Open Mic in the Heart of Missouri

Often a hotbed of political debate, controversy, and stodgy nothingness, Jefferson City has many reputations, often in conflict with one another. Yet somehow, none of that tension and skepticism permeates the walls of the little pub where I had the privilege to read this past Monday.

Three blocks southeast of the Missouri State Capitol building, a cozy home-away-from-home sits just behind an unassuming door.

Gumbo Bottoms Ale House greets patrons with its warm décor, good beer, and relaxed atmosphere, all of which reflect the owner Steve Erangey. Erangey has done what so many pub owners aspire to, but rarely achieve. He has created a place where people from all places, all backgrounds and interests are welcome and feel welcome. He has cultivated a spot where artists and poets chat with former military servicemembers and townies, no small feat in a place like Jefferson City.

In all honesty, I’m never sure if my curse-filled, queer, anti-Christian poetry will be welcome anywhere in Missouri, but a special anxiety rippled through me as I made my way to my first-ever reading at the establishment. Foremost in my mind was who I might encounter this close to the heart of the beast.

(As a reminder, the Missouri Legislature is on the cutting edge of many conservative law-making aspirations–like invalidating federal gun regulations and Draconian abortion laws this year alone).

 Despite my uncertainty, I managed to tuck this anxiety away for the once-monthly Open Mic at the urging of my mentor, friend, and fellow poet John Clayton, aka The Judge.

I walked into an unfamiliar environment, an hour late, a bundle of nerves, but as soon as I opened the door, my anxiety was replaced by joy. Several familiar faces greeted me with a smile, and The Judge wrapped me in the kind of tight hug I’ve missed since my grandfather passed.

The creator of the event, Jon Freeland, welcomed me brightly and asked if I’d like to jump in and read right away or if I’d prefer to wait. Instead of letting my nerves build, waiting for my turn, I opted to read right then, before I’d even fully caught my breath. I bucked my normal routine of reading from my very polished, published works and instead chose to read poems from the piles of works-in-progress that I usually keep to myself until they are perfected. I read and smiled at the response before turning over the spotlight and finally placing an order.

Unlike other poetry events I’ve been to, the reading at Gumbo Bottoms continued in this relaxed manner. It was as though we were all part of a writer’s group meeting around the fireplace in someone’s house. Feedback and appreciative, uplifting conversations flowed naturally. No one vied for the spotlight, and there was no tension to be found. I’ve rarely been in a group of writers so full of support and camaraderie.

While I sipped on my coffee stout, an impressive variety of poets followed after me. Free-flowing spoken word; works in progress, just a little further along than the last time the group heard them; classic verses recited for inspiration. Haiku from Ken Gierke (another talented, familiar face) sparked a fulsome conversation about the love of haiku and several others shared theirs. The Judge graced us with verses from his days in Vietnam. Hard truths are somehow easier to digest when accompanied by his enchanting voice. I was happy to hear others echo my own thoughts about how utterly consistent his powerful, thought-provoking style has remained, even after so many decades.

After we broke with promises to meet on January 9, I was again overwhelmed by the sense of welcoming when person after person, poet after poet came to talk with me about my words, to ask about my inspirations (thank you for recognizing Spike!)…and even to buy my books!

I was told my words were necessary, and that I “shook things up. In a good way.” I can imagine no higher compliment.

I sat at the bar a little while longer and chatted with some non-poet patrons and the bartender, who wowed me as much as my fellow writers. His passion for the business poured from him. Unlike so many trendy business owners, Erangey wasn’t just creating an aesthetic, it was obvious he cared. He was engaged with the event, not just interested in the extra drink sales. Erangey is invested in the community, and better still, he is invested in the poetry.

As we chatted, I was again told that I belonged, that I mattered.

I wasn’t alone. Every poet and patron felt the same warm glow, and I can’t help but think there is magic there.

So, if you’re ever out that way, stop by 221 Madison St. in Jeff City on the first(ish) Monday of the month for some incredible poetry, or go any time you can. I don’t know what you will find, but I know it will feel like you were meant to be there all along.

Published by JulianneKing

Julianne King (she/her) is the author of Sex Work & Other Sins and Bible Belt Revolution. Her poetry has been featured in the South Florida Poetry Journal, Snapdragon: A Journal of Art & Healing, and on Rattlecast Open Mic. King's work focuses on mental health, surviving Christianity, reclaiming the body, and post-traumatic growth. She lives just outside of St. Louis, Missouri with her six children and chosen family.

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