Column: Grab your poem and head to downtown Riverhead

LeRoy Heyliger, grandfather of Mattituck Junior High student Justin McKinney, reads his grandson's poem "I am" as the event's organizer, Susan Dingle, holds Justin's artwork.
LeRoy Heyliger, grandfather of Mattituck eight-grader Justin McKinney, reads his grandson’s poem “I am” as Poetry Street organizer, Susan Dingle, holds Justin’s artwork. (Credit: Jennifer Gustavson)

When Joseph Milbauer saw an opportunity to snag the top spot to perform at Poetry Street, an open mic session held last Sunday at Blue Duck Bakery and Cafe in Riverhead, he quickly jotted his name down.

This would be the first time Mr. Milbauer, 24, would read his poetry in public.

“I signed up on the list first because I didn’t think I would have to follow anyone,” the Riverhead resident said before reading his poem, “Round One,” a personal tale about his dark past and how he overcame a “year of screw-ups.”

But Mr. Milbauer was actually the second person to read. Not only that, he ended up having to follow poet and community advocate Robert “Bubbie” Brown of Riverside, who kicked off the event and then gave two encores.

When Mr. Milbauer finally approached the mic, he looked out into a crowd of poetry fans sipping coffee, hot and iced, and munching on pastries.

“Hi everyone,” he said. “I’m Joey.”

The crowd applauded loudly, remembering a request made by the event’s organizer, Susan Dingle, at the start of the show.

Ms. Dingle — wearing a fedora, red blazer and a scarf knotted at her neck — spoke with her hands when she set the rules for Poetry Street — an event she developed through her involvement with East End Arts’ JumpstART program, which aims to revitalize downtown Riverhead through creative partnerships between artists and local businesses.

“This is what Riverhead needs,” said Ms. Dingle, who’s also a poet and social worker. “Poetry Street is where every voice is heard.”

Then she set the rules: Please, please, please cheer for the readers. You can only read original work. Three minutes per person. Let them know when you like something by snapping your fingers.

While the audience cheered before and after each reading, only a couple of snaps were noticeable during the event.

Mr. Milbauer received one of them.

And it was from Mr. Brown.

“I wanna live all day clear and free,” Mr. Milbauer read.

Snap, snap, snap.

“Free from my mind. The same mind that used and abused my phenomenal fear feeling of just walking away.”

The other snap came during Mr. Brown’s performance, which was very thoughtful, inspiring and hilarious.

“If you hear any chatter, it’s just my knees knocking,” Mr. Brown said as he first took the mic.

His poem was about the feelings of a slave in the United States after gaining his freedom.

“This feeling, I think they call it pride.”

Snap, snap, snap.

Then there was the event’s youngest reader, 16-year-old Samantha Kerrigan, who read her poem “Mirrors.” It begins with the word “screaming.” The tale then continues to describe how a baby girl reacts to being born.

Throughout the poem, Samantha tackles themes about hate, low self-esteem and family.

As Samantha continued to tell the girl’s story, the questions arose: How far would the young poet go? How could she write about life and events beyond teenage years, beyond her own experiences?

And yet Samantha’s poem continued — past abusive relationships, past marriage, past having children.

Samantha even ventured into what it feels like to grow old:

“And the doctor comes more often/But she forgets him too/And she looks in the mirror/And she doesn’t smile/Because there’s someone very old looking back/And she doesn’t understand how this could be.”

[Click on the bottom tab to read Samantha’s poem]  

After Samantha read her poem, she received the day’s only standing ovation.

As the crowd erupted into applause, Mr. Brown took the mic.

“Samantha is a truly gifted writer,” he said. “You are a seed that’s going to grow into something tremendous.”

There were other special moments during the poetry event.

Steven Kramer of Riverhead read a poem in three parts, titled “Mustard,” “Martha” and “Wisdom.”

“Mustard does not go bad my grandmother says,” he read. “The French’s mustard advertising the 1996 American Olympic baseball team … I don’t know, gram, it has a little bit of a tang to it.

“It’s fine. Eat your pretzels.”

The second part was a discussion between himself and his grandmother about Martha Stewart being convicted and imprisoned for insider stock trading in 2004.

“My grandmother said, ‘They are only sending her to jail because she’s a woman. Men have done, will do, far worse and they’re never charged.’ To which I responded: All people are equal under the law.

“Gram said, ‘OK, Steven. Eat your hot dogs and beans.’ ”

Mr. Kramer’s poem concluded with how much he cherishes the memory of his grandmother.

“But I will say, my grandmother lives on. Every time I catch Martha making another perfect pie crust. Every time I squeeze mustard onto a hot dog. And every time I’m on my catastrophically high horse. I think I know anything but certainty.”

Another heartfelt moment was when LeRoy Heyliger of Mattituck read a poem by his grandson Justin McKinney, an eighth-grader at Mattituck-Cutchogue Junior-Senior High School.

Mr. Heyliger said that although Justin couldn’t make it to the event, he felt it was important to share his grandson’s poem, “I Am,” written two years ago when he was being bullied at school and dealing with his parents’ divorce.

“This is very important to us with the schoolchildren — with the bullying and the cyber-bullying,” Mr. Heyliger said, noting that events like open mic sessions are opportunities to share feelings. “When I read his poem, I thought, ‘Wow. What a message to his parents and grandparents.’ ”

Each line of Justin’s poem started with “I am …”

“I am a star, waiting to shine…”

“I am a mystery, waiting to be solved…”

“I am the rainbow, diverse and colorful…”

“I am the ostrich, hiding from reality…”

Snap, snap, snap.

gustavsonJennifer Gustavson is Times/Review Newsgroup’s associate editor. She can be reached at 631-354-8033 or [email protected].

Be sure to check out the next Poetry Street event on Friday, July 25, also at Blue Duck. For more information, visit the Poetry Street Facebook group.

Click on the tab below to read Samantha Kerrigan’s poem, “Mirrors.”