I was never really popular growing up. I used to get picked on, and I think at some point every jock wanted to kick my ass for running my mouth. Deep down, I knew it didnt matter, but that feeling of not belonging still sucks. I remember in 2006 I had the courage to ask out this cute girl I saw at an open mic, and she actually said yes. We went on a date to the diner (which I picked, obviously), and agreed that she'd pick the spot for the next date. She asked me if I'd ever been to this coffee house in Long Branch called Inkwell. I told her I hadn't, and she said she'd like to take me there and buy me a Dutch Coffee, whatever that was.
The first time I stepped in the door, walking up a tiny staircase to a building I'm sure was held together entirely by band stickers, I knew this was something special. But I never looked so cool in my entire life as I did while we were waiting to be sat, in that awkward area near the kitchen and cash register, and the manager Judy comes up to me and says, "You're Chris Rockwell, right? You do poetry?" I was stunned. That never happened before. I had no idea how she knew me, because I'd only done poetry at a couple tiny spots by that point. When she sat us down, she told our server to make sure our coffee was on the house. Before we left, she asked if I wanted to host an open mic there and gave me her email. My date was immediately and wildly impressed. I was with her for almost four years after that, and I'm pretty sure most of it was running on the fumes from that one indelibly cool moment.
I ended up hosting a poetry open mic at Inkwell from around 2006-2009 before I passed the torch to another poet. It started out with 10-15 people every week, then turned to 20-30, then it got to the point where we didn't know how to fit them all in the building, so we did it on the deck. We'd be there for hours before we stumbled over to the Brighton Bar where Jacko was hosting another poetry night just after ours. I remember when Loser Slam took over the top floor and started hosting poetry slams, and all my newfound friends were becoming these local rock stars. It was fantastic to watch.
Inkwell was unique in a time of over-commercialized conformity. It was the anti-establishment; the food and service wasn't trying to be anything it wasn't. These were just college kids hanging out and getting by, playing obscure music on the iPod and hanging weird art on the walls, busting their asses from late afternoon until early morning. We all got to know each other. I never really went looking for it, but ultimately, I found a place where I instantly felt I belonged.
The years went by, I moved further away and got older, but I always ended up back there at one point or another. Once in a while I'd go visit Avery or Fern, more friends that I made in the scene, who were at the helm of the open mic as it grew bigger than I ever thought it would. And some nights, there were just a few poets and myself, talking shit for hours tied together over the infamous Dutch Coffee.
I'd say every town everywhere needs a place like this, but that would imply that you could somehow copy and paste it, or replicate the allure by means of mathematical equation. There isn't one. Sometimes, the elements swirl together just right and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. And the only task at hand is to show your endless gratitude for the countless fried ravioli and coffee that sustained you for a short while. I know Inkwell was there since the 1960s, but it never would have been open long enough. Farewell, Inkwell. Long live the Dutch Army.
Below are photos from an intimate poetry performance in 2013, shot by Rob Camlin.