Book Review -- John M. Starino: The Phoenix Returns

I moved to Columbia in 2006 by way of Ithaca, NY. Ithaca is a place where hippies are alive and well, not just in attire but in politics. Children protest the asphalt invasions of their favorite parks and being a vegan isn’t viewed as some passing college phase. In other words, it’s a bit different from our dear ole Soda City. In an attempt to reacquaint myself with this sometimes artistically challenging locale I scoured the Free Times for any familiar outlet I could plug my live wire self into. My “lights from heaven” moment came in the form of a tiny little ad under the literary column announcing a weekly open mic. A number was printed below. I had recently graduated with a degree in creative writing and thought reading poetry was just the greatest. This might be the perfect way to shake hands with my new hometown. I called the number.


“Umm hi, I was calling in regards to the posting for the open mic?”

“Yes! It’s a group called Phoenix Tongue that meets every Wednesday night at 9pm at The Red Tub in West Columbia. Are you a poet?”

“Sort of. I just moved here and wanted to try something new.”

“Well, then we’ll see you Wednesday.”

I have an awful memory but that’s about the way it went. What I thought was the number for the bar itself turned out to be the cell of Phoenix Tongue’s master chief, John M. Starino aka SilDag or Silver Dagger. In the world of spoken word poetry stage names are very important. They let the audience know what to expect before you even begin to speak. John Starino has a very distinct way of speaking. You won’t forget the first place you met him and you won’t ever mistake him for anyone else ... except maybe Castro. He looks a LOT like Castro. Artistically scruffy salt and pepper beard, vivid blue eyes and a knowing grin. His typical attire includes a well worn hat, a blazer, and jeans. He appears, for lack of a better term, like a poet. A Bukowski/Ginsburg love child with enough grace and passion for his art to keep him from seeming ungrateful. A character. An individual.

John is the reason I became a part of Columbia’s poetry community. He took me to my very first slam and introduced me to my current friends and mentors. He told me that I did not suck and encouraged me to dream big. But most of all, to keep moving forward. To John everything is possible. He successfully ran Phoenix Tongue at the Red Tub for over two years. An event that started at 9pm but would typically continue until the wee hours of the morning. I remember Thursdays at work were always a bit rough but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Poetry was alive there. It was lovely and ugly and sweaty. Full of heat and life. John ran it like a well oiled ship, one careful hand always on the wheel, while the other wove the stories of his life. I had no idea poetry could be so honest.

Since the Red Tub’s closing, an event much mourned by all, John has held Phoenix Tongue in several locations throughout Columbia and Lexington. Each boasting a different vibe but all saturated in the air of art and sharing. This is what John is. This is what John does. He creates opportunities to share your voice, tell your story, and scream outside your pillow. His new event, “The Library Series,” is held Thursday nights at Cafe Chartier in the Old Mill in Lexington. It is currently on summer vacation but will be back again in the fall. Join John for a cup of coffee and a poem or two. It may well be the first step on a long and lovely journey towards self discovery.

As no journey is complete without a souvenir, John’s newest collection of poetry, Onion Season, Pt.1 is now available online through,, and the Columbia Writer’s Alliance online bookstore at He emphasizes that it is though his membership with Columbia Writers Alliance that this publication was possible due largely to the support of its founder, Jerlean S. Noble, as well as its offering of various workshops. John is heading off on tour this summer along with another local legend, THE Dubber, but will be back in July to shine his light on Columbia. John M. Starino is a poetic figurehead and someone worth knowing. Next time you run into him buy a book, shake his hand and ask about a certain “beer poem.” Trust me, it’ll be worth it.

-- Kendal Turner