With a sudden burst of static and a "Testing, testing, one two," the Gold Mine Saloon fell deathly silent. After a moment's worth of ringing in the ears, I became intensely aware of the rattling cacophony of the air conditioner and the slightly discomfiting impression of being trapped in a movie on pause. How long had it been, I wondered, since I'd been in a totally silent bar?

With very little fanfare, Dave Brinks, the mastermind (along with Megan Burns) of the 17 Poets! reading series at the Gold Mine, introduced Mark Folse, the evening's main event. After the leather-vested Brinks declared that "New Orleans is the shit – New Orleans has always been the shit," he turned the microphone over to Folse. Pony-tailed and sandalled, in a linen shirt and fedora, Folse struck an image of a latter-day Jimmy Buffett, a sort of alter-ego that didn't care for islands or margaritas.

Under a tinsel Mardi Gras crown decoration that hung over the stage, Folse began with a poem called "Catfoot Blues" and worked through a piece on banjo players playing for "a mob of drunks, just as mournful."

He took regular breaks to pull on a dried-out cigar, eventually giving up and bumming a cigarette from Brinks. He riffed that "I don't think all poetry needs to be serious," but jumped from that assertion into the inevitable storm poem about life "after the end of the world," a ballad to that snapshot in local memory that never seems to change.

And all through the performance, the entire barroom remained deathly silent, save the odd clink of beer bottles and rattling change. The audience – mostly of middling age, most wearing hats or scarves (I guess the thing about poets and berets is true) could have been at church. Well, a Catholic church, at least.

Before the skeletal, dreadlocked Jimmy Ross began to moderate the open mike session, Brinks called for a round of "pirate shots" for the entire audience. My stomach lurched in apprehension; in my recollection, pirate shots were tequila shots with the standard accoutrements – salt and lime – only the condiments were snorted (salt) and squeezed into the eye (lime) rather than eaten at either end of the liquor. Fortunately, this incarnation was a cordial of equal parts spiced rum and Irish cream liquor with no self-mutilation whatsoever involved, and I thanked my good fortune for poetic license and the peculiarities of nomenclature. I mean, come on, I didn't want to lose face in front of all these poets, man.

It was the open mike session that was the real trip. The work ranged from bizarre (a top-knotted Irishman's manifesto) to amateurish (we get it, dude, she dumped you) to cheeky (a schoolteacher recounting a peculiar dream) to downright purgative. One young woman got up to read her thoughts on the shooting of a close friend; barely able to finish, she stumbled off stage and was embraced by the gathered audience.

As I moseyed around the French Quarter, reluctant to go home, I thought about the closing of one of Folse's poems:

"My life is not half as interesting
as the city it takes place in."

Given the sentiment, I think I can forgive his ending a poem with a preposition. This time.

 

Mark Folse is the author of the "Toulouse Street Blog" and "The Wet Bank Guide," which in part inspired HBO's Treme. His Books include Carry Me Home: A Journey Back to New Orleans and Howling in the Wires. 17 Poets! runs weekly at the Gold Mine Saloon, 701 Dauphine St.