The city of Hot Springs is renowned for its thermal spring waters, and went down in history as a stronghold for organized crime back in the gangster era, and as the birthplace of spring training for professional baseball players back in the 1800s.
With so much history surrounding us, is it any surprise that the Spa City is also home to the nation’s longest-running open mic poetry night?
Bud Kenny founded Wednesday Night Poetry in February 1989 at Jean Carlos’ Grotto Restaurant in the basement of Spencer’s Corner in historic downtown Hot Springs.
Before the idea came to fruition, Kenny was operating the mule trolley downtown and contemporary artist Benini had just moved to Hot Springs. The pair struck up a friendship and began talking about their shared interest in seeing the arts come alive in Hot Springs. “He started talking about all the things he wanted to see happen,” Kenny said of Benini. “He said we need to have a film festival and he said ‘One of the things we definitely need to have is a poetry reading.’ I said, ‘I like poetry, I like to read poetry; if you get one started, let me know.’”
Phone calls were made and, long story short, Wednesday Night Poetry was born two months later and not a week in Hot Springs has gone by without a poetry reading ever since.
“There were a couple hundred people that showed up to that very first reading. It was probably one of the biggest ones we’ve ever had,” Kenny said. “Everyone at that time was on the big bandwagon for the arts, so Benini called everyone and said ‘We’re going to have a poetry reading,’ and anybody that was anybody was there. We started out and said, ‘OK, it’ll be a 15-minute limit.’ Well, we had so many people reading that night that we were there until after midnight, so we had to start editing it down.”
Through the years the weekly readings were hosted in several downtown venues before settling down in its current venue, Kollective Coffee+Tea, which Kenny said is the best venue they’ve ever had.
“(Kollective) is very simple, but what’s so good about it is people really come and listen. You don’t have the background noise of the bar; the Poet’s Loft was great, but there was the problem with the stairs. There were 30 stairs and not everybody wanted to go up those stairs,” he added. “I want it to be open for everyone. This is a great venue because there’s nothing pretentious about it. Everyone just comes in and they listen.”
Kenny gave up his hosting duties a few times over the years, including once in 2001 when he, his ex-wife and Della the mule hit the road in 2001 for a seven-year journey across the country on foot.
“We walked from here to the coast of Maine. The mule pulled a carriage that had a solar panel on the top so we could charge up the golf cart battery, and the back end of it opened as a stage. The way we made a living is we would stop and
put on poetry shows like they used to do, the old-time medicine shows — instead of pills, we peddled poems,” Kenny said. “The first one we did was in Conway and we did that from here to Maine. We’d stop at every town and work, and then we spent a couple years up in Maine on the coast, then spent another two years doing it around New England, then shipped everything home in 2008.”
Kenny later wrote a book about his journey entitled “Footloose in America: Dixie to New England.”
When asked why he thinks Wednesday Night Poetry is so important to the arts community in Hot Springs, Kenny said, “Because everybody’s got a little poet in them. They’ve written one, maybe two, and sometimes you just get this feeling and you want to sit down and write, but then it’s over with. But here, you can come and share it every week and, like for any other artist, you need to be able to show off your art.
“A lot of people come to the poetry reading because someone dragged them there, and then quite often they’re the ones that come back. What’s really satisfying to me is that we’ll have people that sit in the audience and you see
them one week, and you may see them for a few weeks, and then one day they’ll say ‘Can I get up and read a poem?’ and I’ll say, ‘Of course you can get up and read a poem,’ and, inevitably, they’ll just knock your socks off with something that’s really touching and moving,” he said.
Kenny said the weekly poetry readings are open to anyone, of any age, and there is no sign up or pre-registration necessary to attend or to read poetry. “Just come and show up,” he said.
“I guess the thing that I would like to get across to people is the purpose of the poetry reading is for people to be able to come out and express themselves in a safe environment. Our two main things that we say is respect the person on stage — you have the right to freedom of speech — and it’s an opportunity for you to get up and let the public know what you feel,” he added.
Kenny said when Wednesday Night Poetry began in 1989 that he didn’t envision it running for more than a few months, if that. “I don’t think that we dare quit now,” he said.
“It’s been a community effort. It’s not because of me. I started it, and as you can tell, kind of got roped into it, and it’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me,” he added.