In the 1990s, when Las Vegas was a much smaller town, poetry venues and open mic nights were already a thing. But an important niche was unfilled. "At the time, there was really no place where the African-American poet felt at ease, to be able to stand up and say whatever it is he wanted to say," says poet Keith Brantley.
So, in 1997, he hosted a one-off poetry night called the Poets' Corner with funding from a grant to promote literacy. The event was so successful that Brantley continued to host it for 20 years, on the third Friday of every month at the West Las Vegas Arts Center. To this day, the city-sponsored event continues at the same time and place. And the monthly event is open to all.
"It gives the people in the community a voice, a place where they can be heard, because a lot of times people have something to say and there's nobody listening," current host LaBlaque Williams says. "So they have this place. And we consider ourselves family."
That family includes the Poets' Corner's supportive partner—the City of Las Vegas. "Ward 5 is proud to be home to the Poets' Corner, the first established poetry program in Las Vegas," City Councilman Cedric Crear emailed the Weekly. "For the past two decades, this monthly event has provided the space for poets and open-mic participants to share their talents with the community. We look forward to having it for many more decades."
Strikingly, especially for a city event, the Poets' Corner lacks censorship. Speakers aren't worried about offending delicate sensibilities. Poets speak their truth without being polite. All feelings are valid.
"Mostly, people really do just want to be able to express themselves," Brantley says. "I've had people on several occasions come up to me and say, 'I really love the Poets' Corner because actually I can be me.'" The event welcomes speakers who have been censored elsewhere. "[Other venues] have every right to do that," Brantley says. "But as far as the Poets' Corner is concerned, it's always been a free zone." (It's probably best not to bring young kids.)
Even though Brantley has retired from his official hosting duties, he still attends and performs at the Poets' Corner. He's a fan as much as he's a performer. "I get fed monthly from hearing the ideas of what other people are doing, what they're feeling."
If you're tempted to speak at the Poets' Corner, don't be shy. Williams' advice: Just do it. "We are warm and welcome everybody to come in and get whatever they have on their chest or their heart, to get it out. Because we want to hear it."
THE POETS' CORNER Next edition January 17, 7:30 p.m., free. West Las Vegas Arts Center, 947 W. Lake Mead Blvd., 702-229-2787.