIntosh.

Speakeasy's open-mic format is open in the truest sense. For starters, anyone is allowed contribute to the evening's affairs. "What I really like about Speakeasy is that it is open to the whole community," McIntosh continues. "[W]e certainly get our mix of people. Undergrads, grad students, and community locals all converge on the Arts Cafe..."

In fact, one of the major issues former coordinator Adrienne Mishkin faced in the program's early years was increasing Penn student attendance: "When I took over seemed that there were not very many Penn undergrads attending...This led us to the Freshman Orientation event...

"The other members of the Speakeasy team and I advertised by walking door to door in the Quad, personally inviting individual students to come to our special Freshman-only speakeasy, to perform themselves or just to hang out and listen or meet people. We knocked on hundreds of doors the afternoons before these events," and the dividends proved huge. In fact, one year, over 300 freshmen attended the special Speakeasy.

Once the crowd is there, the mic is quite literally open to anything. Sometimes there may be a suggested theme - for instance, in October 2001, Speakeasy honored Poets for Peace in light of September 11th. Thus, while participants were encouraged to read poetry pertaining to attaining a better world, the evening still produced a diverse range of performances.

For instance, not all of the poetry was about peace. A local resident named Monique read some personal poetry while a student Kelly shared her poems about her father's military service in the Pacific during World War II. Moreover, not all of the poetry was original. A student named Anne read Alan Ginsberg's "America" while Mishkin recited verse by Wilfred Owen and Gertrude Stein. While there was no prose on this given Wednesday, there was a musical performance when one student sang an original song about an old friend, accompanying herself on the guitar.

Yet, original individual songwriting is just the beginning of "anything goes." Speakeasy has welcomed novelists, ventriloquists, puppeteers, rappers, jazz musicians and other bands. "An additional new element that we added during my tenure was having Penn bands open for the readers," said Mishkin. "We had several bands play a set on various Wednesday nights, pulling in a slightly more varied crowd...and brought a liveliness to Speakeasy."

One of the bands that played in 2007 was none other than Giant Connection - more commonly referred to as The Writers House Band. Comprised of Thomson Guster, Sean Breslin and Sam Allingham, the trio had the opportunity to perform in front of their peers. "It was a great experience to bring a little bit of what we do out of work to our co-workers and friends," said Breslin. "It felt like a family dinner."

Guster elaborated on the energy the band's performance provided to Speakeasy and the Writers House: "I like struggling against the confines of this intimate, homey feeling we've got going on here. Alienating the audience, particularly some of the older folks who like to read their poetry in voices nigh inaudible at a glacial pace, is fun."

More than a decade later, Zoffness is back at the Writers House as none other than an English 10 creative writing instructor. Speakeasy still exists, held every other Wednesday night throughout the school year.

"Now that I'm a bit older, and a bit more settled into a regular writing life, I know that having a creative community is INVALUABLE to a pursuit that can feel overwhelming and intimidating and even isolating," says Zoffness. "It's why...I felt disproportionately attached to the Speakeasy experience and the Writers House at large."