Sticks and stones may break bones, but words have the power to hurt, educate, or inspire, according to the founders of Wordsmithing Wednesdays, held each month at Steam Café.
Launched in January of this year by Steam Café owner Christine Coaker and Jersey City writer Lana Rose Diaz, Wordsmithing Wednesdays has quickly become a nexus for writers, poets, singer/songwriters, and other artists from across the city who come out the last Wednesday of each month to share their work and support the works of others.
The spiritual opposite of a traditional poetry slam – which encourages competition among writers who “battle” one another on the mic – Wordsmithing Wednesdays is Jersey City’s very own Nuyorican Poets Café.
Partly an open mic opportunity for writers to share completed written work with new audiences, partly an incubator for works in progress, and partly a showcase for established writers, Wordsmithing Wednesdays regularly attracts a standing room only crowd at Steam, located at 276 Newark Ave.
To add a little flavor to the typical open mic recipe, each event includes a feature that Diaz calls “wordsmithing,” where audience members are encouraged to write and then share pieces on the spot. To get the wordsmithing going, Diaz will give the audience a little inspiration. In June, she took quotes lifted from Jersey City singer-songwriter Timothy Ruiz’s Facebook page. Last month, she used newspaper clippings from the recent George Zimmerman trial. Earlier this year each table in the café had a cup full of bits of paper with words beginning with the letter “B” and the audience had to try to write something using the words in the cut at their table.
The only real requirement during Wordsmithing Wednesdays is that writers be willing to share original written work. The work can be an excerpt from a work of fiction, a screenplay, nonfiction, a song, poetry, a monologue, or anything similar. Diaz said a number of storytellers have come out to share their work.
‘Without Wordsmithing Wednesday, and specifically at Steam Café, it would be impossible to be who I am in this city.’ – Kevon Simpson
“Ever since we got started, Wordsmithing has been total kismet,” said Diaz. “There are people who connect at this thing who I can’t believe don’t already know each other. I’m talking about people who live in Jersey City, who are performing [regularly], who are involved in the arts culture here, but did not meet until coming out to a Wordsmithing event. In Jersey City, and maybe in Hudson County in general, there all these little cultural nooks and people don’t come out of their nooks very often. But for Wordsmithing Wednesdays, people come out. People have met there and have gone on to collaborate on artistic projects, or have gone on to become friends. That’s really what the whole night is about.”
When you’re here, you’re like family
Diaz, a former Reporter staff writer and poet who had previously produced two open mic series in Pennsylvania, met Steam owner Coaker over breakfast – literally, not metaphorically.
“I was a customer. I was in there for the breakfast sandwiches,” Diaz said, recalling how she and Coaker cooked up what would eventually become Wordsmithing Wednesdays. “She said she wanted to have poetry series in Steam, but needed someone host it.”
“I was looking for someone who really understood my vision for the poetry series and someone who understood my vision for Steam Café,” said Coaker, who opened Steam in August 2011. “Finding the right person to host this was like finding the right space [for the café], or like finding the right staff. It really took a while.”
Coaker has cultivated a family-oriented environment at Steam where, not only are families welcome – the local Jersey City mom’s group meets there regularly – but also where there is little distinction between her friends and her customers and her staff. They are all part of “one big extended family,” she said.
This vibe has extended to Wordsmithing Wednesdays where newcomers are as welcomed as participants where were there from the beginning.
On any given night more than a dozen writers will get up and share their work. Since the series began in January, more than 100 individual writers have flowed through Wordsmithing Wednesdays at one time or another. Writers often use Wordsmithing events as a place where they can take specific projects to an other level.
For example, in June, when Bentley performed her work “Hell in a Handbasket,” it was the first time she had performed the lengthy piece completely memorized. Monchek is trying to build an audience for a book project that is being released later this year.
Several writers have read their work publicly for the first time at Wordsmithing Wednesdays.
“The environment encourages people who might not feel comfortable doing that in other venues,” said Diaz.
Poet/performance artist Kevon Simpson said that when he moved to Jersey City from New York, he felt “very alone and ostracized, artistically. I remember going over to my first Wordsmithing event in February. I was completely blown away by the level of welcoming energy that was in the space and that came from the artists who got up to perform.”
Since then, Simpson has teamed up – on separate projects – with Monchek and a writer who just goes by the name Tarzan. “Without Wordsmithing Wednesday, and specifically at Steam Café, it would be impossible to be who I am in this city,” he said.
The next Wordsmithing Wednesdays will take place on Aug. 28. Sign up for the open mic begins at 7 p.m., with reading starting at 8 and continuing until 10 or 10:30 p.m. There is no fee to attend. Audience members need only bring a pen.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.