Blue collar beats

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January 17, 2011
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott

// Dusty’s Bosso Poetry Company is saving verse from the forces of stuffiness, one month at a time //

Kevin Brixius slides a poetry chapbook (title: “Workers of the World, Smile!”) across the table and says, “A lot of these I wrote one time when I was trying to quit smoking.”

Sitting in Dusty’s Bar, 1319 Marshall St. NE, joined by two other members of his ragtag poetry gang, all three of them nursing whiskey shots along with their beers, Brixius lays out a few inspirations for his writing. They are, loosely: stacking cans of creamed corn on a factory loading dock (his high school job in Wells, Minn.), heaving 125-pound bales of used clothing onto freight cars (his adult job in Minneapolis, a decade later) and playing regular gigs with his stage-shy, amateur band in a Dinkytown Laundromat.

They are not falling in love, a summer’s breeze or the existential loneliness of man. Brixius is not that kind of poet.

Neither are his colleagues in the Bosso Poetry Company, a crew of misfit writers who gather for monthly readings at Dusty’s, the Northeast neighborhood joint renowned for its $5 Dago sandwiches.

The mission of the Bosso gang is a simple one: free poetry from the pretensions and navel-gazing that have ruined its name and return it to a more accessible milieu, the realm of barroom storytelling.

“My whole life I liked poetry, and people were like, ‘Poetry?!’ You get your ass kicked,” says Scott Vetsch, another core member and whiskey sipper. People that cringe at the thought of poetry “maybe don’t know what it is,” he suggests.

Vetsch is known for regaling audiences with tales from his days as a cab driver. He currently holds down a day job as a carpenter.  

Jeffrey Skemp, another Bosso comrade, boils it down: “Poetry’s really great, and we want to show people that it is.” At 40, Skemp is the youngest member of the group.

“People come in [to Dusty’s] just to get a beer, and the next thing you know they’re listening to what we’re doing,” says Brixius, who often performs folksy ballads with a wry, proletarian twist. “And they’re surprised that poetry can be interesting. And be stories about real people doing stuff.”

Dusty’s has hosted Bosso readings once a month since 2008, usually on a Wednesday night. The bar staff removes a table from one of the booths, creating a tiny little “stage” between two upholstered seats, which are bolted into the floor. The result is a sort of penalty box. It’s where you have to stand when it’s your turn to read. The barstools are only about 10 feet away.

“You definitely know how you’re doing,” jokes Skemp. Performers have to win over patrons at the bar — or risk being drowned out by chatter.

The group’s name — and status as a “company” — is a socialist jibe that grew out of a long-running joke Brixius propagated in college. “Bosso” was his version of the Looney Toons’ Acme, “a gigantic corporation that had a little sub-company for everything there was,” Brixius says.

The idea was that Bosso was so ravenously greedy it had even monetized poetry, “the one thing that has like no value whatsoever.”

So Brixius’ Bosso guys are the renegades, the fractious literary workers rising up in revolt. An old-school solidarity motif tends to characterize their performances. Billy Bragg would fit in nicely, if he had more of a Dadaist streak.  

But for all of their blue-collar rhetoric — Brixius is big on the fact that most Bosso members come from farm towns — the crew boasts a number of high-minded accomplishments. Lynn Gray is an associate professor of drawing at the University of Minnesota’s art school. Lynette Reini-Grandell is an English instructor at Normandale Community College and hosts “Write on Radio!”, a literary program on KFAI. Skemp is at the tail end of a VERVE grant from Intermedia Arts, which is paying for the release of his first spoken word album, “Spent,” which will be out at the end of this month.

The Bosso crew also features Venus de Mars, the famed transgender rocker of local band All the Pretty Horses. De Mars is Reini-Grandell’s husband, and their relationship was the subject of Emily Goldberg’s internationally touring documentary “Venus of Mars.”  De Mars, a man who takes female hormones but has no plans for surgery, has a stunning presence in Dusty’s tavern confines. He recently hushed an audience with a poetic rendering of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” on acoustic guitar.

And Vetsch, a founding member whom Skemp describes as “a poetically skilled satirist,” has performed everywhere from the Seattle Poetry Festival to the spoken word stage at Lollapalooza. He first met Brixius when he got hired at the same used clothing warehouse where Brixius was hauling those 125-pound bales.

In the late 1980s, the two threw themselves into the Twin Cities spoken word scene, an anarchic literary underground that drew packed readings at places like the Uptown Bar, the Viking Bar, Kieran’s and St. Paul’s the Irish Well and Bad Habit. One of the biggest and most infamous scenes — the one which continues to inspire Bosso today — was right here in Northeast, Vetsch remembers, at Mayslack’s, where Erika Schleager and Kim Koch organized an open stage event called “Your Elbow.”

“[Mayslack’s] was unique, it was so concentrated, and there were so many people that came there,” says Vetsch. “Everyone from Bosso today is somehow affiliated with the Mayslack’s scene.”

“There have been moments at Dusty’s that have felt like that,” says Skemp, who missed out on Mayslack’s, having only started performing in the mid-1990s. “The whole place will be full. And people will be very involved. And there are some nights where there are not that many people at all. Which we’re fine with, actually.”

In 2011, Bosso Poetry Company seems poised for bigger audiences. On Jan. 21, the gang will play the stage at Bryant Lake Bowl. Since 2008, it’s only their second time performing outside of Northeast. Ten members will get 10 minutes each, and mini sets will feature “everything from straight spoken word to song,” says Skemp.

And bigger gigs could be around the corner. The group has been invited to play both the Ritz Theater and the Cedar Cultural Center, although Skemp stresses that no firm plans are in the works. Bosso has no plans to blow up. It wouldn’t fit their hardscrabble aesthetic.

“It’s like that old Brecht joke,” says Vetsch, making a point but exposing himself as well-read. “How can you write poetry about trees when the woods are full of police?”

Bosso Poetry Company at Bryant Lake Bowl

Jan. 21, doors open at 9:30 p.m., show starts at 10 p.m.
$6 advance, $8 day of show
810 W. Lake St.

Bosso at Dusty’s

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