UniVerse / Justin Danzy

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The energy in the Bronx NeON (Neighborhood Opportunity Network) office stepped up. People put down their cell phones and leaned forward in their seats, eyes fixed on the microphone. They all listened as Dan Wilson performed his poem “LIFE, an acronym” and when he’d concluded his moving piece about what life means to him after all of the obstacles he’s had to overcome, the room burst into applause. 

Wilson is a member of the Free Verse writing program, which, every Thursday, transforms the space into an open mic reading the likes of which is more at home in cafes or on college campuses. During the open mic, clients at the NeON are encouraged to share original pieces of writing, which makes for an event that’s diverse and entertaining. Inspirational poems, spoken word pieces, and even rap songs are shared for anyone who is willing to listen.

The program began in November 2012 when Dave Johnson was appointed Poet-in-residence by Lonni Tanner of SeeChangeNYC. Johnson, a North Carolina native, holds an MFA from Columbia University and currently teaches at the undergraduate and graduate level at The New School. With his slicked back hair and southern accent, Johnson has become a regular figure in the waiting room of the NeON. Each Thursday before the reading, he holds a workshop with all who are willing to participate, where pieces are written which can be shared at the open mic that follows.  

Free Verse also publishes a magazine that contains pieces written by clients along with pieces from probation officers and community members. The magazine has printed three issues since 2012, and is currently working on a fourth. The popularity of the program is ever-increasing, as over 500 pieces were submitted to be considered for publication in the new issue of the magazine.

The growing popularity of Free Verse is also evidenced by its recent expansion to two more locations in New York City. On Mondays, Free Verse holds a workshop at the Bronx Family Court Probation office, and on Wednesdays they are at the Family Court Probation office in Brooklyn.

Free Verse is also taking a foray into publishing by helping Tahara Lilly, a regular of the program since its inception, to publish her first collection of poems, my mother bleeds history, which will be available by the end of March, published by Free Verse Press. 

At every open mic, the Free Verse table is populated by enthusiastic probationers and community members. Notebooks are passed around, and the feedback is serious, but not without openness and humor

This week, one poet made his way to the mic for a second time; he was inspired by the to share another piece that he wrote.

“I just want to spread positivity with this one because that’s what Free Verse is all about.” he said through a toothy smile before he began reciting his poem.


Justin Danzy is a Junior at Kalamazoo College, currenlty majoring in English and African Studies.