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I’m writing to express
my deep disappointment in “Slamming Open Mike Poetry” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (8/2). I’m a member of the poetry collective, the Modern Urban Griots, mentioned in Coates’ essay. I began writing poetry about two years ago after I started coming to the Tuesday night open readings hosted by Toni Lightfoot at It’s Your Mug. Since then, I’ve read my work not only at cafes and nightclubs but also at schools, museums, community events, and benefits. I’ve published a chapbook, and some of my poems and reviews of poetry have been accepted for publication in various journals and magazines. All of this can be directly attributed to the encouragement and inspiration of Lightfoot.
I agree with Coates that there is often a regrettable lack of emotional maturity and concern for technical proficiency reflected in the writing presented at the Mug. Of the 50-plus members of the predominantly buppie audience that pack the Mug on any given Tuesday night, only a handful are considered to be “serious writers.” So what? Last Tuesday, Patrick Washington presented a simultaneous tribute to black women and hiphop culture that combined traditional forms of expression associated with the “toast” and “playing the dozens.” An MC named Priest may dazzle the audience with a freestyle performance on any topic thrown out to him by the audience at one set, and read a poem he’s been working on at the next set. Two weeks ago, during a “liberation” set, a 16-year-old poet named Lauren read a moving, personal piece written in the voice of Jonathan Jackson. Another 16-year-old, Beth, holds her own in a freestyle session with Priest, then recites a well-written poem about graffiti art from memory.
Moreover, Coates creates an artificial distinction between “serious writers” and hacks whose primary interest is in engaging in public masturbation or getting their mack on. In actuality, there is considerable overlap between these two categories. Someone may read a trite, meaningless piece about an empty sexual encounter one week and come back next week with something tight and insightful. An accomplished poet may arouse the audience with a technically proficient poem that says absolutely nothing, while a novice reveals his soul in the most cliched language imaginable. A Filipino-American writer, Eric Antonio, delivers a decidedly unpoetic diatribe against U.S. immigration policy one week, and a poignant, artfully crafted tribute to his stepfather the next week.
Coates is a talented and insightful young writer for whom I have immense respect and admiration. It’s for this reason I’m quite astonished that his essay fails to go beyond Lightfoot’s sultry voice and lustful demeanor to reflect her genuine commitment to supporting emerging poets and contributing to the development of the literary community in the D.C. area. Like the earlier open-mike sessions mentioned by Kenny Carroll and Brian Gilmore, the Tuesday-night sessions hosted by Lightfoot at It’s Your Mug are motivated by an impulse to make the writing and reading of poetry more democratic and accessible. They encourage writers who write because they have something to say, rather than writers who write solely for the sake of writing itself. The writing that emerges from this environment tends to be rooted in African-American oral and folk traditions and reflective of an engagement with the community and with human and social concerns, from the superficial to the profound. It’s a place where young and emerging writers feel comfortable trying out their stuff, and where the hiphop aesthetic celebrated in Coates’ own writing meets and mingles with older traditions on equal footing.
I’ve generally found Coates to be a young person possessing a degree of insight and maturity often lacking in persons several years older. While his observations of the general literary and social environment at the Mug are entirely valid, instructive, and constructive, the aspersions cast on Lightfoot’s intentions and sincerity are not worthy of a person of his capability and potential.