Speakeasy, Orlando’s oldest spoken word open mic, closes down after 13 years 

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Photo by Michael Gavin

For literary-minded Orlandoans, there is a host of options to listen to writers read their work or even step up to the mic and share something they've been toiling on. As of Tuesday, July 21, however, that slate is one event shorter. Speakeasy, the spoken word night that has been running in one form or another for 16 years, takes a bow.

From its beginnings as Backroom Words at Yab Yum to its final incarnation as a monthly night at its longtime home of Will's Pub, Speakeasy provided a laid-back atmosphere where writers were encouraged to share everything from haikus to monologues to erotica, or, as host Tod Caviness often put it, "anything you can do with your mouth in five minutes."

We spoke with Caviness, original host Patrick Scott Barnes, and a few of the regular Speakeasy performers to get a feel for its origins and its legacy in the Orlando literary scene.

Tod Caviness: In the beginning, it was essentially me picking up where the Backroom Words left off. The Backroom Words was a very drunk, very loose spoken word thing that Patrick Scott Barnes had been hosting for years, starting at the late lamented Yab Yum on Wall Street. Patrick and his regulars got kicked out of the coolest venues in Orlando, including Go Lounge, which is where I first started attending.

Patrick Scott Barnes: During my days of hosting the Backrooms (now called Speakeasy), the night was booted from three different spots. First from Go Lounge. The readings landed at a joint named Nicole St. Pierre. The yuppies hated us, especially when the women started choosing the poets over the dudes with money.

At Will's Pub, Dan Cook asked where was I currently hosting open mics, then I was asked did I want to host open mics at Will's. This was back in 1999. The poetry nights have been there ever since.

TC: After he finally ended up at Will's Pub, he had his fill of hosting, despite the fact that we had a pretty good crowd in those days. I got Patrick's blessing to continue the night, but I insisted on changing the name since I was sure he'd return to host it again.

Regarding the literary scene in Orlando pre-Speakeasy, I have to admit that I was in a bubble at the time. I didn't consider myself much of a writer, and I actually saw the Backroom Words as a place to practice some monologues I'd been working on for my lazy theatrical aspirations. There weren't too many other open mics around, and none that I can remember that weren't in coffeeshops or student lounges. There certainly wasn't anything like a Burrow Press or There Will Be Words around to do active outreach to lit nerds outside of the college writing programs.

Trevor Fraser: I started going to Speakeasy in October 2002. I remember laughing, and that was really new to someone who had spent his teen years at coffeehouse readings. It was really easy to become one of the regulars, just by being regular. I literally wouldn't have any of the friends I have, the jobs I've had, probably the places I've lived in the last 13 years if it weren't for Speakeasy. I'm sorry to see it go, mostly because Orlando still needs a regular networking event for freaks and losers. I'm sure it'll find another one. But I'll definitely shed a tear when it's gone.

Curtis Meyer: Of all the other open mics and poetry slams in Orlando, Speakeasy was home to the best writers in Orlando, and every other spoken word event in Central Florida – from Diverse Words to the S.A.F.E.! Words! Poetry! Slam! – simply wouldn't exist without the foundation Patrick Scott Barnes and Tod Caviness established over a decade ago.

Jesse Bradley: Speakeasy was one of the few nights where you had a cross-section of some of the regulars from other spoken word open mic nights, literary events and local slam poets. For me, Speakeasy was a good place to stumble onto a variety of gentle mayhem. I don't think we'll see another show like Speakeasy that acted like a nexus.

TC: It's tough to pin down how or why Speakeasy worked, or how it contributed to Orlando's literary scene. I do know that I personally wouldn't have sidestepped into journalism if it weren't for that night.

We do seem to have a pretty good crossover compared to other open mics. We get comedians, poets, rappers, Writers of Merit, drunk dudes who just want to rant. During the glory years at the old Will's Pub, I did manage to rope in a few fairly impressive touring features: Buddy Wakefield, who has won two back-to-back World Poetry Slam championships. Touring poet Christian Drake is another. He also invented the Toast-Off, which I co-hosted with him at the National Poetry Slam in West Palm Beach (and later co-opted as an annual tradition at Speakeasy and the Orlando Fringe Festival).

And then there was the night last year when Hannibal Buress showed up after a few drinks at Lil Indies to do a surprise set. I guess you could count all of the above as highlights.

But you've been there. It ain't always a life-changer. It's open mic, and 90 percent of everything sucks, right? I think when it does work, it has more to do with Will's Pub than me. The place has a really effective bullshit filter, so we tend to get people that actually want to have a conversation with the crowd as opposed to just venting. That's something you normally need a gimmick like slam to achieve. So yeah, I'll miss more than the free beer.

Alternative media

Now that Speakeasy’s closing down, get your fill of literary readings at these recurring events.

There Will Be Words
Along with its sister poetry reading series, There Will Be Verse, this event showcases Florida writers monthly.
7 p.m. every second Tuesday of the month; Gallery at Avalon Island, 39 S. Magnolia Ave.; therewillbewords.com; free

Diverse Word
Though Speakeasy was the oldest spoken word open mic in the city, Diverse Word is the longest running, with eight uninterrupted years of shows every Tuesday evening.
7:30-10 p.m. Tuesdays; Dandelion Communitea Café, 618 N. Thornton Ave.; dandelioncommunitea.com; free

The S.A.F.E.! Words! Poetry! Slam!
If you’re more of the mindset that slam poetry needs to have winners and losers, check out this monthly slam poetry competition where teams of participants compete to have the highest score of the “season.”
8 p.m. last Thursday of the month; Milk Bar, 2424 E. Robinson St.; free.

Functionally Literate
Local publisher Burrow Press puts on this quarterly-ish reading series that usually brings in bigger names to read alongside local heavyweights in a variety of settings.
TBD, various venues (next function is 7 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 15; Gallery at Avalon Island, 39 S. Magnolia Ave.); functionallyliterate.org; free

The Drunken Odyssey
Though it only ventures into real-world events every so often, UCF professor John King’s podcast about writing, which brings in guest readers and commentators frequently, is essential listening for Central Florida word nerds.

Known for accepting any genre of expression, even ones that don’t necessarily have anything to do with writing, Literocalypse was a perfect fit for the now-defunct Space, but has found a new home in similarly minded community venue the Space Station.
Monthly (next reading 9 p.m. Thursday, July 30); Space Station, 2539 Coolidge Ave.; facebook.com/literocalypse; free, donations encouraged.

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