Tell Your Truth: A popular poetry open mic moves online

Damont Combs, aka Mr. Orange; photo credit: James Lastowski 

Damont Combs has been writing since an early age, after a desire to improve his handwriting sparked his creativity. As he grew up in Southside Jamaica Queens, NY, Combs would write stories, songs and poems to improve his script. While it ultimately didn’t help his handwriting, it did bring out his love of writing, especially the short form of storytelling and the wordplay of poetry. He studied the medium and worked his way from the bottom, eventually releasing books of poetry: My Poem…My Riddle in 2015 and A Touch of Orange in 2016. This all led to Combs becoming 2018 poet of the year and 2019 RI mentor of the year in Rhode Island.

Combs started sharing his work at local open mic nights while attending college at Johnson & Wales.

“I needed to connect with community,” Combs explained. “I didn’t know anyone, so poetry became a way for me to connect with a form of community.” 

It was at the open mic nights that Combs networked and improved his craft. He watched the events grow until all 13 strangely died out when their venues closed. He wanted to keep the community going, so Combs started hosting his own open mic nights. This was a difficult task at first, and every one of them failed, but Combs looked at them as lessons learned and figured out ways to make improvements.

“It became my mission to revitalize the open mic scene,” Combs said of his decision to keep trying.

Combs eventually became the host for Lively Literati, an event presented by the Association of Rhode Island Authors (ARIA). He had some worries about hosting, but it became a success. This led to him create the Tell Your Truth open mic night in 2019 at Skye Art Gallery in PVD. Tell Your Truth is an open mic that encourages open dialogue on many of the topics providence residences have on their hearts and minds. it features New England artist and local community members.

“The event went from a simple open mic to having one feature to multiple features while still keeping the intimate setting,” Combs said.

Combs worked to build an audience and gained multiple sponsors. He received a RISCA grant in 2020, which gave him additional funds to pay featured authors, book a venue and market the event. All of this allowed Combs to keep the event free to the audience. 

Tell Your Truth had its momentum stopped short by the COVID-19 pandemic that has wreaked havoc on the world. Undeterred, Combs used this as an opportunity to move the event online. He posted a link that readers could submit their work to and went to work building an online community. Combs said that the online open mic has been just as challenging as if it were live, with him still needing to manage all aspects, including audience attention, the list, proper equipment usage, flow of performance, reader introductions and the overall energy of the room. 

With readers performing from their home, most perform live on the spot, though Combs did allow for readers to submit previous work if they didn’t have the technology to read live. Combs kept the rules the same and is planning themed events, contests and videos to create a lasting experience. One difference was that Combs was able to feature readers from all over the country as opposed to just local or touring readers.

“It has gone just as well as the regular open mic has. A huge success,” Combs boasts proudly. “I had my poetry mentor, Pawtucket poet laureate Jay Chattelle, call me before I started this online open mic and he let me know that anything I do, especially now, I have to give it my all and to not sleep on the opportunity. He gave me the idea to bring people on live via Zoom and other platforms before Zoom was as popular.”   

Combs will continue the online Tell Your Truth events for as long as necessary, and may continue an online version once businesses open back up. He has big artistic plans in his future.

“I will be working with the Invisible Veteran to produce a podcast that brings awareness to disabled veterans and families of the help that is available to them that they may not know about. I will continue to host my open mic tell your truth and use the grant I got from RISCA to continue doing what I do best. I have my work accepted into a film festival in New York City and in Chelmsford, Massachusetts. The biggest thing I’m doing right now is waiting on my official swearing in to a three-year term for the advisory commission on arts and culture in Pawtucket.”

Combs stresses the importance of supporting local artists at a time like this.

“Art keeps communities connected,” Combs said when discussing the value of art. “Art provides healing. Art is not only entertainment, but community.”

Tell Your Trust goes live every Thursday from 6 – 8pm. Visit facebook.com/tellyourtruthRI for rules and other information. Interested readers can submit their work to mrorangelive@gmail.com