Poetry con carne in Itaewon: expats take the stage in safety

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Poetry con carne in Itaewon: expats take the stage in safety


These are just a few of the things you would’ve heard if you’d dropped by the Woodstock pub in Itaewon Sunday night between 8:30 and closing time: A poem about little kids and ajummas in a jimjilbang, the Declaration of Independence read in the spirit of Karl Marx, several dozen jokes about cows, stand-up comedy for Valentine’s Day, a musing on identity entitled “Freeto Bandido,” a drunken rant sung about Ireland, musical covers of everyone from Ray Charles to Pearl Jam and one extemporaneous ode by yours truly.
Known to every expatriate poet, musician and performer in the neighborhood, the Seoul Artists Network open mic night, held at Woodstock every first and third Sunday, is almost an institution. Since its inception a decade ago, the network has welcomed all comers to the stage, in front of aooo supportive crowd of fellow performers, spectators and pool players, to expose their artistic inner selves.
“Sing or read or slap yourself with a shoe, we welcome it as long as it’s artistic,” says Frederick Mayer, one of the group’s most reliable regulars. Mayer can remember when Dan Godston founded the group in 1996 at a bar in Hongdae, and since then it has bounced back and forth between venues, at one point operating four events simultaneously, before finally settling on Woodstock in 2000.
Getting up in front of a dark room full of strangers and baring your soul can be an intimidating proposition, but the group tries to make it as painless as possible. In his nine years of open mics, Mr. Mayer can only recall one real negative reaction. The message he says he wants to emphasize is, “You’re safe in here.”
But on Sunday night, all the support in the world couldn’t calm the nerves of an American going up before the group for the first time. But after his energetic performance went off without a hitch, he was clearly glad he’d suffered through the stage fright. “When it was over, it was so quiet. I realized then that they were all listening to me,” he said. “It was like having an orgasm up on stage.”
That’s not the first time group members have addressed performance art’s erotic side: One of Mr. Mayer’s most infamous pieces involved throwing raw meat into the audience accompanied by sexual moaning sounds. Mr. Mayer describes his work as “performance poetry, sorta like The Doors meet industrial music meets Cradle of Filth.”
But the vast majority of the acts are much more, well, normal. Or, as some of the artists might say, less challenging. Timothy Gibbons was one of four guitarists on Sunday, which marked his last performance with the network before leaving Korea.
The highlight of his set was a collaboration with Jeremy Toombs, Sunday’s most entertaining poet. Mr. Toombs’s full beard set in a deadpan expression, the Kentucky native wove his poems together with stories from his life, not an insignificant feat when you consider his act wandered in topic from lawnmowers to drinking bourbon with Basho (the famous haiku author) to riding through the streets of Bangkok.
While the group’s “acting president,” Keith Francese, an English teacher for middle school students, completed his final poem (a frustrated teacher’s tale entitled, “Where the hell are my kids?”), the open mic’s occasional M.C. Tahl Ghitter weighed in on the event’s appeal: “I love the camaraderie.”
Mr. Francese agreed, calling the open mic “a special place” free of some of the pretensions of university open-mic nights. “There’s so much talent in this room,” another poet said. “It inspires me.”
Citing the rising number of open mic nights in Seoul’s expatriate neighborhood, and the continuing popularity of the network, Mr. Mayer asserted that Itaewon is going through a “cultural renaissance.”

by Ben Applegate

The next open mic is on Feb. 19. The only limits on individual performances are the imagination, and a 12-minute or three-song rule. Anyone can put their name on the program, but it fills up fast, so Ms. Ghitter recommends prospective performers arrive early. If you’d like to get in touch with the group before coming, they’re online at http://groups.yahoo.com/ group/seoulartists-net. To get to Woodstock, take line No. 6 to Itaewon station. The bar is on the third floor, across the street from the Itaewon Fire Station.
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