Excerpts from “Rhythm, Rhyme & Harmony:
Speakeasy at Kelly Writers House”

“Oh, give me the beat, boys, and free my soul…”

The music from the stage comes from a lone acoustic guitar, and Iqram Magdon-Ismail, who sings, his eyes partially closed on either side of a long, straight nose, his face spread into an inviting smile. His voice is a smooth tenor, warm in the high range of the song. Tonight, at the Speakeasy at the Kelly Writers House, he performs songs of his own, singing some from words and chords jotted down on notebook paper.

He then asks the audience, do they know “Drift Away” by Dobie Gray? There are nods, smiles, murmurs of assent. As well there should be- “Drift Away” has been covered by everyone from the Rolling Stones to Michael Bolton and Uncle Kracker, and in a few weeks Corey Clark will sing it on American Idol.

Iqram will need the help of those who know it, he explains to the two dozen or so people gathered in the Arts Café.

“I wanna get lost in your rock and roll, and drift away…”

The song becomes progressively more participatory. Iqram is on stage for fifteen minutes or so, long enough to perform a set of his own songs and let the audience absorb the particular flavor of his songwriting. Speakeasy’s self-proclaimed tagline is “Poetry, Prose and Anything Goes”, but this one is a little different than usual. Tonight musicians have the opportunity to reserve larger blocks of time than the standard five to seven minutes allotted for each musician or musical group during the biweekly open mic night...“Oh, give me the beat, boys, and free my soul, I wanna get lost in your rock and roll, and drift away…”

This from a third of the crowd, at Iqram’s urging that they sing along. He adds another line on top of the chorus, softly singing drift drift, drift drift away…drift, drift, drift drift away as the audience finishes the chorus, those previously unfamiliar with the song now having picked it up.... then they sing his part, as Iqram stops his light brown fingers on the guitar for a moment, and he sings the chorus. The sound from the stage blends with the sound from the audience and the speakers, creating a new, composite vibe. This kind of feedback, the interaction of artists, musicians, poets and other writers who have come to read or play is the lifeblood of the Writers House and Speakeasy. It is a place where art generates more art.

Those rushing by the house, with a glance at the humble blue and green wooden sign that simply reads Writers House in much the same way it might read General Store, would never guess the Big Names that have entered there as Writer’s House Fellows…Gay Talese, John Ashbery, Michael Cunningham, Susan Sontag, Walter Bernstein… or those that have dropped by for lunch or dinner conversations with groups of students… A.S. Byatt, Rick Moody, Michael Ondaatje.

But famous visitors are only half of the equation, if that. Students’ own work- poetry, prose, plays, songs, even some visual art and photographs- is on display and up for discussion at the Writers House, is devoted entirely to providing a physical space for the performance and creation of writing and other art. Speakeasy provides something more still: the truly open mic, a time and place where everyone gets five to seven minutes to do something. Poetry, spoken-word pieces, prose, or music, Penn students or not, original or “cover”, Speakeasy sees a little of everything and everyone, and its chaotic nature needs the guidance of the Writers House staff and volunteers.

Tonight Adrienne Mishkin is one of the volunteers running Speakeasy. Tasks to be done: everything from preparing refreshments beforehand to signing up readers and musicians as they come in, to introductions and welcomes and other hosting duties and doing PR and outreach to the Penn community to spread the word about Speakeasy.

“[Speakeasy]’s not just poetry, but spoken-word, because the idea is that there’s something different about hearing someone read their own work, very different than reading it in print.” Adrienne enjoys working on Speakeasy with her fellow Writers House staff, and in her warm, expressive voice calls them “fantastic”- Seth Laracy, and Jill Ivey, who explains that Speakeasy is also the only place on campus where she meets people who don’t necessarily attend Penn, and that’s she’s aware of a local writing and music scene because of it. Adrienne agrees. “I can’t go to Writers House without being inspired. I leave and I want to write.”

Adrienne does write, often about her experiences with Writers House. She reads her own poetry at Speakeasy, in addition to soliciting others’ participation even in her spare time and assisting in the house’s kitchen to cater special events. She has written about experiences in the kitchen, such as cooking with staff while Bush gave a war ultimatum on television- a poem called “The Dinner War”. She has even introduced musical groups at Speakeasy with poems inspired by the group itself, such as “Orchestral Afterglow,” which she read before the band Afterglow performed, and the tribute was greatly appreciated by the group’s lead singer Dmitry Koltunov. The house and its events are a source of inspiration to others as well.

“In a way, it is inevitable that the existence of a place for writers to go will create writing about writing about writing,” Adrienne explains. “You can't help but be aware of the writing everywhere. It creates poetry circles, and groups of poets, and makes people write more because of its existence, increasing the need for its existence, increasing attendance, increasing writing, and the circle continues…”

There is even poetry being written about Adrienne, though she is not yet aware of it. Jill Ivey is the Writers House staff member who will be taking the reigns of Speakeasy next year. Adrienne often introduces Jill as “the new, improved me,” even though on first glance, the two could not be more different- Adrienne tall with dark hair, Jill petite and blonde- and Jill has written a poem in honor of Adrienne’s last Speakeasy.

“It’s a surprise,” Jill says. The freshman from Texas intends to begin the evening with it as a sort of send-off.

It is 7:15 p.m. on Wednesday, April 16 th. Forty-five minutes to Speakeasy. Adrienne is in the kitchen at Writers House, quickly chopping watermelon for a fruit salad, while Jill and Allie D’Augustine, Fellows Program coordinator at the House, chat about their weekends, seated at the kitchen table while reading over their poems for tonight.

“I think this bowl is too big for this fruit salad,” Adrienne says to no one in particular, but Jill answers, “It’s the same one we used before.”

“It’s too big.” Adrienne, wearing a black button-down dress and red sandals, make-up and thick, dark hair carefully done, is the living image of a hostess. She finds another bowl and transfers the fruit, her total familiarity and ease with the Writers House kitchen clear with in the speed with which she locates needed items.

A few minutes pass in poetry chatter and food preparation. Adrienne glances at her watch.

“I need you to check out my stream of consciousness poem… it’s all over the place,” Jill says, pulling out some pages. “I’m not sure it’s Speakeasy-ready.”

“Can you read it?” Adrienne suggests, “so I can…” and she waves her hands to indicate the work remaining to be done. Jill begins to follow Adrienne around the kitchen, reading the dense, flowing poem aloud, bits and pieces blending with the activity and preparations; lines of her poem provide an interactive background for the conversation, entrances and exits of writers, readers and staff.

My friend Ben…” Adrienne pops open a plastic container of cinnamon-covered mini-donuts and begins putting them in a bowl. “Ben and Jerry’s…so he can eat a whole Vermontster by himself…” Adrienne moves stacks of black and white cookies into two ceramic bowls and carries all the bowls out to the dining room. Jill continues to read.

Getting dirty… the ruin of a perfectly good shirt…” Adrienne closes all the plastic containers and opens the fridge, taking out a large metal bowl containing leftovers from the dinner they catered last night, for poet Ann Waldman. “Polenta?” she asks Jill mid-line.

“No thanks.”


My friend Dan meets God in a McDonalds…Reminds me-

“Hey,” says Christina, another staff member, walking through the kitchen on her way to the offices upstairs.

“Hey,” says Jill. “Reminds me of-

“Hey,” again, this time from Seth, a few feet behind Christina.

“Hey,” Jill responds. “Reminds me of Popeye…” Adrienne has a quick bite to eat, polenta, out of a glass bowl, as Jill’s poem continues. “I am meta I am about me…

Adrienne arranges the bowls of fruit salad, bananas, cookies, and donuts on the dining room table. “Ben, my neighbor…whose contribution to posterity might just be the Vermontster, how meta is that?

That is the end of Jill’s poem, and after considering its lengthiness she and Adrienne decide it’s not quite ready. Allie is looking over her poem “Derivations,” which she will read tonight because Adrienne particularly likes it. Allie’s poetry and Writers House elements have also had mutual influences: she describes how she read a poem at a Writers House event the previous year that mentioned raspberry coulis, and at Allie’s own senior farewell at the Writers House Adrienne presented her with raspberry coulis. The whole place is very meta, Allie agrees.

Writers House is meta, constantly reflecting back on itself and its staff and visitors and artists… its cooking… even the theoretical side of postmodernism is present:Mods allows grad students and professors to discuss their ideas and papers on cultural and literary problematics of modernity and postmodernity.

It is 7:45 and Adrienne and Jill are moving into high gear. “We need plates and napkins,” Jill observes, handing some paper to Adrienne in the kitchen.

“We also need sodas,” Adrienne answers, processing the paper and Jill simultaneously. “Do we have pens?”

“Let’s sign up music and reading on two different sheets, so we don’t have to readjust the microphones.”

“We’re running way behind tonight…”

“Let’s set up another microphone,”

“You want another microphone?” Seth disappears, exiting through the parlor.

Adrienne greets everyone who comes in,. “Please, everyone, go eat donuts. And fruit! We’ve got fruit!” Allie D’Augustine, passing the bowl of bananas on her way back to the kitchen, is reminded of something. “Does anybody know the line, ‘Yes, we have no bananas’?”

“Al uses it,” Jill answers. A minute later, Seth reappears, with another mic and more cords. Iqram is here too, and he strolls through the parlor and dining room on his cell phone, explaining in an exasperated tone to the other party, “No, that’s why it’s a play on words…”

It is 8:15 p.m.. Microphones are switched on, the parlor is empty and the Arts Café is full. Lights are dimmed, and Adrienne and Jill introduce themselves and make necessary reminders about cell phones, the time limits and future events. A latecomer wanders in. “Hi,” Adrienne greets him from the mic, “would you like to read?”

Jill takes the mic and explains to the crowd that tonight is Adrienne’s last official Speakeasy. A final okay is given by Seth. Jill holds her pages in front of her, her golden blonde hair and heart-shaped face framed in the bay window of the Arts Café, and she begins to read.

To Adrienne, On Her Last Official Speakeasy…

Adrienne is fascinated by this physical place that creates a theoretical atmosphere of poets sitting around talking about poetry who then go home and write about that…

The self-awareness, even self-invocation, of a piece of music like “Drift Away,” music about loving music, needing music from to create more music. Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul, I want to get lost in your rock and roll, and drift away… which is done over and over again by different musicians, beloved and repeated and a little changed in each repetition, this is what’s happening at Writers House with Speakeasy, music and poetry blending and reverberating among the people who experience it.

It’s another Saturday in the Writers House kitchen. Adrienne and Jill and others sit around the table, and someone says, what’s that song, you know, that one Iqram plays, and that one time the guy chimed in with the harmonica, remember that?…and someone else says, oh, Drift Away, and begins to sing, “Give me the beat boys, and free my soul…”

“…Thanks for the joy that you’ve given me
I want you to know I believe in your song
Rhythm and rhyme and harmony
You’ve helped me along, making me strong…”

Victoria Cahn