BUSAN, South Korea — It was late 2006 when I first met Kenneth May, whom most of us know simply as K. There was talk of his Poetry Plus open mic sessions, which were touted as a must for Busan-based creative types. I had been attending open mic at Ol’55, but people said K’s event was differentâthe kind of thing you just had to see for yourself. And so I made my way underground into Monk bar to see what all the hype was about.
Just as K took the stage, I found a seat in the packed room and asked an acquaintance sitting nearby where the sign up sheet was. He pointed to the stage, leaned over and whispered to me, Talk to that guy, then put his fingers to his lips to shush me.
As K began to read his Letters to Paris series, I felt entranced by the rhythm and modulation of his voice. Anyone who has ever heard K readâhas ever had a conversation with himâcan tell that he doesn’t just put thought into what he says, but also how he says it. It is so very clear how deeply this man respects words. And it was with this same level of respectâin that same, slow, crisp style of delivery that K recently shared his story with me recently over a beer.
Tell us about your own writing journey.
I started writing because I was trying to finish my undergraduate degree. At that time, I was between several majors. I had to either pay rent and delay school or I had this idea that I would buy a car and live in my car so I could afford school. I had three jobs and classes… but because I was always in motion, I wound up having all of this dead timeâtime alone. That was the beginning of my writing. Eventually, I cobbled together all my pieces and decided I’d take a creative writing class for an easy credit because I had all this material already. Little did I know it would snowball into what became my undergraduate pursuit and my masters degree.
How did Poetry Plus get started?
In the States, I had organized events like this, readings with my friends; they were collaborative events. When I came to Busan, it was new territory, new ground. I had a community, but not an arts community. We started Poetry Plus in 2000 and at first it was a very literary sceneâalmost reverential. As it grew and became more popular, it became more plus: we started with 42 people at the first Poetry Plus and eventually we were getting 150 to 170. People were coming from all around Korea to perform because it was the only event of its kind. I guess you can say it was a cross between Laugh-In, an actual reading and the Gong Show.
Poetry Plus certainly made its mark, particularly on the Kyungsung area.
When I think about Poetry Plus’s legacy, one thing it did was really solidify the foreign community. We would go to the Monk and we would just destroy their liquor stock. Wipe it outâevery beer sold, every bottle empty. Other bars adjacent to it would call and complain about the foot traffic and the noise. It wasn’t really that noisy. What they were really complaining about was the amount of business that was going into that place. So we met some other bar owners and managers and we would go to those places and say, Why don’t you get some of this kind of beer? and We don’t want to buy anju! (Back then, in the old daysâif you wanted to have any draft beer whatsoever, you had to buy a side dish of anju, and that was 20 bucks to get the $7 pitcher.) So, Poetry Plus showed Korean business owners that we were an economic force, and we started seeing things change. Before long, we didn’t have to listen to as much K-pop and we didn’t have to order the anju. Our footprint in Kyungsung is quite large.
Poetry Plus’s 40th and final show was in 2007. What brought about its end?
Because it got so popular toward the end, performers started to angle for certain time slots. That really kind of wore on the production aspect for meâit was like, Okay, we’ve got a film tonight, a one-act play, five poets and three comedians and we have to make it all fit. Also, by that time, Busan had grown upâcomedy nights were just about ready to happen, music nights were happening all over, theater groups formedâall of these things sprang from Poetry Plus. To be honest, Poetry Plus probably outlived its usefulness.
Obviously, the most direct descendant of Poetry Plus is Wordz Only.
When I started Wordz Only, it was time to whittle it down to what it originally wasâjust words. I had the idea with Wordz that, instead of signing up for time slots, everyone would toss their name in, and each reader would choose the next reader’s name. It promotes a spirit of cooperation and randomness. We just let people share their verbal creations and verbal contributionsâsometimes they’re quite amazing and sometimes, they’re something else. But that’s the beauty of it. The audience is receptive and supportive, nobody gets mocked. There are a lot of talented writers in Busan. A lot of our writers are well-published and some writers have won awards. Bob Perchan, a long time veteran of both poetry Plus and Wordz Only, has won several awards for his poems.
The numbers change quite a bit from event to event, because now there’s so much going on in Busanâthere’s so much competition. We tend to draw higher in the colder months and lower in the warmer months. We average around 30 to 40 people per event. Also, our venue, Cafe Radio, is much smaller with less technology. It’s dialed down.
Any advice to aspiring writers and participants at future Wordz Only events?
The contributors that really garner my attention the most are those who use imagery as the base of their poemsâthey avoid abstract language, words like pain or suffering. I’d rather hear someone say, My two front teeth hit the concrete than I felt pain. For those who write prose, I like to see good dialogue that avoids stereotypical narrative. If you plan to read, practice at home and time yourself. Read slowly, and let the language be the guide to intonation and cadence. Also, exhibit confidence.
What are the main differences that you see between the two events?
Poetry Plus happened back in the days that I like to call the Wild Wild East. Now, Busan is pretty refined and cultivated. A lot of the younger folks come in now and think this place is like, as Chris Tharp would say, Disneyland for alcoholics, but it’s so much tamer than it was. With the drug testing and the criminal background checks and the higher level of degree authentication, we don’t have the same deranged characters that we used to have performing at Poetry Plus. Poetry Plus was more outlandishâit was almost like poetry theater. Wordz Only is very different, because you no longer have people bringing a live duck and chicken into their performance, you no longer have fire… You just have words.
You can find out more about upcoming sessions on Facebook at Wordz Only. The 30th Wordz Only performance will take place July 6 at Cafe Radio in Kyungsung University.
Photos by Mike Dixon
Wordz Only #6. Video courtesy of Jeff Lebow.