Alumnus hosts bilingual open mic to eliminate borders

Henry Mills hosts Borderlines, the bilingual open mic series, at the Hyattsville Busboys and Poets. Mills runs discussions on poetry and facilitates audiences to translate poems. Photo by Marlena Chertock.

By Marlena Chertock

Published first in The Diamondback.

Before the Jan. 15 Borderlines open mic even started, Henry Mills chose random audience members to translate Spanish haikus and sections of poems into English. Candles flickered on tables and the smell of pizza floated throughout the room of about 40.

Though the Spanish texts were only written in one way, the English translations varied.

Borderlines, a bilingual open mic series at the Hyattsville Busboys and Poets, began in October and occurs every second Sunday of the month. The series tries to confront issues that affect Latinos or Latino identity and offers writers a venue to read their work in Spanish.

“I feel like I can be myself without having to explain or feel like I need to hold the audience’s hand when I switch to Spanish,” Mills said. “It’s pretty validating.”

Mills, a 2011 alumnus of this university and the host of Borderlines, switched his introductions from English to rapid Spanish and wore a Terpoets shirt.

Mills has been involved in the poetry scene for a while, co-founding Terpoets, the student-run poetry organization at this university, with Jonathan Tucker in 2007 and taking every poetry workshop class he could at the university.

“The cool thing about the University of Maryland is that if there’s something there that’s missing there’s enough resources to make it happen,” he said. “There was no student-run poetry organization, and Jonathan and I were both hungry for poetry.”

They borrowed Jimenez-Porter Writers’ House tables, handed out flyers and packed the basement of Dorchester Hall for their first event.

“I was able to bring all of my favorite living poets to perform at Maryland,” he said.

Mills said one of the best featured poets was Zein El-Amine, a current poetry professor at Maryland who was also Mills’ poetry professor in the writers’ house.

“I consider Henry my best friend,” El-Amine said, who gives Mills first drafts of his poems for feedback.

Mario Escobar, a poet from East L.A., read his work in Spanish and English accompanied by drums. Photo by Marlena Chertock.

The Hyattsville Busboys marketing team had been talking about a bilingual open mic since the restaurant opened last August because of the large Spanish-speaking population in the area. Several performers and Latinos who live in nearby Hyattsville, College Park or Silver Spring were invited in the discussions and marketing of Borderlines. Simone Jacobson, the curator-in-residence at the Hyattsville Busboys, asked Mills to host the series.

“Having a bilingual open mic really enriches the quality of the poetry,” said Mills, who grew up bilingual and often explores his bi-cultural heritage in his writing. “I don’t know how it does, but it does. It encourages a greater literacy.”

Performers read their work in Spanish and sometimes read English translations at the Jan. 15 event.

“There’s some comfort and camaraderie built around people who speak both languages,” Jacobson said. “It’s an environment where they can get their Spanglish out. It’s an audience that understands both. It creates a really special opportunity.”

Now that a critical mass of people has started attending Borderlines, Busboys is instituting a $5 charge for all events at all its locations to keep up programming. The Jan. 15 Borderlines was the last free event.

Although Mills — who spends much of his other free time in a punk band and a two-piece bilingual band — wants to keep the series free and open to the public, it is also important for Borderlines to maintain a venue, he said.

“I think initially the cover charge is going to be an additional hurdle for those of us who, little by little, have been building the audience,” said Jose Ballesteros, a published Washington poet and professor of Spanish Literature and Latin American Studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, who helped market Borderlines. “And I look forward to speaking with Henry and Simone and other people in Busboys to see ways that we can overcome that hurdle. I think there are ways that will make people feel good about contributing financially to the experience they’re going to have.”

Mills expressed an interest in having featured writers at Borderlines in addition to the open mic, much like he did with Terpoets. He’s also the force behind getting audience members’ translations and facilitating discussions on poetry at these open mics. So it makes sense that he ended up staying the whole day when he helped El-Amine fix and move back into his house after the summer earthquake.

“Henry helped me put everything back in, plugged in my computer, three hours later he’s washing my dishes and I had to shoo him off,” he said.

Borderlines is good in Mills’ hands, according to El-Amine.

“Henry is very aware to not have this become a kind of posing, like a fashion show of poetry,” he said.

A lot of open mics have become sensational to get applause, according to El-Amine, but Borderlines is different.

“The more I put into [poetry] the more I saw it was something that could be viable,” he said. “There’s few people who actually put in the work or stick to it long enough, but you reach a certain point where you’re like, OK, I can do this. I couldn’t be unhappy if I was surrounded by poetry.”