Volunteer Tim Explores the Southern Maryland Writing Scene.

As a fairly new resident of Southern Maryland (Calvert, Charles, and St. Mary’s counties), I have found myself playing detective in search of local writers’ groups and events. My new habitat, while humming with familiarity, pits a suburb in its infancy against a rural expanse. Families that worked tobacco plantations for hundreds of years live simply in the midst of the naval base’s military presence and the contractors, retail shops, and restaurants that come with it. Mix in young professionals, St. Mary’s College of Maryland grads, and salty dog retirees, and you’ve got yourself a retro Civil War atmosphere lacking in nostalgia. Coupled with the general flatness of the peninsula and sandy shores never too far off, I call it the Florida of Maryland.

And oh, boy, can it ever be lonely! Normal people go to the office and make friends there, following each other to happy hours while writers stew at their makeshift desks, wondering what they are doing with their lives and if anyone else shares their tribulations. Loved ones provide some comfort, but it is a different sort of bond than those forged over the shared calling to write.

So what does a writer do for writerly support save relocate to a big city or an artsy, hipster town? First, Google is your friend, but as I have discovered, the Internet is only a supplement and no replacement for the real world. My local college’s calendar shows a few readings I am excited to attend, for instance, but I have not had success finding local writers’ groups online. Second, then, is to keep your eyes peeled and pointed in the right direction. My local library sports a huge wall of flyers, and while I’m uninterested in all but one of them, that’s the one that makes the difference… Apparently the Maryland Writers’ Association is starting a local chapter with an inaugural meeting coming up; count me in! And flyers at your favorite cafes are not just receptacles for chewing gum… A poetry open mic? In Southern Maryland?! Sounds too good to be true…

My girlfriend and I arrived at the calvART Gallery in Prince Frederick last Friday three margaritas deep thanks to a nearby Salvadoran restaurant and the anxiety-inducing notion that I would participate in my first open mic. calvART is a cozy but well-adorned cooperative gallery located in a strip mall. The Gallery provided a generous helping of Calvert County food and drink from Dream Weaver Cafe (next door), Running Hare Vineyard (also Prince Frederick), and Ruddy Duck beer (twenty miles south in Dowell).

As I chatted with featured poet and local journalist Carol Harvat, the poem I had haphazardly printed and folded earlier that afternoon burned a hole in my pocket hotter than cash ever could. The atmosphere was perfect: a small crowd, completely sated and pleasantly tipsy, an approachable and humble featured poet, the security of a loved one by my side, and a medium-length poem of which I was proud enough. Look out, Southern Maryland!

Carol Harvat at calvART Gallery (photo by Rachel Burnside)Once the hosts were sure that no more than the fifteen people present would be attending, the stage was yielded to Carol. She read a lengthy selection of food poems from her as-yet-unpublished collection “Recipes for Life,” which combines the poems with recipes. While most of the poems offered light, enjoyable descriptions of dishes and cooking procedures, the best pushed boundaries and elicited thought and laughter through metaphor, namely by comparing qualities and choices of food to life and men.

The moment of truth arrived. Carol finished and took her seat, and I, the only person on the open mic sign-up sheet, sauntered to the front of the room and unfolded my poem. The white gallery lights intensified, extracting a concentrated sweat from my forehead, but choking never crossed my mind. An epiphany dawned on me as I began to recite my poem: a stranger’s critique could never hurt my whole being. Only poet-Tim performed there on stage, a character that, while intertwined with the depths of my existence, does not equal my existence. In front of a handful of strangers and my girlfriend, who stealthily recorded the event on her iPhone, I was the confident poet who had written the poem. I became the speaker of the poem, merely a conduit through which the printed words transformed into sounds.

With this new experience, open mics are no longer a spectator event for me, and I have a few new local writer acquaintances. I will never hesitate again to perform at an open mic, no matter the crowd, location, or level of inebriation because the poem and poet are the ones who do all the work and face all the criticism, not the whole person. Whether or not you have easy access to small theaters and independent coffee shops, there are sure to be writers scattered throughout your area, looking for that shared connection and outlet that writing itself can only mostly satisfy. With a little luck and a discerning eye, like a wandering insect you, too, will find the gathering at the porch light where you can buzz to your heart’s content.