One day, about fifteen years ago, I left the radio station where I hosted a weekly arts show, and started walking alone down 8th Avenue in New York City. I was thinking about a name for the new event I was going to produce and host at the University of the Streets in the East Village. An open mic, with a unique format among open mics for poetry. ‘Listen & Be Heard‘ popped into my head and stuck there. It resonated like a perfect chord and put a little pep in my step, even in the mid-august heat of the afternoon.
Listen & Be Heard became a weekly open mic event which eventually moved to the Nuyorican Poets Café, also in the East Village of New York City. The event included an open mic with three rounds, a lightning round, a spotlight round, and an improv round, when poets were accompanied by live musicians and a dj.
I used the open mic experience of Listen & Be Heard to develop my own work. There was always, also, a fresh episode of “Mission of Love.” During that time I wrote about 52 episodes of the radio soap opera, which eventually became a tele-video theatre production in its own right. I was invited to Edinburgh, Scotland to perform my repertoire of biographical stories about fascinating people in history as a theatrical piece entitled “Dreamscape: Real Dreams Really Make a Difference.” My literary agent at that time, decided to publish a chapbook of that collection, which I do believe lead also to my first full length book of poetry and stories published by Writers and Readers, “When the Body Calls.” I had the opportunity to do a small tour in Germany with some very fine jazz musicians and record a CD, “Living It” based on the repertoire of poetry and music which I developed during that time from week to week. The single “Living It” from that CD was also remixed several times as dance recordings. I was being heard, and I was listening too, to all the people who came through and used Listen & Be Heard as a platform for their own expression.
All of this happened in the 1990’s in New York City. I formed many connections with many groups of people at that time. I look back at that now and see it as a Network. There was WBAI, a non-commercial radio station where I was a volunteer producer. There were venues like The University of the Streets and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and A Gathering of the Tribes. There was Barry Harris’ Jazz Master Class every Monday, a class which anyone could attend for a mere $8. There was an explosion of interest in the World Wide Web and the formation of groups like the E-Poets, and The Ocean of Know, which encouraged me to experiment with using technology in the creative process, and to creating the web publication Planet AUTHORity. All of these connections, and more, were important, because the motivations and ideals of most of the people I was working with were not generally prevailing. The artists, writers, poets, playwrights, musicians, dancers, actors and others who I knew, who were devoted to their creations, were mostly described as avant garde, sometimes a polite term for “I don’t understand what the heck they are doing or saying or accomplishing with their time.” Most knew that what they were doing was never going to be “mainstream.” Most had been creating for decades and would never stop, regardless of how society at large might perceive their existence, or judge their “success.”
By the time of the 1990’s, the consolidation of all of our media outlets was already well on its way. Censorship by exclusion was how I experienced it. My generation grew up listening, and not even asking to be heard, didn’t even know about the days when you could promote your latest record at a local radio station. The use of the World Wide Web was exploding among people like me because it was increasingly becoming the only medium where freedom of expression was alive and breathing, not wheezing. Listen meant you could listen to something different and unexpected. Listen meant there was something real and true to listen to. Listen meant to seek the truth, read between the lines, be still and absorb. Be Heard meant it’s ok to be different. Be Heard meant express yourself even if it’s not what people want to hear. Be Heard meant make a difference, make it different, be different, go in a different direction and remain steadfast in your goal even when you’re not heard.
Just as dreams speak to us individually, and guide us sometimes when it is time to make a crucial decision, the arts serve as a collective dream that informs us as a society when we stand at a crossroads. Whether looked at as weirdos or shamans, our ability to make connections through our creations is directly related to the strength of our Network. None of us stand alone as artists, not even the greatest geniuses among us, not the best technicians or the ones with the wildest imaginations or the funniest one-liners.
The Listen & Be Heard Network today, has its roots in the Listen & Be Heard Open Mic of the 1990’s. What was an open mic became a weekly print newspaper, and a life-saving hub of activity in Vallejo, CA. for many a poet, musician, comedian and artist. I moved to Vallejo in 2000, where I met and married Tony Mims. Together we published Listen & Be Heard Weekly and opened Listen & Be Heard Poetry Café, which we kept open for three years. In my next Letter from the Editor, I will talk about the mission of Listen & Be Heard Network in the 21rst Century, and our plans as we move forward to expand the Network and shape it to serve our collective need to Listen & Be Heard.