On June 23, Stephen Elliott hosted his last open mic night at It’s A Grind in La Habra. This summer he leaves for Korea to teach English there. I caught up with him the next night to interview him. This is the first of three posts based on that interview.
How did you get started on open mic night?
Stephen: When I was in school I kind of fell in love with poetry and the written word, and I had a friend [Mike Harper] who worked here at It’s A Grind a while ago. He was a poet as well. He spent most of his college life working here. There weren’t a lot of places for poets to perform. If you are a musician, especially a talented musician, there are a lot of places you can play. There’s open mic nights that will cater to you, there are coffee shops that will even pay you sometimes, but for poets there’s not really anything. We wanted to create a platform for our poetry, which spawned into a magazine, actually, called Lexicon Polaroid. We published one issue and tried to publish another one, but we didn’t have any money.
Through that we just started hosting open mic nights here. Mike eventually moved to Portland, leaving me here to either carry it on or let it die. I really loved the environment here, so I just kept going. It was about two years ago.
What school did you go to?
Stephen: We both graduated from Cal State Fullerton in 2008. There was a long stretch of time where I felt like I was in school even though I wasn’t because I was unemployed and I still saw the same people every day.
We’d done a few events here before, like some poetry slams, and we got some groups to play here.
A lot of coffee shops have open mic nights. I know several in the area. I’ve been to a few other open mic nights just to see what they were about. They have one at the House of Blues over in downtown Disney, and they’ve got one at the Gypsy Den in Santa Ana that’s supposedly huge. I’ve been once. It’s interesting. But it’s a different demographic, I think. I know most of the people that come to my open mic’s.
Stephen: Memorable open mic nights. Oh there have been a bunch. We’ve had theme nights this last year. We had a Christmas themed one. It was a lot of fun. Veronica and I did Christmas carol covers and someone wrote a poem about Christmas, and a lot of people sang Christmas songs, and we had a really good time. Everyone sang along. That was a whole lot of fun.
We had a Valentine’s Day one where everyone had to go up and before they performed they had to talk about something that they loved, so we got to know people a little better through that.
There have been some interesting ones because I personally don’t believe in censorship, so I remember one night in particular there was this person who wanted to sing a worship song from her church and it was like fine, you know, that’s fine. Do whatever is dear to you. And right after that this woman came up and recited a poem about pro-life advocacy resulting in murder and all these other things, and calling out Christians for being hypocrites. It was kind of awkward because they were sitting next to each other, but I refused to censor and I refused to not give anyone a place to stand and state their opinions, so it had to work out.
And did it work out?
Stephen: It did. It did. Neither of the two were regulars, but they both came back at different times and performed and felt comfortable. Ya. I think the world really worries too much about offending. They think that if you offend somebody, that’s the end of something. I think you can learn a lot through what offends you. Even at times when I’ve been offended I’ve held my tongue and been glad that I have, because I have learned things from those people.
Now I’m trying to think about what offends me so I can learn something about myself.
Stephen: Hang out with artists. Eventually someone’s going to say something that offends you.
Stephen: Obviously the friendships. There are people that I know, when I come back here, I’m going to find out what they’re doing and try to hang out with them.
But, you know, I feel like the biggest thing — and this may be true also for some of the people who participated in open mic night — it’s just an opportunity to be heard. Even if it’s just by a bunch of other people just like you, who don’t get to be heard either, the opportunity to say, “This is really important to me.”
I went through some dark times this last year, and I wrote about that. I wrote short stories, I wrote blog posts, I wrote poems, I tried to write songs. Those things were deep and personally important to me and it felt really good to have a group of people, as small as it may be, that wanted to hear what I had to say.
And I think we’re more like a family, you know? If you go to Gypsy Den or House of Blues, you don’t catch people hugging afterwards or exchanging phone numbers or even talking, really. We tried to create a family out of this group.
What is that instrument you play? An electric ukelele?
Stephen: It’s just a regular ukelele. It has an acoustic electric pickup. I got that last year. Singing songs is one of the ways I loosen up the crowd, because I’m not a very good singer. But I feel like I always want to give people an act they can follow.
You sing badly and that encourages them.
Stephen: Ya, exactly.
You’re leaving your sound equipment here so someone else can use it to keep open mic night going?
Stephen: Yes. I would love for open mic night to continue. That to me is more valuable than my sound equipment. I think it may continue. I hope that it will.
No matter what happens to me from this point on, wherever life may lead me, I love that I got to be here for the time that I was here, meet the people that I met, and just watch. My favorite part — I have to perform, because it’s part of open mic night; I can’t just go there and host, I have to be one of the performers — but my favorite part was watching.
Especially someone who had come and I knew they were talented and they just didn’t want to share it or they were nervous — people that sing with shaky voices — you can see them as the weeks progress. They become more and more confident. They put aside their fears and they get into sharing themselves with people. I think that the world should get into sharing themselves with people, and I was so lucky to get to see this happen here on this small level. So I’m really grateful for what this last year has been.
Next interview segment: Waiting tables for financial survival and film-making for the joy of it.
Links: Check out Stephen’s blog, APoorReflection.