NJ’s ‘poetry renaissance’ is happening in bars, boutiques and smoke shops

"I remember just sitting in this back bedroom doing nothing but writing poems. Something switched in me, man. I just felt like I had to mend myself."

For myriad reasons—evolving reader habits, publishing standards changing, the decline of literary mags—poetry, and related readings and events, is in decline (in the mainstream, at least). But with New Jersey’s rich history of poets—Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka and many others—you’d think that poetry, and more specifically live readings, would still have a home here; that it’d be a place poetry would thrive.

Perhaps poetry’s popularity has been suffering due to a branding problem. When thinking of poetry readings, the average person might imagine a stuffy room full of academics melodramatically basking in the prose of esteemed poets (a lot of turtlenecks and ironic eyeglasses, for sure). Others, conversely, may envision the starkly different environment that is a poetry slam; which, for better or worse, is by nature a bit more theatrical, intense and competitive. 

But the broader question might be the better one: Is poetry accessible today? Will the average person, searching for a release on, say, a random weeknight, travel out of their way to attend a reading/slam? While events that promote inclusion and growth like open mics for music and comedy are now prevalent, does poetry have a similar environment? Is there an audience that can support poetry’s reemergence to the level of prominence in popular culture it held a century ago?

A few months ago, NJ Indy started getting tagged in a bunch of poetry events on social media. The show flyers described readings featuring multiple poets followed by open mic segments, and they were held at a variety of venues in Monmouth County, including bars, boutiques and smoke shops. Some of the events were given titles or details that promoted an unassuming, new-Bohemian tone and all came with a tag that piqued our interest: “NJ Poetry Renaissance.”    

I finally attended one of these shows, “Poems & Punchlines,” in early August at Nip N Tuck Bar in Long Branch. The program featured sets from both poets and comedians and was followed by an open mic that saw more than a handful of people share their material. 

The Jersey sense of humor, laden with self-deprecation and pleasant irreverence, was on full display this night. Everyone who touched the mic, regardless of how polished their act/writing was, was indeed funny. Performers waded into social commentary, and typically followed these heavier issues with timely comedic relief. The interplay of comedy and poetry worked well, and the crowd was engaged and supportive, particularly for a Monday night in the summer. We couldn’t help but feel privileged to be drinking on a bar patio (less than a five-minute drive from the beach), enjoying a free show and not having to suffer through yet another shitty yacht/dad-rock cover band.

After the show, I introduced myself to the supremely gracious co-host, Damian Rucci, who just so happened to be the same guy who was tagging us in all of the Instagram posts. Rucci, a Monmouth County native, is one of the integral members of the aforementioned “NJ Poetry Renaissance” and an outspoken advocate for showcasing poetry to the working class. In our conversation, we discussed the renaissance at length with Rucci, as well as his personal story and the future of accessible poetry in the Garden State.

In your words, what is the NJ poetry renaissance?

Really, I say it’s not a thing or a group; it’s a moment in time. So it’s like a time period. So what I’m saying is when we started throwing around that word, like nine months ago, it was the fact we’re coming back from the pandemic, but this time there’s a concentrated effort, an all-hands-on-deck effort, to bring poetry to the youth and to the working class, as opposed to where it’s kind of been fitting into obscurity with academia, with this contemporary, quiet, uh, upper-class ethos stuff. It is just like, bring it back to the people, poetry for the beggar and the king and everybody else in between. And let’s actually concentrate on doing what we’re about.

What brought it on?

I think culture has changed. For years I had bounced around the country doing poetry readings all over the place. I was at a residency before the pandemic and between 2016 and ’18, it was like this [what the current scene is like], but on training wheels. I had a show in Keyport called “Poetry in the Port”; Cord Moreski had a show in Asbury Park. There were several others, and we had this cool thing going on. But, we thought that was the peak of it. Then I went to Missouri and the shows closed down piece by piece with the pandemic. So I think what happened was that we’re really doing the same thing we were before, it’s just that culture has shifted in the last several years where now young people especially are thinking, “Hey, poetry’s not this cringey word. Let me go see what’s going down. There’s something going down over there.”

While it may be happening statewide, where do you think the heart of it is?

Definitely Monmouth County. So right now, just myself, I operate seven shows between Matawan and Long Branch. And then Cord Moreski, he hosts a show called “Coffee and Words” in Asbury Park, right on the boardwalk. It’s a banger. Then North Jersey has signed on; there’s a lot of great stuff going on in Newark with Ras Heru and others. But, yeah, definitely between Matawan and Red Bank, and then down along the Shore is really where it’s been sparked. 

You mentioned you run seven shows, can you describe those a bit?

Well, back in the day I had “Poetry in the Port” originally in Keyport, but we moved it to Matawan at Brew on Main St., and that’s a biweekly event. It’s the first and third week of the month; most of my events are like that. Every Monday, we’re over at Nip N Tuck [Long Branch]: I have my show on the first and third week called “Bards off Broadway,” and then you were at the other show “Poems & Punchlines,” which was an experiment that me and Angelo Gingerelli [a comedian] threw together. We wanted to see if we could do a mixed show of two poets and two comedians as features; see if we could blend the worlds together, you know? It seems to be going just fine and everybody’s feeding off of each other in a good way, and it’s been an interesting thing.

Then I’ve got “Puff, Puff Poems” at the Scarlet Reserve Room in Red Bank. That’s like a weed smoking lounge of sorts [smokers with a medical marijuana card can enjoy their own products at the space, there are also cigars and CBD products available]. I guess I was one of the first poets to have a show at an official weed smoking lounge; so that’s kinda cool. Oh, and for the non-smokers, they have a ventilation system so they don’t get obliterated.

It’s pretty interesting because sometimes you’ll be doing your poem and, you know, it’s a killer, right? Well, you hit the notes and there’s no reaction for five seconds and you look up and everyone’s just kind of melted into the chairs. I do a once-a-month show, it’s actually one of my biggest at My Way Cafe in Long Branch; that’s called “Poemocalypse Now.”

I just started another new show, which should be the second and fourth week of the month on Thursdays. We’re still working it out now but it’s called “Streetlight Poetica,” and it’s at the Keyport Funhouse. There’s also Coffee and Words, Cord’s show, which is, I believe, the first and third Sunday of the month. The whole group goes down there, I’m usually at most of them, you know? It’s like our scenic departure. 

What got you into poetry? How long have you been doing it for?

So I’ve always written but, in 2015, I was, you know, doing good I guess for somebody at my age. I was 21, 22 at the time. I had an apartment, I was an apprentice butcher. I was writing at night and just being 21, you know? Then one day I was riding my bike to work and this woman blew a red light and smoked me on my bicycle. So I broke my legs, cracked my head open. It was all dramatic. It was crazy, I almost died. And then, I lost my apartment, I lost my job and I lost everything pretty much. I had to move back home to my grandma’s… back to the trailer park where I grew up. I was a lot bigger back then and they were like, “You’re gonna be out of commission for years.” 

I remember just sitting in this back bedroom doing nothing but writing poems. Something switched in me, man. I just felt like I had to mend myself. So, with this pure, young anger I just taught myself how to walk again without physical therapy. And all the while I kept writing poems. I put out my first chapbook and then I started my first poetry series four months after my accident—had no idea what I was doing. My mentality was like, “I’m gonna do what I want to do now. I’m not gonna be a careerist and think in a certain way.” I started my first show and that was it. From that point on, my life’s been one in accordance with Bohemian standards. And my show started with, like, four people and eventually grew to the biggest series in New Jersey before I left for Missouri. 

Poets that you really enjoy or inspire you?

Well, of course as a young dude I discovered the beat generation. Ginsberg and Kerouac, of course. But I stumbled into this guy, Charles Joseph, who, over time, actually became this mentor figure to all the people who are currently running the scenes. He’s just this older guy who had been a poet his whole life and he didn’t know much about the internet and then one day he popped on. He’s in his 40s, I think, and he met us and that kind of intensified everything because he really taught me and others what the poem is… like the idea of it. So, besides like, you know, William Carlos Williams, Amiri Baraka and folks like that, there was Charles…an NJ guy that’s kind of really helped us go on.

Poets in the scene that you respect and want to shout out?

Well, Charles Joseph and then Ras Heru, Cord Moreski, Rebecca Weber. There are others I’m forgetting right now, unfortunately.

In another year, in a perfect world, what does the poetry scene look like in Jersey?

By next year, what I would assume is that we’re gonna see—not assume, this is gonna happen—poetry will be seen as a more contemporary art form. It’s not gonna be bizarre to see poets on comedy bills, and it’s not gonna be bizarre to see poets on punk bills. I’ve been doing that stuff for a while and even this past year, I’ve done it a lot more. What I’ve learned is, it’s just about exposure. So, these people, they think of poetry as this archaic, esoteric thing that they were taught about in school, but it’s not. It can be of the working man and the working moment and it can be about anything. So that exposure to other audiences is what’s occurring now, and that’s what will lead to—in a perfect world—poets being less obscure/bizarre figures; normalizing poetry. You know, if you’re hanging out and you see three bands on a bill and one poet you’re like, “What?!” It may seem bizarre, but I think by 2023 it’s gonna be much more common in New Jersey.

How about in five years or even more long-term?

So, where we are in New Jersey, the biggest bridge we had to cross was connecting with North Jersey. It’s been a long, storied history in North Jersey [with poetry]. I know some people up there and through conversations and phone calls and talking, we began to do an exchange of talent. Guys up north will call me and say, “Hey man, think about booking these people.” And then I’ll do the same thing. So that divide has already been bridged and now there’s other spots in New Jersey that are a bit farther away for us, you know? People don’t realize that [Jersey’s more remote locations] when they think of New Jersey. All people recognize is the Shore and the Parkway, right? Well, that’s just a fraction of the state. West Jersey is an area that has just started to be touched by the poetry scene. It’s not like we’re necessarily bringing poetry there, but it’s like a Promethean journey for us. We show up and we don’t look like poets, but we’re the poets of this time period. We’re not harkening back to a certain day, we’re here now. So when we show up and we show ’em what it could be, how it can be on the page and in performance, how it can be entertaining as well as art. It has an effect, I think. 

In West Jersey, we just had someone in our group, this dude, Spencer; he just started an open mic out in Flemington. Then, down in South Jersey there’s one show in Tuckerton and that’s run by Chris Rockwell. And then there’s another show started somewhere in that general area by Kendall Bell. We’re trying to bridge that southern divide now, too. South Jersey is like a foreign planet to a lot of people, you know, once you get past Seaside. 

Anything else you’d like to mention about the scene or your events in particular?

Just that we’re all inclusive, you know? Everyone is welcome. The only thing that gets you kicked out of an event is if you’re being racist or homophobic or whatever. I’ll let you even come in and speak your peace if you don’t like me, or somebody else on the show… get up on the mic, you got five minutes, go for it. Don’t be offensive to groups, I think that goes without saying in Jersey but, yeah, other than that, we let the madness kind of fly. Cause I think of each night— as long as nobody’s getting hurt, and everyone’s having a good time—I kind of let it spin on its own. I’ll let the crazy happen, I’ll let the fun happen, cause that’s where these great moments come from. Our only rules are those. Oh, and don’t break my equipment. 

Keep an eye out for “Voices in the Garden,” a PBS program documenting the New Jersey Poetry Renaissance

Follow Damian Rucci on Instagram.