ward in 2008
This project began July 28th 2004. Since then we have had a wide variety of readers, from nationally published writers, to local writers, Repo, Alex Caldiero, Paisley Rekdahl, Mike McLane, Jaguar and Bucky Sinister from San Francisco and other readers, who have never been published. We also have had some of the best musicians in town play at Cabaret Voltage, including the members of Tolchoch Trio, The Breaks, Elphante, The members of JW Blackout, Theta Naught, Ken Kritchfield’s Seraphim, Starmy, and Reaper just to name a few.
SLC Literati: The Spoken Word Gets Louder
Chris Leibow and Michael McLane hope to unite Salt Lake’s art and literature scenes
By Pax Rasmussen
It’s late on a Tuesday night. A surprisingly large crowd gathers in the smoky, dimly lit Urban Lounge. Nearly sixty people mill about, chatting at the bar or staking out places to sit on the sofas that cluster in the corners. The band is setting up. Michael McLane leans large, cubist/abstract paintings against the stage. Chris Leibow drags a podium in front of the paintings and checks the microphone. Already one can tell something eclectic and different is about to happen. Leibow taps the microphone, clears his throat, and welcomes the crowd to Cabaret Voltage: a multimedia literary and visual art show.
Salt Lake has a rich literary community; having been home to poets and writers such as Mark Strand and Wallace Stegner (a graduate of East High school), as well as a thriving underground coffee shop slam-poetry (a sort of lyrical, usually rhymed style of competitive poetry) crowd. A strong visual arts scene also has a place here. McLane and Leibow hope to unite these usually disparate communities of literature and art under the banner of Cabaret Voltage, a twice-monthly event featuring poets and writers (many nationally recognized), slam and spoken word poets, visual artists and musicians.
Unity and creativity
Chris Leibow is forty with large ear piercings and the word POEM tattooed across the back of his neck: a sort of gonzo Marxist more likely to quote Bukowski than Eliot. Michael McLane, on the other hand, is in his twenties, goateed, quiet and meditative, a graduate of the University of Utah and hoping to start work on a master’s degree soon. It’s not surprising, then, that their combined efforts (and probably more than a little beer) have given birth to this new and interesting combination of the arts.
Leibow and McLane hope that this project can serve as more than just a place to be seen and heard. They want to provide a venue where artists from different genres can compare notes and strengthen their weaknesses. Some feel that traditional or academic writers lack charisma and performance skills while reading, leaving the audience feeling isolated and uninvolved. Leibow believes Cabaret Voltage could help. “I mean their poetry is good, their fiction is good, but their reading is not that great,” he says. He hopes that getting onstage in front of a bar crowd will help them improve their delivery. The venues they’re used to reading at are very structured; picture a man in tweed suit reading his poetry to a silent audience from behind a podium. This is hugely different than a crowded bar at 10:45 pm. The audience is less likely to applaud in the expected places, or indeed even pay attention. “They aren’t going to listen as attentively as somebody would at say, a library poetry reading,” Leibow laughs. “The reader is going to have to draw them in.” McLane and Leibow plan to set up a separate workshop in conjunction with Cabaret Voltage to help writers improve their performance skills.
Usually, the reverse of this problem applies to slam poetry writers and readers. Witty, high energy slam readings tend to be all about performance, sometimes with less attention paid to the quality of the writing itself. Readers often shout out their heavily rhymed lines, often laced with vulgar, shocking images. “The problem with slam is that subtlety is devalued. The more obnoxious and the more out-there [writing] is more rewarded, so the quality of the writing could be less,” Leibow says. Mixing with the more academic poets may help these performance-based writers write better material.
Musicians and artists as well may find Cabaret Voltage beneficial. Traditionally, the bar scene has relied on bands to draw its crowd, and now the bands may get the benefit of a different audience. The spoken word and writing group will be exposed to the sounds of local bands invited to play at the event. Everybody gets a chance to look at the paintings and photographs displayed by local artists. Everybody wins.
Finding an audience
David, a regular patron of poetry slams, hangs out alone in the back of the bar, listening attentively as Bryan Mehr reads his poetry at the microphone. David’s a fan of Frost and Dickinson, and it was the literary aspect that attracted him tonight. He says that reading classic poetry is great, but it’s “cool to see a writer come out of his room and take the mike.” He found tickets stacked up on a counter at Coffee Break, and being familiar with slam poetry he is “hoping for something out of the ordinary that can open my mind to new possibilities.” He says he thinks the idea behind Cabaret Voltage is great.
The way Leibow and McLane see it, Salt Lake is ripe for this project. “I go to a place like the Gallivan concert series or events like that, and look around and see all these hip alternative liberal people and think, where the hell are you? Where do you live? What do you do?” Leibow says. “Just the success of these concerts shows that there is a community with a hunger for the arts.” McLane and Leibo hope Cabaret Voltage can help fill that hunger.
The literary arts — academic poetry and fiction — may be a strong force in Salt Lake, but McLane and Leibow would like to see them more accessible to the public. While many nationally recognized and influential writers make Salt Lake their home, many people see the whole thing as stuffy and erudite, picturing white haired professors reading long poems full of complicated metaphors. McLane would like to see poetry brought from the ivory tower and into a venue that is less hush-hush, to “make it less strictly University,” as he puts it.
Others agree. Jim Keller, a middle-aged minor celebrity in the world of slam poetry, who has won competitions at Barnes & Noble and Cup of Joe, thinks the idea is great and will work if the university crowd “can let their hair down a little.”
And if the street poets see the academics as stuffy, the academic crowd devalues slam or coffeehouse poetry altogether. Leibow says, “I think a lot of people go to [poetry slams] and say, yeah, there is a lot of crap. You’ve got your sixteen- or seventeen-year-olds reading about their girlfriend who just left them or that the world has no meaning.” Leibow and McLane, though, aren’t so quick to judge. Often at these slam poetry events one can find the best performances: working-class writers with a quick wit and tongue competing for the title of Best Slammer. Cabaret Voltage is designed to bring these two communities together, perhaps to work out their differences and involve a broader base of the populace into their realms. The crowd is here: it’s up to Leibow and McLane to get them working together.
Zara Shallbetter came to Cabaret Voltage with her friends, a group of slam poets and regulars at the Cup of Joe Saturday night slams. She’s both a painter and a poet, so for her it completely makes sense. “It’s all expression and it should come together.” We should concentrate on our similarities, instead of our differences, she says.
Finding a home
Cabaret Voltage has had its share of difficulties, too. Leibow and McLane held the first Cabaret Voltage show at another downtown bar, just down the street from the Gallivan Center. Halfway through the show, people began to flood the bar, concertgoers from one of the Gallivan Center’s free concerts which had just ended. The owner of the bar felt that poetry wasn’t likely to entice the crowd to stay. “All the sudden in the middle of Joel Long’s poem, the owner turns on the juke box real loud,” Leibow says. Naturally, they confronted the owner and he informed them that their performance was finished. Leibow sees this as evidence of the value that many people place on the literary arts, perceiving it as quiet, boring or uninteresting. Luckily, Cabaret Voltage soon found its new home at Urban Lounge. “Michael Sartain [co-owner and manager of Urban Lounge] has been the best,” Leibow laughs, “He’s been completely supportive. He prints tickets for us; he’s always there and helpful with whatever we do.”
Where do we go from here?
Leibow and McLane have produced nine months of twice-monthly shows, and each one seems to draw a bigger crowd. The November 15th show brought over eighty people into the Urban Lounge. But Leibow says, “really the ultimate measure of success is how well it does among the artists in the community, that they’re willing to come out and support it and be a part of it.” Cabaret Voltage has hosted quite a few well known names in Salt Lake City — Paisley Rekdal, Andy Hoffman and Melissa Bond to name a few — as well as celebrities in the slam poetry arena, such as Jean Howard and Kildem Soto. Leibow and McLane are waiting for the day they’ll need an assistant to book all these performers who want to participate.
Although that day seems a long way off, Leibow already has a few ideas for what to do when it arrives. He’d like to see the emergence of a Cabaret Voltage troupe, a group of readers and a band that forms a core for the project. Since it is a twice-monthly show, Leibow would like to bring in new performers for one show, and then “maybe get a little bit weirder on troupe nights,” he grins. Having a group that works together and gets used to each other will provide the opportunity to develop the show and work on new and experimental ideas, Leibow hopes. In this sense, it is a little closer to traditional cabaret.
Wherever Cabaret Voltage may go in the future, it is something unlikely to disappear from Salt Lake City. Jim Keller is excited for the possibilities. “The vibe feels right here,” he says, adjusting his silver ponytail. “All of this is going to mutate and come together.” Into what, he doesn’t know, but with Leibow and McLane behind it, it’s sure to be something unusual.