By Austin Greenberg
Deepens its Local Roots at Linneman’s
After the 16 month Covid hiatus, Poet’s Monday resumes with a still-cautious protocol. You are given a disposable mic cover on your way up to the stage, you crack a prophylactic joke and the audience nervously waits as you get that thing on there, and you’re set!
So continues the story of Poet’s Monday, Milwaukee’s longest (let’s challenge anyone to come up with another) running poetry open-mic.
Begun in 1990 by Sheila Spargur (now Sheila Neumann), Poet’s Monday is in its third (technically fourth) venue, has featured several hosts, hundreds of guest-hosts, thousands of artists, and it may be just getting started.
“I think it’s pretty incredible,” said Neumann, of the longevity, from her home in San Clemente, California. “But I think that’s the beauty of Timothy Kloss..[among others].”
Kloss, the host/emcee of Poet’s Monday for the last 21 years, has been involved with the event since nearly the beginning, but his story picks up in a bit.
Neumann, a lifelong fan and writer of poetry, had been reading her work at the Y-Not II’s (706 E. Lyon St.) open mic poetry night and was inspired to start her own. She stated that her intention was not necessarily to provide an alternative to the slam poetry / competitive aspects of the Y-Not II’s open mic, simply that she loved poetry and wanted to pursue it further. She had been to Cafe Mélange, a cabaret-style restaurant and lounge located in the street level of Hotel Wisconsin (720 N. Old World Third St.), to see the house band, the John Schneider Orchestra, and felt that it would be a good fit.
“It was just this passion, and that’s where I wanted to do it,” she said.
So one day in 1990, Spargur went down to Cafe Mélange and proposed a poetry open mic to its owner, Larry Krueger. Krueger, who spoke with Riverwest Currents from his adopted hometown of Reedsville, WI, stated that despite the fact that Spargur was a complete stranger with no experience hosting an open mic, he didn’t really have any reservations. He recalls only asking her if it would be similar to karaoke, which he was not interested in for that venue. Spargur assured him it was not, and recalls probably listing some of the poets she knew – artists who already had some name recognition in Milwaukee and were likely to perform there – and he agreed to let her try it once.
“That first night was packed,” stated Neumann. “I had a lot of support from the community from the get-go.”
That night, Krueger told Spargur that she could do the poetry open-mic any time, and Poet’s Monday was born.
“The early days were filled with excitement and enthusiasm,” stated Neumann.
Back then, the evenings usually featured a guest-host, a featured artist, and themes – “anything we could do to get people downtown on a Monday night!”, she added. To Neumann’s recollection, on the second night, which was the first official Poet’s Monday, the theme was First Poem of the Hair, and ideally, all the poems had to do something with hair. Neumann stated that the guest-host that evening was the (now) legendary Milwaukee drag performer, activist, (and now Riverwest resident), Miss B.J. Daniels (aka Bjorn Nasett).
When reached for comment online, Miss Daniels stated that she had fun being the first guest-host of Poet’s Monday, and is glad it’s still going.
Neumann stated that when she started Poet’s Monday, the venue was important.
“I don’t know if I would have continued to pursue it [if it hadn’t worked out at Cafe Mélange]. It was a very special, very unique place.”
Krueger had only positive memories of Poet’s Monday.
“It was such an eclectic evening,” he said. “There was passion and love professed. There was music with people doing original songs, there were skits performed, there was the mundane and the special…there was a lot of good humor, and it was extraordinarily creative.”
The size of the crowds varied greatly at Cafe Mélange, Neumann stated, with occasionally only three to four people, especially during the summer, to a packed-house with standing room only (Krueger said capacity was 150 people).
Cafe Mélange closed in 1997, and after a week or two (per Neumann) stay at Hooligan’s (Super Bar, 2017 E. North Ave.) on their manager’s invitation (it was not the right fit), Poet’s Monday landed at Thai Joe’s (2239 N. Prospect Ave.).
Around this time, Neumann’s run as the host of Poet’s Monday came to an end, and she has since moved out west with her husband. According to Tim Kloss, the host from 1997-1999 was Jennifer Wolters (now Jennifer Wolters Gilmour), in 1999 it was Laurel Bastian’s turn, and since early in 2000, it has been Kloss (“Kloss big time,” as he said). Poets, all.
Thai Joe’s closed in 2004, but again, Poet’s Monday had a suitor. Marty (as she prefers to be called), manager of Linneman’s Riverwest Inn (1001 E. Locust St.), and owner Jim Linneman’s partner (‘better half,’ as he says), called Kloss when she heard about Thai Joe’s closing, and invited him to move Poet’s Monday to their establishment. Kloss said he loved Linneman’s but showed up to give Marty a polite ‘no thank you’ because he was dubious of their stage setup. He hadn’t, however, seen the new addition to the building, completed in 2003: $180,000, 26 feet, two inches square (see Riverwest Currents, May 2006) that included a new performance space.
“I was totally bamboozled [by the upgrade], said Kloss. “It was like walking into Oz.”
Poet’s Monday has been at Linneman’s ever since, and appears secure. “It [Poet’s Monday] will always be welcome here, as long as Jim and I are still doing this [running Linneman’s]” said Marty, in a sentiment echoed by Linneman.
And some things have not changed much: the $3 cover charge goes mostly to the featured performer, with the rest going to various admin costs.
So, friends: Poet’s Monday, in its fourth decade, appears to be strong as ever, and it’s within shouting distance of Woodland Pattern. July featured a Poetry Open Mic in Garden Park. May I be inclined to start referring to that section of E. Locust as Poet’s Alley, and I promise you it’ll catch on.
One note from the early days at Café Mélange from a co-host, Jennifer Koppa, appearing in an art mag called Spaceball Ricochet in 1991, “Shiela walked into a bar and opened up a space—a creative pathway, and even if we are not here, other artists can carry on.”
Marty, Jim, and Tim Kloss have made sure of that.
Note to readers: Watch for monthly poetry page in the Currents – Covering in September, interviews with PM featured artists: MyPoetry Speaks, Darlin Nikki and Mario the Poet, among others.