Icons of the Open Mic

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As a middle-aged Bermudian who found poetry within these shores growing up, Alan Smith and Andra Simons are iconic figures to me. They were the most notable voices speaking metaphor, and beauty, and bitterness, and life during the early years of the local open mic movement, and their words moved a generation.

Andra was the first host of the seminal Flow Sunday Open Mic event, which ushered in a generational love of words, truth, and self-empowerment. Alan wrote tangible art – the kind of art that moves things. Both are legendary, formidable poets, and are long overdue their flowers as creators of an unflinching counter-culture of speaking one’s personal truth in the face of a caustically conservative Bermudian gaze.

Alan cites his love of English Literature during his days at Saltus Grammar Secondary School as “most instrumental in impressing upon me the power of words, and the potential of words to move others by presenting one’s unique point of view.”

His voice didn’t truly break free, however, until a happy mishap at work occurred:

“When I left Saltus and went out into the workforce, one of my jobs was to order computer books and software for one of the companies I worked at. A mis-shipped copy of a book containing some of Edgar Allan Poe’s work arrived one day. One of the poems, Alone, profoundly affected me. It spoke with such specificity to my own feelings of isolation and otherness that it was pivotal in emboldening me to feel comfortable with sharing the writing that I was already doing – only for myself.”

The caustically conservative Bermudian gaze would play its part too:

“At that time, as a wild-club-culture young man, dressing flamboyantly, and dancing with abandon – despite my obsession with fitness, and aversion to ingesting most mind-altering substances – I would say that underground culture, and the bleaker aspects of Bermudian life most informed my voice. I had also been raised in the church, so religion, the occult, and horror were repeated elements of my imagery.”

Meanwhile, Andra was becoming phenomenal through family, and school:

“I was influenced first by storytelling; I had an older brother who would read to me, or tell me bedtime stories. This was alongside my mother, who used dance to tell stories – she encouraged movement to her collection of instrumental African music records. She would improvise stories, and I would act them out in dance.

“A little bit later my mom encouraged me to write by challenging me to write poetry verses from words selected out of a hat. Later, this love of words was solidified by teachers at Berkeley, who used poetry to inspire us.”

His first love was storytelling; a skill indelibly rooted in Bermudian culture:

“Culturally, Bermudians love a storyteller – and telling stories! Listen to how we communicate on the streets, at home – we relay stories to each other, and this tells us all the information we need about each other if we read carefully between the words.”

By the late 1990s, Andra was ready to start a revolution of words in Bermuda – Flow Sunday was his first stage:

“The formation of Flow Sunday came about through a series of coincidences. I had returned from studying and living in Canada in 1997, where I had been for two years establishing myself in the Toronto spoken word scene as part of a band called Stumblin’ Tongues. When I had returned, I wanted to create a space to perform like the ones I had experienced many times in Canada. A friend of mine told me that there was a deejay on the Island who was looking to do the same thing for poets and musicians – Beatnik Rubaine. Beatnik and I met, along with Suzanne Mayall, who added her pragmatism and organizational skills to the mix.

“Beatnik and I became the face of it (Deejay and Host), with Suzanne as producer. As Flow Sunday grew increasingly successful, Alan C. Smith, Milton Repose, and Kim Dismont-Robinson joined the production team.

“From the first night of Flow Sunday, the tiny room behind Coconut Rock was filled to the brim. What set us apart from previous open mic events in Bermuda was that we encouraged an uncensored stage. Nothing was off the table: sex and sexuality, politics, social critique, pain and pleasure. My role as host was to invite the readers in, and give them permission to express who they truly were.”

Alan recounts his own role in the nurturing of Flow:

“Beatnik Rubaine did approach me about an open mic event that he wanted to create, but I, introverted and shy as a public speaker, never contacted him. When I became involved with Flow, it was already created – emceed by the incomparable Andra Simons. I believe I was the first person invited to present an extended spoken word set, which I performed in costume. When I did join the Flow team, I was more of an admin, and behind the scenes fixture, getting behind the mic only to perform.”

Alan Smith performances have always been special; full of visceral imagery, sumptuous wordplay, and thoroughly thrilling rhythms – his poetry is music, and he sings with every utterance. Especially when he reflects on his favourite aspects of Bermudian culture:

“What I love most about Bermuda are the people. They can be problematic, but they are genuine, friendly, tolerant and – mostly – well meaning. … A close second would be the inescapable, and gorgeous, sea. It is indeed part of our culture. It informs who we are.”

Andra admires the way our culture infuses metaphor into everyday life:

“My favourite part of Bermuda Culture is how we understand time: high tide and low tide in the day. Summer starts from May 24th (the day you will venture into the water), or hurricane season.

“That the home – especially the kitchen – is where the business of living happens; friends and loved ones communing with each other. Also, our innate confidence. We may come from a tiny collection of rocks, in a vast ocean – probably not visible from the moon – but we know our worth! Our bodies and minds are just as valid as anyone else’s, and we are not afraid to let you know that.”

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