It was dark and rainy the night that Tai Igarashi hosted his first open mic night at the Phoenix Coffeehouse. There was a long line at the counter, there weren’t many open seats in the sitting areas and there was a weird crime documentary-type program playing on the television. In the midst of all this, the open mic was one of the most candid and sincere events I’ve attended.
I sat down at a table with Igarashi and made a little small talk with him and a few others. Things were rather calm, no one seemed nervous. Everyone was there to try something new and hopefully have a good time. Eventually, Igarashi stood up and walked to a corner of the room in front of the TV. All confidence, no stuttering, he explained that he was studying English at TU and that he’d been allowed to host this open mic every Thursday at 8:00. He encouraged the crowd to find their inner poet and to feel free to come up and deliver their own work, be it prose, poetry, a screenplay or even a song — Igarashi didn’t discriminate in artform.
He began the night with a poem titled “If I Can,” a humorous and heartfelt piece that seemed to spoof the many stereotypes involved with being a young poet, like unironically writing in a coffeehouse. He was followed by Thomas von Borstel, who recited a short, untitled poem that bled description and careful detail. Introduced as a friend of Igarashi’s, a “John” walked up next to surprise me by reciting his poems from memory.
First was a piece titled “Low-lying Countries of Dragons,” which was on the shorter end and packed to the brim with allusions to Greek mythology. After this was an overt piece titled “Beijing Bloom,” which he explained as being about a year he spent in China. After a slight memory blunder, he reconciled with a short final poem.
Igarashi took the stage once more to recite a poem that he said he’d written alongside Kanye West’s “Yeezus.” The poem was longer than those read before it and was packed with references to both Kanye and other, seemingly more personal events. After this, Dr. Grant Jenkins, a professor at TU, took the stage and shot some glowing words in Igarashi’s direction. After that he recited a short and syllabically perturbed poem from his phone, where he read the words slowly and in a fragmented way.
After Dr. Jenkins took his seat again, Igarashi asked if anyone wanted to come up from the crowd. In the corner, a young man with an acoustic guitar rose to the call and advanced to the stage. He introduced himself as Adonis Alessi and prefaced briefly with the effect that music has had on his life, mentioning that he’d been a musician since he was 17. He then began the first of his two songs, “Even if it Hurts.”
Described as an ode of sorts to the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, it was a four-chord ballad that paired wonderfully with his deep, full voice. The combination of these filled the room and created a particularly heavy atmosphere. This wasn’t lightened by the TV behind him playing a clip of a man bludgeoning another man to death, from the crime program that played all night. He followed this with “Learn,” a similarly structured song that was more positive, lyrically. He stated that it was about wanting to get to know someone before falling in love with them.
Following the songs, Dr. Jenkins performed a short, comedic piece titled “Destiny” and plugged a poetry reading for the next week. von Borstel performed a short “preface” and a girl named Amy Cairns came to the stage to recite, as she called it, “rambles [from] her Tumblr.” Another girl, Jordyn McCready, borrowed Adonis’ guitar to cover Frank Sinatra’s “World on a String,” and Igarashi finished the night by reciting “Dear Basketball,” NBA all-star Kobe Bryant’s retirement poem.
Igarashi was motivated to begin hosting the open mic by a desire to make poetry more accessible and relatable to people who might not normally be exposed to it. “Just to get people out here,” he began. “People don’t understand poetry at times, some people kind of look down on it.” He lamented other venues that restricted open mic nights to “kid-friendly” and “not R-rated and no sex” pieces. He wanted to create an open space where people could freely express themselves; nothing was off-limits.
His interest in the subject had been steadily rising throughout his time at TU. He said that from freshman year, between his friends and Dr. Jenkins hosting open mic nights, the idea just sort of grew on him. “2016 was pretty bad for me, as it was for everyone else, but I kind of got my life together again and I was like ‘I wanna do something that’s … overachieving.’”
He hopes to keep the open mic going until he leaves the country, at which point he may wish to let someone else host it. “Honestly, I wish I’d done this much sooner, because I’m going to Europe starting May 17,” he began. “Worst case, it will just be for a month and I’ll come back and revamp it, but if I can pass the torch to someone, like, a really hopeful freshman (like [you]), that would be great.”
He has a deep desire to expand the present perception of poetry. “I think that people need to understand that art is part of life, and that the origin of art is us expressing our emotions … I’m trying to talk to you, you know? I’m like ‘how do I talk to someone?’ and I’m like ‘the best way to do it is poetry’ … I think that it’s, uh, you just feel it. You don’t have to understand it, you don’t have to mimic it … just appreciate it … if you’re inspired, like, you’re inspired.”
Igarashi concluded the interview with a little advice for some aspiring poets. He mentioned growing up in Tokyo and then coming to TU for college. He’d known he wanted to be a writer, a novelist, since fourth grade. In Intro to Creative Writing, an assignment to write a poem left him dumbfounded. “Like, rhyme?” He grew an affinity for it and eventually met Dr. Jenkins, who told him, as Tai paraphrased, “‘You know what you’re doing right now? With, like, the rhyme and shit? Fuck it, fuck that shit. The words come in your head, right, and just slam them on the paper.’ So that’s basically my poetry style.” As for his advice, “I never go into a poem thinking that I’m writing poetry,” was his general concept. “Just be casual.” He detailed how he would just grab several different thoughts he had floating around and put them on paper, occasionally trailing down new branches of random thought for more material. At the end of this process, he’d “string them together,” and would have what he’d now consider a poem. Igarashi stresses that you don’t need to follow a style or a template — you just think and you write about the things you’re thinking about. He believes that there’s an artist hiding in us all who’s more than capable of performing this task.