When it comes to the arts in Three Village, there's a time and a place for everything.
Folk music, for example, finds itself at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook for a day during the Woodlands Folk Festival. Music and theatrical arts have a permanent home at the Staller Center. Visual artists whose work spans all media find a home in regular shows at Gallery North and Long Island Museum. And now, spoken word art has a new home here as well.
"The Muse Exchange" is an open-mic poetry series that landed at Velvet Lounge in January. Happening every other Thursday night, sign-up starts at 7 p.m. and the words start flowing at 8. In between two rounds of five-minute spoken word slots, one featured poet gets a chance to share at length. Writers from all over Long Island convene to share their latest works, and visual artists are given a chance to display their artwork too.
But for some of those writers, The Muse Exchange is much more than an artistic opportunity: it's a reunion of poets and writers who first met each other about a decade ago at a place called Munchaba Lounge in Levittown. For four years, Munchaba Lounge was home to a weekly open mic series called "Carnival of the Arts," where spoken word artists and writers came together with comedians, musicians, and visual artists to bare their creative souls.
"Everybody wants this. Everybody wants something to be a part of," said The Muse Exchange's creator, a poet who simply goes by the name Clarity. "It’s like an instant family, and that’s exactly what happened at Munchaba."
The Muse Exchange in its current form began over the summer in 2012 as a small gathering of artists in the backyard of Clarity's home in Babylon. After three sessions, he said, it was clear there was a demand for something larger – a natural progression to a more public place.
Fast forward to January of 2013, when close to 100 people attended the first Muse Exchange at Velvet Lounge. Not only did they turn out for the poetry and visual art on display, but they stayed long after DJ Kaution took over to spin the evening's soundtrack late into the night.
The role of the venue itself cannot be understated.
"You can’t just do this in a bar," Clarity said. "The Velvet Lounge feels like home, and feels like Munchaba Lounge, because they run this place with heart and with art. It’s kind of a perfect fit and it is that old energy, man. That old energy, it’s here."
Mike Ogara, who has been managing the Velvet Lounge for close to seven years, said when Clarity approached him about doing the open mic series there, it was a no-brainer "yes" for him. The Muse Exchange occupies a time of day not normally busy at the lounge, between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. Ogara said he is happy with the turnout so far.
"When [Clarity] came to me with the idea, it wasn’t really taking a chance. I knew he’d do a good job with it right off the bat," he said. "[The time slot] was really just ready for him to use."
A Munchaba-era poet from Babylon who goes by the name MC2 called the spoken-word-and-visual-art open forum event "a super big deal."
"Doing this in general is a big deal, for people to just have the capacity to go up on stage and kind of say whatever they want," he said. "And it’s interesting. There are people up there saying crazy, wild things. You don’t come across that every day on Long Island."
A newcomer who goes by the name Bad Stanza said he had never read his poetry in public prior to The Muse Exchange's initial Jan. 10 launch.
"I've been writing for years and I just never did anything with it," he said. "When he introduced me, [Clarity] gave me such full support and endorsement without ever even having heard me. That just gave me the energy I needed. I came up here, I rocked it, I did my thing, and everyone has been giving me props since. ... Getting this many creative minds together in one place is an absolutely beautiful thing."
Taryn Estrada, the original creator of Carnival of the Arts, expressed excitement that the idea has been revived years later. Estrada, who opened Munchaba Lounge shortly after graduating college with a degree in performance arts, said she craved a community in which creative souls could converge. In an email to Patch, Estrada wrote:
Performing was my passion. The closest thing I could see that I could come to that in opening the lounge was with the open mic night. I wanted poets, actors, comedians, and all types of artist besides just the musicians to come down and perform. I wanted to use that stage to create magic, just as I had seen it happen in college and in small stages around New York in my brief stint as a starving artist. ... I went from being literally laughed at for trying to bring poetry to [Levittown], a town that had just closed its only bookstore across the street from the lounge a few months earlier, to having created a family of artists who took my idea and nurtured it into a fully functioning, successful night, and ultimately a movement that is still alive today in the artists who were all touched by it one way or another.
In one of her poems, Julie Kazdon, another Munchaba-era soul, coined a phrase that may very well unite all who come here: "Write some sense out of life." Kazdon called The Muse Exchange "a contest of immortality."
"One of us, 100 years from now, will emerge a Robert Frost," she said.
But to quote Frost, though, "Nothing gold can stay." It's likely too soon to predict absolute longevity for The Muse Exchange – only time will tell – but at least on the topic of Munchaba Lounge, it did come to an end. Estrada declined to discuss the reasons it eventually closed. "I've found the rumors to be much more interesting than the truth," she said.
"It was not always easy but it was worth all that went into it, for everyone."
A decade after Carnival of the Arts was first founded, poets are reading from cellphones and tablets, though some have not given up the tradition and eloquence of handwritten words in leather-bound books.
Among the talent that emerged from the Munchaba days was D LIVE, a spoken word troupe which grew into the hip hop group Conceptual Elements, consisting of Clarity and friends KJW, Wildigg, Kota and Alex Argot. Alex Argot went on to create the glitch hop group Argotec, which has performed at Velvet Lounge and other venues. Another successful product is Brian Omni Dillon, who coached the NYU Slam Team to its first and only collegiate national championship, published the novel Eat The Rich in 2012, and is writer-in-residence at the Nuyorican Poet's Café. Yet another well-known Munchaba product is comedian Evan Wecksell, who has toured in 42 states, produced a musical, developed a sitcom pilot, and has appeared on VH1, America's Got Talent and Sirius XM radio.
Alan Semerdjian, an educator, musician and author of the poetry collection In the Architectures of Bones, got the chance to work out a lot of his material on the Munchaba stage.
"I was really attracted to Munchaba’s energy in terms of how it was very egalitarian and interdisciplinary," Semerdjian said, adding that he was involved in a similar but short-lived series at the Walt Whitman Birthplace. "Frankly, I searched around for other places that were doing that and I really didn’t find anything until Munchaba."
Though he has yet to visit The Muse Exchange, Semerdjian said "there’s definitely been a big buzz about it."
The Muse Exchange is open to everybody – 21 and over, at least. The Velvet Lounge is a bar, after all, and it has to make money. But it is open to anyone who's got something to say, whether it's a love poem or a not-in-love poem, short stories or lyrical prose, a rant or even an a capela song about gun control.
"I want this to be the home base for people to come and explore and network and meet new people and work on creative projects," Clarity said.
"This is a home for everybody."
Check out The Muse Exchange this Thursday, March 7, and every other Thursday thereafter. Writers can sign up to read starting at 7 p.m.; readings begin at 8 p.m.
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