Matt Mason, Omaha’s Premier Poet

The poetry scene in Omaha is rich and diverse, with workshops and readings going on all the time. If anyone in the region—ranging from the site’s hub in metropolitan Omaha, to Lincoln, Vermillion, Des Moines, and Lawrence– needs to know when and where the next event is happening, they need look no further than

Poetry Menu was started in 2000 by Matt Mason, the proverbial captain of Omaha’s poetry team. Mason is Executive Director for the Nebraska Writers Collective, Nebraska State Coordinator for Poetry Out Loud through the Nebraska Arts Council, and past President for the Nebraska Center for the Book.

Poetry is Mason’s passion, and he has traveled the world on words’ behalf–from Nepal, to Belarus, to all around America. Now, he lives in Omaha and shares his talent and passion with the Heartland.

Mason said that his affinity and affability towards poetry was slow and gradual. He had no interest during high school, but when he got to college a professor opened his heart and mind to language as art. The class was taught by “a Jesuit with the passion of the teacher from Dead Poets’ Society.” He started writing all the time—he now writes at least a poem a week–as it helped him process the world. Poetry has also helped him travel the world.

Mason traveled to Minsk, Belarus and Kathmandu, Nepal as part of 10-day programs through the State Department. While there, he worked with English-speakers aged 15-25 on their writing and performance in order to prepare them for a poetry slam at the end.

“In Belarus, it was just me leading it and everything was pretty amazing as US-Belarusian relations are not good.  I was allowed into state universities and libraries there, as poets have a much larger cultural place in their society,” said Mason. “So that was a real honor.  The students I worked with were fantastic and made for a great show at the end.”

In Nepal, Mason worked with Danny Solis from Albuquerque and Karen Finneyfrock from Seattle as part of the State Department program. He said it took them mainly around Kathmandu, but also to Eastern Nepal to work with students.

“The poetry slam at the end was jaw-dropping,” said Mason, “as a number of these students hadn’t really known what poetry performance was about and they took off with it impressively and have continued to hold poetry slams since.”

Mason said that the two nations are both similar to the US in that they have rich poetry traditions, but the children are essentially forced to read it in school, stunting their interest. He said that presenting the poetry slam approach worked well by “instilling more energy into poetry and making it more of a living language.”

Omaha was with him during his visits, and he said he left a little bit of his hometown in each country. For example, he took with him dry erase scorepads that the judges use when judging the OM Center (Omaha Healing Arts Center) Poetry Slams.  These relics of the Heartland were autographed by poets and fans from their poetry slam, and then donated to each nation’s students that he worked with.

Mason has settled down in Omaha with his wife and kids, and he said he has been back on the area’s poetry scene since 1995. Back then, there were mainly more organized readings like those at UNO and Creighton with the Nebraska Book Festival in a different city each year.  National Poetry Month (April) would bring out different things at places like the Bookworm bookstore, but he said there didn’t seem to be many open mics and no poetry slams.

Then things grew somewhat, largely around either colleges or coffee shops, and the first poetry slam he knows of in Nebraska happened at Wayne State College in April, 1999, one week before Omaha’s first which happened at the location formerly known Border’s.  Over the years, he said a lot more open mics popped up and a few poetry slams at places like the Dubliner, McFoster’s, and Caffeine Dreams while the universities seemed to cut back.

Mason said that his favorite experience as a poetry activist is last year’s Louder Than a Bomb: Omaha finals. It was a program he said they were just figuring out, but it had been going great.  The finals were scheduled for a 500 seat auditorium and, though they’d been playing to crowds of 100-200 for all the bouts, Mason worried the place wouldn’t be close to filled up.  Not only did it fill up, but the energy was high all night and all 4 schools did an amazing job with the quality of their writing and of their performance.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in a lot of great projects, but Louder Than a Bomb: Omaha has quickly become my favorite and the most rewarding, Mason said. “With Louder Than a Bomb getting more high school-age writers interested in poetry, I’m excited to see what comes next in terms of our open mics, poetry slams, and other areas.”

Mason said the favorite part about what he does is being able to work with writers, young and old, and be useful to them.

“My model is to try and provide what either wasn’t available to me when I started writing and what, still, doesn’t seem available for writers but needs to be if we are going to cultivate poetry here in this part of the world,” Mason said.

Mason has just written a book, called “The Baby That Ate Cincinnatti.” He said the poems all came from suddenly finding himself in the world of parenting.  Growing up, he said he never wanted kids, so he never planned anything out or made mental notes of what a parent should do.  He is now married with children, and the book is dedicated to his wife Sarah and his two daughters, Sophia and Lucia.

“Sophia and Lucia are great kids.  They get compared to movie monsters now and then because, well, raising kids is hard and complex, we all drive one another crazy and there is a lot to learn,” Mason said. “So the title comes from just ridiculous monster movie kinds of titles.  Cincinnati just gets singled out as it seems to work for this sort of thing and sounds better than, say, ‘The Baby That Ate Omaha’.”

Status Update on Arts Participation

Status Update on Arts Participation

This is an infographic I threw together using, an online infographic generator tool. It demonstrates the declining numbers of arts participants, and a shift from in-person attendance to online attendance. The data was pulled from a 2008 National Endowment for the Arts survey, at this link:

Volunteer at Emerging Terrain


Taija Velasquez: Emerging Terrain, based out of Omaha, Neb., is a non-profit research and design collaborative founded by director Anne Trumble. Her goal is to ‘inspire re-imagination of the places and spaces of our cities, facilitate community development, and creatively inform civic and urban planning.’

Justin Baker: One project is Stored Potential, an artistic restoration of an abandoned grain storage bin off of Interstate 80.

Taija: Emerging Terrain is always looking for volunteers to help with projects. So roll up your sleeves and do some good for the community.

Taija Velasquez, videographer +narrator
Joseph del Campo, video editor
Justin Baker, writer

The ‘Naked Words’ Open Mic Series Invites People to Display Creativity

Soul Desires, the main venue for Naked Words.
Borrowed from

The city of Omaha has a vibrant poetry scene, and it shows in the Naked Words open mic series. Naked Words is a monthly open mic hosted by area poet and travel writer Heidi Hermanson, who invites her guests to express themselves in whichever way they like. Poetry is the main format, but Hermanson encourages any sort of creative outlet. Currently on hiatus, it is set to return sometime this Spring.


Justin Baker: Spring is right around the corner, and for Omaha that means Naked Words will be blooming right along with the flowers. Naked Words is an open mic hosted by Omaha poet and travel writer Heidi Hermanson. It has been on hiatus since November 2012, but is expected to sprout again this Spring.

Baker: Naked Words is a monthly open mic that is free and open to the public. Hermanson said she doesn’t like to restrict it to poetry because she feels that it is limiting. She just wants people to feel free to express themselves in whatever way they want.

Ian Barker dressed up like Robert Burns, a Scottish poet and lyricist, while touring with performance poetry group Bardcore.

Baker: Naked Words has been described by Millard poet Ian Barker like this:

Ian Barker: “Naked Words is where you will find a spirit which cried out at cruelties painted in sharp words; where gorgon monsters roamed amongst Welsh bards who leaned in shadow against stone monoliths; a spirit which tripped from Romany tongues and cloaked story-tellers who told stories of Danish kings and birds born from the ashes of its ancestors.  All this….and it’s in the center of Omaha. Begin here – because it’s where all poets should be born. This is what poetry should be.”

Baker: On Hermanson’s website–—it states that it is usually held at Soul Desires, a bookstore in Omaha’s Old Market, but Hermanson said it has been known to be held in a variety of places.


Hostess Heidi Hermanson striking a pose at Caffeine Dreams, a cafe in Omaha.

Heidi Hermanson: “Last summer we also moved it all over Omaha. I had it one month on the Pedestrian Bridge, we had at it in the Joslyn Sculpture Garden. Just all kinds of fun places, indoors and out, just to move it around and mix it up a little bit.”

Baker: Hermanson’s series started back in 2006 at the now-defunct Reading Grounds. The Reading Grounds was a café slash bookstore, and was to be the location of a poetry slam hosted by another local poet. When he could not make it to the slam, Hermanson graciously stepped in.

Hermanson: “Dan Leaman wanted to have a slam at the Reading Grounds, and as fate would have it, there was a big blizzard that day and he could not come down from Lincoln. And so at that time I decided to go ahead and start up the open mic myself.”

Baker: And the rest was history. Naked Words took off from that first event to become a monthly ritual of sorts. Hermanson said it has been described as a warm and welcoming open mic, with a laid-back and casual atmosphere where people are encouraged to be themselves. This creative freedom has attracted people of all kinds.

Hermanson: “I had a 14 year old girl come and read all her stuff, and I had an 87 year old published author–published two books–come in and read her stuff.”

Baker: As a travelling poet, Hermanson said she likes to invite other travelling poets. One such instance was in 2007, when Naked Words was held at the Benson Grind. Hermanson got a hold of a group of poets that were passing through town and talked them into adding Omaha to their journey.

Hermanson: “At that time, the Solomon Sparrow Electric Whale Revival, with Mike McGee, and Buddy Wakefield, Andrea Gibson, and some others just happened to be coming from Denver on their way to Chicago and I convinced them to stop in and spend the evening with us, and that was great.”

Baker: That evening proved to be Hermanson’s favorite of all the Naked Words sessions so far. With only three days to get the word out about it, she was pleasantly surprised when the day had come and there was a bigger crowd than she expected.

Hermanson: “We basically, into a venue that should’ve held 35 people, we packed about 75 people. So the performers were just stoked, we were all stoked. It was wall-to-wall people, and it was just great fun. It just shows what could happen and you don’t even know it’s going to happen.”

Baker: Naked Words seems to be a therapeutic and cathartic sort of event. When asked how she decided on the title, Hermanson had this to say:

Hermanson: “I like to say that clothing is optional at Naked Words, but I’m usually kidding around like that. To me, to reveal anything about yourself, like poetry or like something that you’ve written, is baring your soul. And that’s what we’re talking about with Naked Words, it’s just the bare truth of what you’re bearing.”

Baker: With the UNO School of Communication, this has been Justin Baker.

Poets prod the ears with proverbial sticks at Benson’s PS Collective.

By Justin Baker

Benson, Neb.– Every first Monday of the month, a posse of performance poets meets at the Pizza Shoppe Collective in Benson. It’s time for PROVOKE, and to provoke.

“It’s the poetic equivalent to that sharp pointy stick your mom always warned you about (Prissy poems of plump puppies passionately prancing with pink pom-poms will be highly frowned upon and dealt with severely),” writes Jack Hubbell in the event description.

The event has passed through different hands and has changed venues several times over the years, but Hubbell said it has settled in the PS Collective at the request of owner Amy Ryan. After going over a bit of the backstory of PROVOKE, he went over the rules. He said that there are usually three to four rounds so that one person isn’t speaking for too long, and a different theme is chosen every month.

“Everytime we get together, we’ll have a theme to make it a bit more difficult, to challenge us. It’s easy to write inside the box. To step outside the box quite often, we’ll have somebody come up with a particular theme, which forces you to write on it. I’ve always been impressed with it, because it makes me write out of the box.”

The theme for February was funerals, which was chosen by Heidi Hermanson, a frequent player at PROVOKE. Hermanson is a prominent poetic figure in Omaha, and recites across the city for her “Naked Words” open mic series. She said she has even once read her poetry aloud in the middle of the Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge. If you would like more info about Hermanson, visit her webpage at

The first speaker of the night was Dave Hufford, aka “The Professor.” Hufford is a retired professor of poetry from Iowa Western Community College, and is a regional star in the scene. He said he has won slam poetry competitions from the Meadowlark Café in Lincoln, Neb. to the Green Mill Lounge in Chicago, a frequent hangout for Al Capone during the Prohibition.

Then Frank O’Neal took to the stage. O’Neal is an Omaha native, who has returned home after spending some time in Southern California. His poetry was as powerful as his look, and he made effective use of gesticulation and enunciation. Poetry is his passion, and his business.  Be sure to visit his website at

After O’Neal, crowd favorite Todd Baker came on up. Sitting among the audience, he had a quiet and shy demeanor, but Baker laid down a shockwave when he got on stage. For example, with the poem he wrote titled “The Sixth Sense.”

“I see white people, filling my TV, the howling Shawnee warriors on that one show; they’re all Italians! The Egyptians and the Hebrews in the Ten Commandments all are white folks, too.

Mayberry, North Carolina is populated exclusively by whites! Strom Thurmond must’ve been pleased. The NHL and Nascar are also filled with white men. Perhaps because colored people are forbidden to either skate or drive, I’m not quite sure. It seems unfair though.”

Near the end of the night, two PROVOKE virgins tried their hands at on-stage soul-spilling. Known only as “Rock” and Joe, they got up from their tables to read some heartfelt poetry. Rock’s poem was obviously inspired by those ahead of him because it was written on a PS Collective napkin.

All in all, PROVOKE was a wonderfully awful experience. The poems were disturbing and troubling, but the atmosphere was lively, as it was easy to tell almost everyone in the group knew each other well.

The next PROVOKE night is March 4, and the theme is door-to-door salesmen. This is a perfect topic for those that have a “no solicitors” sign hanging on their door. For those that do, join the group at the PS Collective, and bring along some poetic endeavors.

PS Collective
6056 Maple St. in Benson, Neb.
(402) 556-9090