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Keeping coffee house poetry alive

By Nathan Elias
On March 15, 2010

In Columbus, Ohio, on High Street right off of the Ohio State University's main campus, Mike Heslop has been successfully running his coffee house, Kafe Kerouac, since 2004.

For poets and writers, coffee houses are one of the primary resources for networking, exercising craft and sharing creative energy. Historically, writers like the Beats out of New York City and San Francisco as well as the American expatriates of Paris gathered in bars and coffee houses as an affordable and convenient way to share writing and find inspiration. Writers like Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway catalogued these locations and experiences in their writings.

Kerouac, for example, wrote about the evolution of the Beat generation in books like "On the Road" and "The Dharma Bums." By chronicling the life and times of fellow writers, Kerouac captured the spirit of his vagabond lifestyle and the spontaneous adventures of his friends Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and William Ginsberg. The mode of life that Kerouac portrayed involved hanging around coffee houses while writing novels, sharing poetry and workshopping with other writers.

"Kerouac was an interesting character who wrote spontaneous prose," Mike Heslop said. "It was kind of confusing at times, but that was his style."

"I'm close to one of the biggest universities in the country," Heslop said. "There are a lot of students. It's a great network and we have a lot of artists. Columbus, as a city, is pretty artistically-driven. I don't think Toledo would be as hopping as Columbus."

As an English major in college, opening a coffee house and poetry bar was Heslop's fall back plan. Kafe Kerouac is successful as a business due to an expanse of goods and services.

"We do more than just sell coffee," Heslop said. "We diversify. We sell books, records and alcohol, as well."

According to Heslop, independently run coffee houses are able to keep running during an economic recession thanks to corporately run coffee houses like Starbucks.

"Starbucks allows coffee houses to grow in some ways," Heslop said. "As far as the prices of drinks, Starbucks sets a price. It allows an independence and sets a sustainable price for the products we sell."

Local artists cover the walls inside of Kafe Kerouac with paintings and artwork using it as a gallery space. There are also wall-sized bookshelves filled with used books for sale at an affordable price.

"Coffee houses and bars are a classic place for people to meet," Heslop said. "Especially writers and poets. Hemingway, Stein and Joyce would hang out in Paris. Kerouac and the Beats would hang out in cafés in San Francisco."

A typical day at Kafe Kerouac consists of different writers, painters, drawers and artists sitting around tables reading, writing, working, communicating, drinking tea and coffee and brainstorming ideas with one another.

It's comforting to see so many people finding solace in literature and art.

"People are passionate about their art and you have to give them an outlet to spread it," Heslop said.

For an independent business, Kafe Kerouac sees its fair share of trafficking writers.

"We have an awesome crowd of writers. Every Wednesday is slam poetry night followed by an open mic."

Every third Friday, Kafe Kerouac also features Writer's Block Poetry Night with a selected featured writer followed by an open mic.

Previous Writer's Block Poetry Nights have included themed readings such as haiku battles in the style of slam poetry. Poets went against each other, reading haiku which would be judged by the audience. Then, poets would either be eliminated or proceed to the next round. The room was filled to capacity with poets and writers participating in the spirit of haiku.

"We've got awesome poets," Heslop said. "There is a huge diversity of artists. We try to allow all forms of art. I like the idea of coming up with a space for literature where writers and poets can read poetry and bounce ideas off each other and interact."

In his novel, "Urban Survival," (2006) Heslop's main character, Randall, defines art as "self-expression and communication crashing into each other. Having that clear mind. Seeing that inner world. You do that with songs just the same as you do with visual art."

Artisanship is an important part of community growth. Places like coffee houses provide a space for people with artistic merit to work and develop their work, which ultimately helps maintain and evolve culture on a local level. Without art, literacy or expression, communities would lack culture; culture is the blood that runs through a group of people and enriches the experiences of both life and education.

"[Art] is defined by the ability to open doors," Heslop said.

Kafe Kerouac is one of the more potent businesses left in a dying breed. Places of social gathering are rare in a time of economic and artistic recession; however, historically speaking, these types of business have been outlets that allow writers and artists to thrive.

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