‘Bards on the Rocks’ brings verse and a variety to the Queen City

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Jeremiah Walton – he’s bringing poetry back, with a little help from his friends. Photo/Stacy Harrison

MANCHESTER, NH – In 1999, I started a poetry zine with one of my teaching colleagues in Las Vegas. We called it “The Brown Bottle.” 

At the time, we believed that a lot of the poetry on the contemporary scene was stale and boring and uninspiring, and we had a desktop publishing program and a desire to change things.

At the time, I also believed that poetry could change the world. I stopped publishing “The Brown Bottle” in June of 2004 after only four issues and, somewhere along the way, I lost the romantic spirit about poetry that once lived inside of me.

Recently, I found myself—perhaps serendipitously—interviewing Jeremiah Walton, a Bedford native and a co-founder the “Bards on the Rocks” reading series, and his enthusiasm for poetry and performance – and the blending of both – helped me shake off some of my middle-aged cynicism.

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The applause are genuine and generous at the weekly Bards on the Rocks event. Photo/Stacy Harrison

“Poetry has always had a space in American consciousness, and with the advent of the internet, people are consuming it differently now,” said Walton. “But Instagram poets are often lackluster, and the era of the poetry slam has passed, and we wanted in-person spaces that met our needs. It seems other folks had similar wants.” 

The “Bards on the Rocks” variety shows are held on Wednesday nights at The Hop Knot on Elm Street and gathers a largely younger crowd of Millennial and Gen. Z folks who Walton affectionately refers to as the “derelict, debauched word-oriented oddballs that the city produces.” 

“The people make [the readings],” said Walton. “The sense of community is a big thing.”

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Jeremiah Walton is one of the spark-plugs behind this poetry renaissance. Photo/Stacy Harrison

Walton launched his first reading series in Manchester at The Breezeway Pub on Pearl Street in February of 2023 under the title “The Breezeway Bards.” Like the current series, it was a variety show that was open to all kinds of acts—poetry, stand-up, puppets and drag. 

In July of 2023, Walton launched “Bards on the Rocks” at The Hop Knot with the help of co-organizers Willow Jaworski and Nix Tolle. 

“It was a way of bringing people in to try stuff out and spice things up,” said Jaworski.

Their goals were somewhat two-fold. First, it was intended to be a safe place for artists to share their poetry and performances.

“A variety show is a space where we welcome all types of different acts, but the show is slanted toward poetry,” Walton said. 

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Aparna Paul was one of several poets who call Boston’s Cantab Lounge their poetry home base. Photo/Stacy Harrison

Walton said that the show also serves as a vehicle to promote The New England Poetry Renaissance, which is part of a larger underground movement that originated in New Jersey, under the guide of poet Damien Rucci, and aims to create infrastructure in its communities and encourage connections between touring poets.

“This new era of Renaissance open mics is working-class, irreverent, and reminiscent of when San Francisco was bubbling with odes,” Walton said. “There is no room for elitism. We’ve had folks read sweet watercolor limericks to an acorn in their backyard, followed by a guy covered in tattoos sharing a confessional about beating a dude down.” 

The feature performers on Wednesday night were, in many ways, representative of this “new era” in poetry and performance. 

Alex Aimee Kist, Amy Argenter and Aparna Paul are poets hailing from the venerable Cantab Lounge in Boston, one of the first hubs for the Spoken Word Revolution that began in Chicago in the late-1980s, which really began blurring the lines between performance and poetry on the page.

“A poem can sound better on the stage than on the page, but it’s the balancing act that makes the poem,” said Walton.

Jaworski, meanwhile, describes the performances as “an umbrella” and the poetry as “the flow of the language that blends everything together.”

True to its variety-show format, the evening began with Benjamin Chadwick, a stand-up comedian from Maine and a late-edition to the bill. By the time Chadwick took to the stage there was nary a spare seat at The Hop Knot. 

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Ben Chadwick of Maine tested out some of his stand-up material on the crowd. Photo/Stacy Harrison

Chadwick’s set was met with a mixture of chuckles and groans, which is standard fare for a comedian working out new material. But Walton said that “Bards on the Rocks” is known as a venue to try new material. “It’s a space where people can experiment with their medium,” he said.

Next, the Cantab Lounge feature performers captivated the audience with their polished spoken word and strong feminist themes, including a piece where Paul and Kist joined together to ridicule a “hot girl walk.” 

Argenter, meanwhile, read a poignant poem about “prom night” from a supine position, her legs raised. 

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Amy Argenter, who often performs at the Cantab Lounge in Boston, strikes a pose during the recent Bards on the Rocks event at the HopKnot in Manchester. Photo/Stacy Harrison

“Hate speech is the only thing that is off-limits,” Walton said. “We’re pretty open and can be raunchy. For example, we recently hosted a fake orgasm contest.” 

After a brief intermission, the open-mic portion of the night began, and numerous poets read largely confessional pieces, centering on themes of mental health and the convolutions of relationships. 

Poet Chris Clauss, an elder statesman and the seeming straight man of the group, then delivered a funny self-parody that encapsulated both the beauty and vulnerability in the room.

“All [the organizers] meant by ‘on the rocks’ was that everyone in the room was probably drunk,” he said to robust laughter.

Clauss was followed by a young man named Colin, who didn’t come to the show to read poetry, but found it “a safe place to do [it].” 

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Chris Clauss wooed the crowd with his self-parody. Photo/Stacy Harrison

To which the Bards welcomed him with a chant of “one of us.” 

“People need a sense of community, especially with the deep the feelings of alienation that are prevalent in the city,” said Walton. “I want to give people a space where they can experience meaning.”

In 1999, I started a zine in Las Vegas called “The Brown Bottle,” thinking that the poetry could change the world. 

Guess what? It didn’t.

In 2023, Jeremiah Walton started a reading series with his friends Willow Jaworski and Nix Tolle, thinking they could change the way people in Manchester see and experience poetry. 

And guess what? They did.  


For more information on the “Bards on the Rocks” reading series, follow them on Instagram: @cancelpoetry

Gallery of the Bards on the Rocks event by Stacy Harrison

About this Author

Nathan Graziano

Nathan Graziano lives in Manchester with his wife and kids. He's the author of nine collections of fiction and poetry. His most recent book, Born on Good Friday was published by Roadside Press in 2023. He's a high school teacher and freelance writer, and in his free time, he writes bios about himself in the third person. For more information, visit his website: http://www.nathangraziano.com