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Poets Flock to Phoenix Books’ Online Open Mics

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Bianca Amira Zanella - COURTESY OF BIANCA AMIRA ZANELLA
  • Courtesy Of Bianca Amira Zanella
  • Bianca Amira Zanella

Bianca Amira Zanella was nothing short of exuberant as she welcomed Zoom participants to Phoenix Books' monthly poetry open mic in late January. In a warm, room-filling voice that defied the distorting qualities of video-call audio, she encouraged listeners to unmute themselves and "hoot and holler" for the reading poets. She wrapped up her introduction in classic emcee style: "Are we ready to hear some poetry on this full moon?"

As the poet-in-residence at Phoenix Books Rutland, Zanella has been hosting poetry events for the store since 2017. The pandemic, of course, changed the game. But Zanella said the transition to virtual events, which she's hosted monthly since April 2020, has had surprising upsides.

The crowd at the recent reading was one example. Some 20 people shared their writing, joining from Vermont, Connecticut, Colorado and even the United Kingdom. One reader said she'd stayed up until 1 a.m. in England to join the open mic. Two others said they were using these months of virtual gathering as an opportunity to attend readings based in as many states as they could. (Phoenix's events, like many others, are listed on Eventbrite online, making them easily searchable.)

The readings that night included experiments in haiku, another Japanese form called renga and stream-of-consciousness free verse. Several readers read work that related to the previous day's observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

"It has been a revelation to be able to have such a variety of voices from all around the world," Zanella said in an interview. "It challenges us to listen differently and to get out of our own regular structures."

Zanella, 27, has worked at Phoenix in Rutland since it opened in 2015; she's now part time. (The local chain also has stores in Burlington and Essex.) The role of "poet-in-residence" evolved naturally, she said, as she was always recommending poetry books to coworkers and customers. She called the bookstore "such a lovely environment, and everyone there is so supportive."

Originally from New Hampshire, Zanella moved to Vermont to attend Green Mountain College. She'd been interested in poetry since childhood and discovered free verse and spoken-word poetry in high school. At a workshop with prominent spoken-word poets Sarah Kay and Phil Kaye, she watched the two perform a duet poem, playing off each other's lines.

"I was like, Yes, this is the community spirit that I like. This is what I want to grow into," Zanella said. "Ever since then, I have [dived] into spoken word and tried to create a community to mimic that same energy I felt that day."

Pre-pandemic, that meant Zanella brought homemade baked goods to the bookstore and moved the shelves in the back so a handful of participants could sit in a circle and read, with no mic or stage lights necessary. Now, she might do a little dance in her seat when a line strikes her, or unmute herself at the end of the reader's time and utter a millennial "Yaaass." The word "gorgeous" is a key part of her vocabulary, where others might say, "OK" or "great."

Zanella said she's intentional about encouraging other poets.

"It's something that I learned as a student, and I'm someone who is continually trying to learn and educate myself about being that warm and welcoming person," Zanella said. "[I think,] How have I felt encouraged and supported? I'm trying to create that same atmosphere for the community that I create."

At the most recent reading, the chat box lit up with poets complimenting one another, repeating lines they liked and sharing their contact information.

In early 2020, Zanella launched another project aimed at spreading poetry: the Paper Poet. At her day job as an advocate for domestic and sexual violence survivors, she's learned the healing power of creative expression, she said. As the Paper Poet, she gives workshops and writes poetry to order: "healing poetic experiences for people who are experiencing any type of suffering."

On Valentine's Day, she'll host a virtual event in which participants will read letters and love poems and write love letters to their past, present and future selves.

Zanella loves that the increasingly virtual nature of the world has allowed her to connect with people in a wide geographic radius. But all that screen time has a downside, too.

"In an attempt to maintain balance as we have transitioned to more and more technology overwhelming our lives, I have been trying to also maintain a written practice," she said. She's been writing letters and postcards; on the Paper Poet website, people can order a custom, handwritten poem.

"It's been really beautiful to brainstorm and share work with people from different communities and around the world," Zanella said. m

Phoenix Books Virtual Poetry Open Mic, Thursday, February 25, 7 p.m.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Virtual Verse | Poets flock — sometimes from abroad — to Phoenix Books' online open mics"