By Dan Verner
Anyone walking by Jirani Coffeehouse in Historic Manassas on a fourth Friday evening of the month will see the front room comfortably filled. Spilled Ink, an open mic opportunity started by John Dutton, a local teacher and writer, has drawn both writers and listeners. Dutton, who emcees the gathering, doesn’t look like anybody’s idea of a poet. The well-built, crew-cut wrestling coach has a commanding voice and an outgoing personality. He is a sixth grade language arts teacher at Beville Middle School, who crafts whimsical poetry and pointed stories about standards of learning (SOL) testing, among other works. This past July at the open mic, he read his poem, “Armadillo Lost Her Pillow,” which begins:
On the day Armadillo lost her pillow,
the sun blazed high in Amarillo.
Delusions danced and her mind did go
while she frolicked about, to and fro.
When she stumbled into her bungalow,
her only thought was of marshmallows
toasted soft and brown in the fire’s glow
Dutton went on to recount a tale of a hapless armadillo who can’t find her pillow. His voice alternately cracking with concern and wistful with hope, and then joyful in triumph, Dutton doesn’t so much read the poem as perform it. (It’s notable that “Armadillo” only uses one rhyme for the whole poem, a difficult proposition for anyone.)
The 26 or so writers at the event in July, who ranged in age from four years old to some in their 80s, joined with the 30 people in the audience to applaud Dutton’s effort, and then he introduced the next reader. The room was full that night, but such was not always the case with Spilled Ink.
Local Poets Open Mic Night Grows
The open mic started out at Grounds Central Station, another Manassas coffee house, in January 2015. Dutton writes: “The idea for Spilled Ink came after I had attended a writers’ and poets’ night held at Deja Brew in Haymarket hosted by former Prince William County Poet Laureate Robert Scott. My problem was that Haymarket was a two-hour round trip for me, so I could not attend the event on a regular schedule. I wished for something more centrally located so that more people in Prince William County could attend on a regular basis, myself included. I felt the people on the east side were missing out on a great opportunity.”
General Manager Matt Brower had allowed writers to meet at Grounds Central informally for some time, and he also displayed their books for sale. “At first, Spilled Ink sometimes only involved writers reading to each other,” Dutton said, “but as time went on, we outgrew the space. Jirani opened about the same time, so it was a perfect opportunity. We first met there in April 2016.”
Dutton believes Spilled Ink is successful because of “the relaxed attitude and community feel… It is meant to be fun. I want it to have a ‘no-stress’ atmosphere.” Asked what he likes about the open mic, he replied, “I love the sharing of ideas and inspiration each month and seeing the smiles on the people’s faces. I also like to see people get together before, during, and after the event, talking about what they will be reading, what they have heard. Listening to them also increases my vocabulary.”
Jan Rayl, president of Write by the Rails, a group of local writers, noted, “Spilled Ink is an important outlet for local writers since writing is a solitary craft, and as authors, we connect with others when we read our work aloud. Many of the works we hear at Spilled Ink may never be published, but they have an audience there.”
“The writers at Spilled Ink are nurturing, and they encourage others in their writing while providing honest feedback when asked,” she continued. “When we read our writing, we can find areas of our writing that need polishing. We would not notice these places [on our own] since we work so much in silence.”
Growing A Poet’s Confidence
Dutton took part in the Poet Laureate Circle (led by Alice Mergler) when it was staged at Arts Alive! this past September and the In the Company of Laureates event held on Oct. 8 at the Hylton Performing Arts Center. He anticipates being involved in other similar events throughout the year.
The best thing about Spilled Ink for Dutton is “seeing people grow in confidence. Each month, I see
people being brave [enough] to come up and speak for the first time. It only takes once to go from ‘one-time to long-time’ participants. This is true for all ages.”
Judy Petruskie speaks of this experience: “It exceeded all my expectations. I am so glad that I was motivated enough to join the group. The readings were inspiring, some funny, some informing, but all very interesting. I was even invited to read a few of my short poems. I am looking forward to the next meeting and will be able to read some of the mountains of words I have put on paper in years past.”
Dutton concluded, “If Spilled Ink interests anyone, he or she can come to Jirani Coffeehouse on the fourth Friday of every month. The Poet Laureate Circle meets at 6 p.m., followed by the open mic from 7 to 10 p.m.” Dutton also warned, “Spilled Ink has many ages of presenters, so I ask that all material be at a PG-13 [or tamer] rating.”
Spilled Ink obviously has given Dutton the same kind of joy that the Armadillo had when she found her pillow:
Her relief exploded from above and below.
Armadillo even felt it in her left little toe!
The world was, once again, good to go,
for Armadillo had found her lost pillow.
And John Dutton and the writers of Spilled Ink are certainly good to go.
(For a Spilled Ink or Poet Laureate Circle schedule, visit the Spilled Ink website at SpilledInkVA.com.)
Dan Verner ([email protected]) is the author of several books (danverner.com) and was named “Best Writer in Prince William County (Virginia)” for 2014 and 2015 by readers in a “Best of Prince William” poll taken by Prince William Today.