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Barstool Poetry Can Turn Anyone Into a Poet

When things get quiet at a bar, many turn to their cell phone as a way to escape that awkward feeling.

Bob Makela hopes to change that with Barstool Poetry.

The idea began at a bar called the San Francisco Saloon in California in 1992. Makela and his roommate were having trouble working up the courage to speak to members of the opposite sex.

“We were a couple of wimpy guys who had no guts to get up and talk to the ladies around us,” Makela says. “So I took a pen and a cocktail napkin, jotted down the title to a poem, slid him the napkin and said, ‘Write a poem to fit that title.’”

After three or so hours, their creative juices – aided by a bit of alcohol – were flowing. The pair was pleasantly surprised by the outcome.

"The fact that we met all the girls in the bar that we had wanted to meet, but didn’t have the guts to get up and talk to, the light bulb goes off," Makela says. '"Wow, that was not only fun, but very effective in breaking the ice, let’s do it again.'"

After that night, Makela nurtured the concept over the next eight years, accumulating hundreds of poems. In 2012, he compiled them into his first book, "Barstool Poetry: The Early Years."

"I would share the idea with my other friends – and my friends loved it – and so I ended up having this collection of 550 poems,” Makela says. “I had this Ziploc bag full of these things for years; every time I would move, I would have this bag, and I finally did something with them, and published the book.”

Credit Bob Makela
Bob on the "Camino de Santiago" walking tour in Spain last summer.

Over the past 12 months, Makela has hosted eight Barstool Poetry events around Austin. He puts out a fishbowl stocked with napkins containing the titles  of as-yet-unwritten poems. He then invites the bar patrons to write their own poems and titles for others to adapt.

"As a result of doing these things, after seven or eight events, I had another 350 poems, and so I decided to do the 'Best of Austin,' so that’s the new book," Makela says. "Instead of pushing my L.A. version of barstool poetry, I now have an Austin-centric book to share with the world and to share with the town."

Surprisingly enough, Makela notices the same topics and emotions in the California and Austin poems, despite the differences.

"What’s interesting is that a lot of the content is very similar," Makela says. "You get the occasional poem where somebody is experiencing a heartbreak, and they’re spilling their guts in the poem. But then you get a lot of just absurd, silly, ridiculous, crude, rude, offensive stuff just like what was being written about 20 years ago. This is the Austin version of it –there’s still drunk, crazy people who are just writing some raunchy stuff."

Makela is a California transplant who moved here in 2010 to write a Janis Joplin documentary. After the project fell through, Makela ended up becoming a taxi driver for Austin Cab.

"I came here for a specific job in a field that I wanted to work in, and two weeks into it, the plugs been pulled on that and I’m scrambling to find a job," Makela says. "I’m getting turned down working for the census bureau, they wouldn’t even hire me at Wheatsville. I get this job driving a cab, and I drive a cab for three years, and that made me fall in love with the city."

With his fiancée Molly receiving a job offer in New York City, now Makela will be leaving the city that he's grown to love.

"Now I’m leaving," Makela says. "And like today, I was driving around town and it's a perfect, beautiful day and I’m like 'Ah, shit, I’m going to miss this place.' This is like four years in, and now I’m going."

Makela plans to host one last night of Barstool Poetry in Austin before taking the concept to the bars of New York.

"This could be my goodbye love letter to Austin," he says. 

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