Rod Hill is a Milan city councilman, an aspiring novelist, and environmental guru. But his true passion surfaces when he hosts a weekly “poetry roundtable” in the back of Milan’s Lighthouse Café. Now entering its fifth year, Hill’s Tuesday night poetry open mic is reminiscent of the beatnik era — minus the beret.
Despite the cafe’s handmade cardboard signs and old-fashioned desserts that scream small- town dive rather than poetry venue, Hill’s laid back oratorical manner attracts an assortment of poets ranging from professional to novice. The open forum allows for a variety of genres and Hill’s own poems, uniquely charged with history and politics, fuel discussions on poetry among other things. Whether the night leads to Keats, Browning, or other, Hill is dedicated to sharing poetry with the population at large, and will gladly discuss any topic in a voice sprinkled with the infection of a true a poet.
Q: Where did poetry open mic night begin?
A: Linda Neckle White and her daughter actually founded this in the beginning. I joined a little less than a year after they started.
Q: Why did you decide to continue when she left?
A: I love poetry. Listening to poets writing and extemporizing on their poetry has gotten me to do it myself. My favorite part though, is seeing people who get excited about poetry, coming and sharing for the first time. The second part is hearing the sound of my own voice… obviously.
Q: Why the lighthouse?
A: It’s the only coffee shop in town first of all. In spite of the fact that the acoustics are wretched and it’s not enclosed or sequestered in any way, it’s what we have. There is also a considerable element of tradition to it. I’m not sure if we moved we would be able to call ourselves the same thing and lay the same claim. But I submit that it is mostly inertia.
Q: What is your goal for Tuesday night poetry?
A: The ultimate goal would be to make the public reading of poetry not only acceptable, but a desirable thing to the community as a whole. The act of being in a place reading and hearing poetry being read publicly is a goal achieved; it’s a satisfaction in itself.
Q: So what do you think people have to gain, sharing their poetry?
A: Linda [the founder] had a motto that “poetry saves lives.” I can definitely attest that the writing and composition of ones thoughts in the form of poetry has a wonderful therapeutic effect on folks.
Q: About how many people come on Tuesdays?
A: I actually keep a roll, about five, but we could use more—more audience. Frankly to some degree this place aspires to more than it has the acoustics and the architecture to support.
Q: Who shows up?
A: We have had visiting poets here that were anywhere from 75 to 8 years old. I would say we’ve had farmers, truck drivers, stoners, housewives, librarians, English teachers, artists and engineers, all have been welcomed.
Q: Who was the most surprising person to show up?
A: The most surprising to show up was a group of third graders in speech therapy. Most of them had at least two pieces, they read and we went around the table a few times. It wasn’t until after they had left that the woman with them explained that she was a speech pathologist and thought that this would be a good opportunity to help these kids start speaking in public. I pretty much lost control of myself; I was so excited about the thought. They had done a wonderful job. These kids had stood up and brought everything they had with them to the poetry they read and had written themselves. That was easily, easily, hands down, the most sublime and wonderful experience that I have had [at open mic night].
Q: What kind of poems do people share?
A: It varies a lot, some people write romantically, or reminiscence about their childhood. My poetry is more oratorical. We have had poets that write dark material, like Goth, and some write sensually or rhythmic in nature.
Q: Do people have to read their own poems?
A: No. The first poem I read when I came here was an old poem, not mine, and I read it just because I love to hear it spoken. It was welcome, it was accepted, and I just kept coming back until I got a binder full of my own work.
Q: You are a city council member, do you think poetry can affect politics?
A: I think poetry gives voice to protest as an art form. It enables people to focus outrage at injustice and encourages people to express themselves in voices they otherwise might not have.
Q: Have you been published?
A: Well, a web anthology is a publishing after all. I’m published in The Frost Foundation’s anthology called “Frost Notes”
Q: What moment are you most proud of, as a poet?
A: Having not myself, but my two kids read and perform at a venue in Ann Arbor. It is easily the most important feature of all of these experiences. Seeing them learn to develop their voice was very powerful.
Q: How long do you plan on continuing Tuesday night poetry?
A: I’ll come as often as I can. I’ll come every night if I have to. I have the butt for this kind of work. Every week I will be here in the expectation that it is going to be as wonderful as it can be, and come back next week to look for the same thing- or better, always the best. I certainly have the will power.