With the help of a pen and cocktail napkin, meeting people at bars has never been easier. Just ask Bob Makela.
“We were laughing, having a good time and meanwhile we have this stack of napkins, poems on napkins growing at our table,” said Makela, a local cab driver and freelance writer. “Every female in the bar wandered over and asked us what the hell we were doing because it was a strange thing to be doing.”
And thus, barstool poetry was born. The concept was simple enough: Pick up a napkin and write down a title. Give the napkin to someone else to write a poem that fits that title. Repeat.
Intrigued by their success that night in 1992, Makela and his roommate Jon Congdon tried their poetry trick again. Before too long, friends, strangers and even the waitstaff would be trading poems.
“I kind of see it as a cross between karaoke meets poetry slam meets open-mic night at a comedy club,” Makela said. “It ranges from very funny, very wise, very perceptive to ridiculous, offensive and just flat-out bad.”
One only needs to read a handful of titles to realize this — pensive titles like “The Last One” and “It Is What It Is” are followed by “Pee Spray On My Ankle” and “It Got Weird When the Unicorn Showed Up.”
After moving from Los Angeles to Austin in 2010, Makela published his first anthology of barstool poetry, which he sold to cab riders.
“I’d have three copies sitting in [the cab],” Makela said. “I didn’t bring it up, they were just sitting there. People would see the book and ask me about it.”
Makela picked up Carlos Mendieta and his then-girlfriend on the way to a Radiohead concert. By the time the ride was over, Mendieta was sold on barstool poetry.
“[Barstool poetry] runs the gamut from poems that are ridiculously funny and/or complete nonsense to poems that are quite profound,” Mendieta said. “That’s one of the things that’s great about it … You never know what you’re going to get.”
Makela’s book caught the attention of customer-turned-friend Dave Kalb, who organized the first “Barstool Poetry (The Early Years: 1992-2000)” book party in Austin.
“My initial goal was to take Bob’s original idea, kick it off in Austin and then keep it going,” Kalb said. “At this point, Bob was a valuable friend, and I wanted to make it happen for him.”
This first party in November 2012 produced another anthology of all the poems written that night, “Barstool Poetry (Book Party #1: Star Bar – Austin, TX).” It was obvious the night was a phenomenon that went much further than just Makela’s regulars.
“I brought several friends who have ridden with me in Bob’s cab before and met others there that were also valued patrons,” Kalb said. “Although we knew why we were there, it was incredible to see the rest of the crowd join in … It was great to see everyone get involved, grab some liquid courage, share some laughs and make some memories.”
Makela’s anthologies prove that the people in bars are just the same as they were that fateful night in 1992.
“What struck me is, 20 years later, how much things haven’t changed,” Makela said. “Guys are still crude and rude and offensive, and people still pour their hearts out.”
A boredom buster evolved into more than just an easy way to pick up chicks at a bar.
“In my mind, I know it has the potential to be the kind of thing that could be a fad sweeping the nation, or it could die on the vine and never go beyond this,” Makela said. “But I’ve seen it happen and I know people are craving that connection.”
Barstool Poetry Book Party No. 6 is Sept. 7 at Violet Crown Social Club.