On a recent chilly October night, a crowd gathered in yellow-backed chairs in the Noyes Arts Garage in Atlantic City.
Before the South Jersey Poets Collective World Above Free Poetry Night began, close to 30 budding and well-seasoned poets mingled together, greeted newcomers and hugged old friends.
For Jeanne Sutton, of Tuckerton, coming here once a month means getting on a bus at 5:15 p.m. and arriving in Atlantic City a bit before 7 p.m. She then walks to Dante Hall, which usually houses the poetry night.
Near her home, she said, there are no open mic poetry nights.
“What makes this special is the caliber of the work that is shared,” she said. “The seriousness with which everyone takes what they’re doing and what the other person is doing — it feeds me, it really does, enough to get on a bus.”
The poetry series is built on evenings such as this, an open forum where people from different backgrounds can express themselves through writing. Often, it draws regulars and newcomers alike.
Erin Moore, 21, of Ventnor, stepped up to the mic at World Above for the first time that night. At the end of her two minutes, she was met with applause.
“My friends go to Stockton. They told me about it. We come out here a lot to write and participate and things like that,” she said. “There’s a huge artistic community around here, (but) it’s not really open to everybody, so I try to bring more people out here every time we come out, and it’s nice to see things outside of my artistic community, because I play a lot of music, I do a lot of art. But poetry is something I just started participating in more often.”
Seeing poets be so open about their emotions is refreshing, she said. The support from the other writers is great, too, she noted.
Moore said Ventnor Coffee in Ventnor also has a great open mic night, but what sets this one apart is its diversity.
“There are a lot of different races and creeds and ages, all in here,” she said. “This is really great, actually, and everyone has a different story.”
Stockton University professor Emari DiGiorgio, who runs the series, also loves the fact the series draws together different people.
“I think that’s the real power of poetry. I think that’s why poetry is so essential and needful, because it transcends all of those boundaries,” she said. “For two hours in that room, regardless of background, upbringing and current experience, everyone is in that room and celebrating each other’s work.”
Having this community space wasn’t always a reality. Several years ago, when DiGiorgio graduated from New York University and returned to South Jersey, she felt a void. The only events like open mics were run through Stockton, she said.
Though they were wonderful, she said, there wasn’t much outreach to the community outside of academia.
“We have everything down here, but it’s just on a smaller scale. It felt like it could happen if someone was willing to do the organizing,” she said.
What started out as a small collective of poets in 2012 at a library and, at other times, reading their poetry on a playground, eventually blossomed into a monthly series with a featured guest poet each night.
Peter Murphy, who read at the recent open mic and is the founder of Murphy Writing at Stockton University, which offers workshops and getaways for writers, was one of the original participants. According to DiGiorgio, Murphy’s participation was not only important to the foundation of the series but to the community’s poetry scene as well.
The way Murphy tells it, his venture was an “accident.”
Teaching at Atlantic City High School, the poet had little time to write. In 1990, he decided to take a weekend trip to a hotel to do some work.
As Murphy began to go away more frequently, others expressed a similar desire, and he rented out a block of hotel rooms in Cape May for 20 fellow writers. In 1994, he founded the Winter Poetry and Prose Getaway.
“Then it grew to over 200 people over the years. Now we’re in our 24th year,” he said. “About six years ago, we decided to move from Cape May to the Stockton Seaview Hotel.”
In 2014, Murphy said, Stockton was so impressed, they asked Murphy Writing to become a part of the university.
“It was not only fulfilling for me but also helped to serve the community,” he said.
As one of the first featured poets invited to the World Above poetry night, he likes the sense of community the series creates, too.
“It’s a rare thing when people from the community and academy get together on an equal basis and share their writing,” he said. “It’s a wonderful spirit and an ego-free zone (where poets can) feel comfortable.”
Artist and poet Belinda Manning, of Pleasantville, has been participating at World Above for four years. With a younger generation stepping up to the mic, Manning said, everything has come full circle for her.
“It is like a cycle for me. It’s not nostalgic, because it’s bigger than nostalgia for me today. Being in this space, which is like a coffeehouse, is like those times we used to gather in coffee houses on Atlantic Avenue in the ’60s,” she said. “So it’s seeing my youth return but seeing it return with young people re-creating that space. That’s what’s happening here.”
Manning said the juxtaposition of young and old people, as well as the camaraderie they’ve built, is a strength of the series.
“Youth are re-creating what brought richness to the city, art to the city. A sense of joy and community,” she said. “It’s important to have a strong writing community but a creative community, a community that continues to create whether it’s visual art, written word or spoken word, because it’s what gives us life — it connects us.”
Murphy also didn’t downplay the importance of the arts in the community.
“Arts in general, and poetry in particular, it’s a way of personal growth and also a way of advancing civilization, community development,” Murphy said. “If more people read poetry, maybe we would have fewer wars, less political disagreements.”
In spite of Atlantic City’s challenges DiGiorgio said the arts are “alive and well.”
“The arts are not dead here,” she said. “As much as Atlantic City is experiencing financial and other types of turmoil.”
Murphy said as Stockton completes its building in Atlantic City, he sees an opportunity to have structured programs, particularly for youth. He said Murphy Writing also hopes to do more workshops which will generate people coming to Atlantic City, a place he loves.
”It’s quirky and got a personality, it’s got a history – a great history— and it’s a place where people are proud to be (from) there,” Murphy said. “When the casinos first came it called itself the ‘Little Apple.’”
”That’s chutzpah, it’s got attitude.”