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September 17, 2017

Farewell to IOTA

This feels like writing my best friend's obituary. Certainly most of my best friends assembled at IOTA Club and Café over the past 23 years, so that the place came to feel like a friend in itself. Its owners, Stephen V. Negrey and Jane Negrey-Inge, showed me and the performers in the IOTA Poetry Series nothing but friendship and kindness, and I will always be grateful to them.

Sunday, Sept. 10 was the last poetry performance at IOTA, 20 days before the club closes for good, the victim of neighborhood redevelopment plans that inevitably proved too difficult and expensive for the club to survive. Ironically enough, the reading was a celebration of the 23rd anniversary of the series, honoring the featured readers of the past season. The word of IOTA's closure came so quickly that there was no time to make it more of a complete retrospective, though many of those who appeared on stage that final night had done so many times over the years. The performers were Karren Alenier, Kim Roberts, Jean Nordhaus, Don Illich, Herb Guggenheim, Luther Jett, Beth Konkoski, J.D. Smith, Nancy Naomi Carlson, Maggie Rosen, and myself. Steve and Jane served cake during the break, as they always did at anniversary celebrations. After the main reading, I called people form the audience to read a poem or two. Dean Blehert, the first poet ever to read a poem on the IOTA stage, was also the last.

The size of IOTA changed over the years as Steve and Jane took over adjacent space. (They took over the space of Strangeways, which featured a photo of Picasso in its advertising and never, so far as I saw, had any customers.) When it first opened in March 1994, IOTA lived up to its name: a space about ten feet wide, with a long bar, three or four booths, and a postage-stamp-sized stage. The brick-lined walls were decorated with Jane's original artwork. The club grew, as did the stage, but the vibe--dark, friendly, mellow--always stayed the same. It looked like a place where good things would happen, and where the audience would be receptive to those things. I always found that to be true, on both counts.

But how do you summarize 23 years of poetry? I would need to write a book to do so, and perhaps someday I will. I can only say that we had 275 readings total in the IOTA Poetry Series. We missed only two readings in all that time--one because of an ice storm, and another because of a water-main break. There are so many people to thank, besides Steve and Jane. There is my country-bassist pal Geff King, who first told me in February 1994 of the guy who was opening a club on Wilson Boulevard in the Clarendon section of Arlington. There is Marty Sanchez-Lowery, who accompanied me to Wilson Boulevard to meet with Steve and discuss with him the possibility of starting a poetry reading series at his club. (Marty and her husband, Terry Mulligan, would later produce the 10th- and 20th-anniversary CDs they recorded live at IOTA. They are wonderful, and constitute the strongest historical record of the series.) There are all the poets who stood in for me at the August All-Open readings, at which I could seldom be present: Steve Rogers, Dean and Pam Blehert, Mike McDermott, Don Illich, and the great Theresa O'Rourke, whom I nicknamed "Ireland's Goodwill Ambassador to Arlington." There are the young poets to whom I am proud to have given a venue early in their careers: Sandra Beasley, Cynthia Hoffman, Bernadette Geyer, Katherine Young, Kathi Wolfe, and so many more. There are the poets, now gone, who gave some of their last readings at IOTA: John Haines, Bob Sargent, and dear Hilary Tham, my truest and kindest mentor in poetry, and also the true, kind mentor to countless DC-area poets. There are the other movers and shakers in Washington poetry, blessedly still with us, who also showed kindness to me and to the series: Karren Alenier, Grace Cavalieri, Kim Roberts, Rick Peabody, Sarah Browning, Judy McCombs. There were the poet friends I loved to see, and rarely got a chance to except at the club. There are far, far too many to mention, but Kevin Pachas, Jonathan Vaile and Colin Flanagan--all of whom came to the last IOTA reading--immediately come to mind.

There were a few wild times at IOTA, though surprisingly few considering how long the series ran. I especially remember the fat, happy drunk who barged into the club and immediately started feeling me up, and the crazed open reader who yelled, "I DON'T DO THINGS FOR PANSIES!" just before Steve threw him out.

IOTA attracted national acts: I'm not the one to ask about that, but I loved seeing Mo Tucker, Robbie Fulks and the Asylum Street Spankers there. There are other DC-area clubs they can play, but none I think as passionately loved and appreciated as IOTA. There is a chance that the poetry series will continue elsewhere; I will keep everyone informed. I only know that in the future it will be very, very hard to drive down Wilson Boulevard when IOTA is no more.


About September 2017

This page contains all entries posted to MDM in September 2017. They are listed from oldest to newest.

June 2017 is the previous archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.