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As the sun slides toward the dark peaks that give Black Mountain its name, a young woman with a pink ponytail nervously steps up to the microphone on the patio

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As the sun slides toward the dark peaks that give Black Mountain its name, a young woman with a pink ponytail nervously steps up to the microphone on the patio

Finding a Voice at Dark City Poets Society

Black Mountain downtown is tucked within the Blue Ridge Mountains

As the sun slides toward the dark peaks that give Black Mountain its name, a young woman with a pink ponytail nervously steps up to the microphone on the patio of Oak and Grist Distilling Company. The crowd has been growing over the past hour, and Jess Delong is about to address an audience of 60 or so — some balancing piles of notebooks on their laps, some scrolling on their phones to find the pieces they plan to read, some just there to listen and drink local whiskey at picnic tables.

“This is one of the first times I’ve shared my work,” Delong says into the microphone, and there’s a sympathetic murmur from the crowd. “I’ve got some shorter pieces to read, and I’m not really sure what to call them, but I’m just going to say that it’s poetry.” The audience members at the Dark City Poets Society’s monthly Poetry Night gives her their full attention as she reads — about love and insomnia and walking in the woods. She finishes to enthusiastic applause.

Poets share their work during Poetry Night at Dark City Poet Society's monthly meeting

During Poetry Night at Oak and Grist Distilling Company in Black Mountain, poets like Christine Page find a supportive community and an attentive audience. photograph by Derek Diluzio

For the past two and a half years, the Dark City Poets Society — whose moniker comes from a Black Mountain nickname — has held a free open-mic poetry series that draws writers from the surrounding area and even the Triangle. For Clint Bowman, who cofounded the group in 2020, creating a community of poets is an essential part of honoring the town’s past. Through the middle of the 20th century, Black Mountain College welcomed celebrated writers like Robert Creeley and Charles Olson as faculty members, and the college’s literary magazine published works by Denise Levertov and other poets who shared a commitment to improvised forms and conversational language. The “Black Mountain School” and its ideas about poetry had a ripple effect far beyond the North Carolina campus and long after the college closed in 1957.

Clint Bowman, the founder of Dark City Poets Society

“I think that poetry is the most accessible art form,” says Clint Bowman. “There are no barriers to it except for a pen and paper.” photograph by Derek Diluzio

By the time Bowman moved to town in 2019, though, there weren’t many traces of this literary heritage. “I thought, ‘It’s wild that a community so rich with poetic history doesn’t have a poetry group,’” he says.

He connected with Melisa Pressley, the branch manager for Black Mountain Library, who offered the group its first home. Over the years since, the Dark City Poets Society has held readings at the library, an art gallery, and a coffee shop downtown before settling at Oak and Grist. During the colder months, the readings take place in the still room, where the audience is surrounded by gleaming copper vats and the gentle scent of whiskey. Bowman also holds monthly critique sessions at the library, where poets can get feedback and encouragement.

“I think it’s just so easy for writers in general to isolate themselves,” Bowman says. “We are mostly introverted, me included. And I think being a part of a community and having that support system really shows that you’re not as crazy as you think you are. I can’t tell you how many times we get poets who come up and say, ‘This is too dark. I don’t want to share it. This is too deep.’ And I can promise you, it’s not too deep.”

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At each reading, Bowman warms up the crowd — and spares anxious readers the ordeal of going first — by sharing some of his own work. Although his degree from NC State University is in parks and recreation and his day job is serving as a recreation coordinator for the Town of Black Mountain, poetry has long been a calling. He fell in love with it as a high school student in Wallburg, and he’s continued to read and write it ever since. His influences range from titans like Edna St. Vincent Millay and Walt Whitman to Beat poet and environmental activist Gary Snyder to more recent writers like Sharon Olds. Bowman has published his own work — thoughtful excavations of growing up in the South, both nostalgic and edged — in literary journals, and he released his first chapbook last year.

Writers at every stage and every age find their way to the group. One night, a mother and her children — including a tween whose poetry brought the house down — all read their work.

Andrew Smith’s notebook of handwritten poems. photograph by Derek Diluzio

“I love that all levels and styles are not just welcomed but also encouraged and supported and empowered,” says Andrew Smith, a real estate agent and a Dark City regular. He shows up month after month with sticker-covered notebooks filled with handwritten poems that have the jazz and force of the Beat era. He also attends the monthly critique meetings. “It really feels like you’re working with your peers and your friends to hone your craft,” Smith says. “There’s a real appreciation for where everyone is coming from.”

For Delong, whose impassioned poems got a rousing response from the crowd at Oak and Grist, the group has given her the confidence to share her writing with others. She attended her first Poetry Night in early 2023.

“It was really amazing seeing other people sharing and connecting, and everyone was so supportive of each other,” says Delong, who drives up from her home in Arden for the readings. “I kept coming back, and then I finally took a chance and shared as well. Afterward, I felt almost dizzy, and my face had this huge, weird smile. The feeling made me want to keep reading.”

Head to Dark City Poets Society’s Instagram for information about upcoming events.

Oak and Grist Distilling Company
1556 Grovestone Road
Black Mountain, NC 28711
(828) 357-5750

This story was published on Mar 25, 2024

C.A. Carlson

C.A. Carlson is a writer and editor living in Asheville.