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It is hard to talk about black poetry and not talk about Washington, D.C. The District has been the home of scribes such as Sterling Brown, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, and Larry Neal. Even today, D.C. is a powerhouse of critically acclaimed simile-slingers, including E. Ethelbert Miller, Doloros Kendrick, and Thomas Sayers Ellis. The message: You can scream about Harlem till your windpipe snaps, but Go-Go City is not to be slept on.
Given the tradition of black poetry in the city, it is unsurprising that the black open-mike poetry scene is also thriving. Take tonight. It’s Tuesday at It’s Your Mug, a small black-owned Georgetown cafe. Walk inside and you’re greeted by a panorama of overpriced cakes, pies, danishes, and pastries. The smell of cappuccino hangs like a thick cloud of blunt smoke.
Upstairs, Toni Asante Lightfoot is holding an open-mike poetry reading. But this isn’t 50-ish English professors pontificating on flowers, birds, and stars. This is Twain Dooley, who stands up during the “drive-by set” and announces, “This piece is entitled ‘What I Owe You.’” Dooley stares at the crowd a few seconds, then sits down without saying a word. Moments later, the crowd catches the joke and explodes in laughter. This is also a local poet announcing to the crowd that he’s reading a piece that he has recently revised, and within microseconds having two voices from separate pockets of the room harmonize a response: “You ain’t revise that shit!” Poetry reading. Yeah, right.
It’s Your Mug is part of a larger movement that has swept the country over the past decade. In the form of poetry slams, featured poets, and open mikes, performance poetry has dramatically altered the cultural landscape. You can see poets singing, dancing, jumping, crying—all of it—during a reading.
There are weeks in D.C. during which you can find a poetry event every day. Yet despite the seeming popularity of open mikes, many still question whether what you hear at places like the Mug is even literature. Charges of poetry being aimed at getting applause or money, even at seducing the opposite sex, and of not being written with artistic quality in mind, are everywhere.
Kenneth Carroll has been on the poetry scene since the mid-’80s. In the summer of 1990 he started the African-American Writers Guild Sunday Evening Poetry Series at Anacostia’s 8Rock. “The 8Rock place was the only place at the time that I can think of that really focused on black writing,” says Carroll. Occasionally, writers would organize events at their homes, he notes, but there were no other open-mike places that focused on African-Americans.
But as the open-mike scene grew, things changed. Poetry began being featured at cafes and restaurants. But according to critics, as poetry’s popularity rose, its quality fell. The current scene, Carroll says, “seems to have really little to do with actual literature, which is a difference [from] when I started reading at open mikes. Everybody back then, when you came to an open reading…was reading their work as a way to sort of get it out in the world. But the true deal…was that they were…trying to strengthen their work to be published somewhere. And I think there’s a difference now. I think at readings now the principal focus is not to get your work published, but heard….And that, I think, accounts partly…at least relatively speaking, [for] the poor quality of the work.”
Carroll is not exactly some puritanical literary academic. His own poetry almost always challenges the academy in style and sometimes in content. His often political writing is delivered in a rousing manner that never fails to excite supporting exclamations from the audience. Carroll is exactly the type of person you would expect to see at an open mike.
As is Brian Gilmore. Gilmore, Carroll, and DJ Renegade form the 8Rock collective, a group of poets who have traveled widely reading their poetry together. Gilmore has been on the poetry scene since 1987, and he is also critical of open mikes. “I wouldn’t wanna be reading every week,” he exclaims. “I wanna be writing every week….I don’t care if you hear, my goal is to get published….I didn’t get in it for some spoken word.”
While Renegade is also critical, he holds that the black open-mike scene can help Washington literature. “I agree with Kenny on one hand,” he says, “but I think his statements are little too strong. I think there are still people who come out to open-mike readings who are interested in being published.” Still, he admits the scene has changed. “When Kenny and them first came on the scene, and even early on at 8Rock, everybody who came to 8Rock either really liked reading or really liked reading poetry, whereas nowadays, like It’s Your Mug…it’s like a social thing.”
Lightfoot, for her money, has no problem with that description. “People come here for fun. If you don’t wanna have fun, take your ass to the Writers Center….You have fun here. This is a place where you get your mack on, where you get a great cup of coffee, and you hear maybe five or six poems.”
She sees the Mug’s open-mike nights as primarily a social affair, not as a place to experience the heights of literature. “I might hear a total of eight good poems,” says Lightfoot. “I don’t do it to hear good poetry.” As she puts it, she is not “trying to develop Pulitzer Prize–winners.” Lightfoot herself is an interesting figure. The sultry-voiced, self-designated “jazz poet” is the originator of the “lust poetry set,” an event that quickly became synonymous with the Mug.
Unfortunately, lust poetry often became just lust verbalized. “Shit was out the box,” says Renegade. “The Mug had basically become the place for young buppies who were somewhat literate. It was like the poetry equivalent of the club scene….It was very much turning into a meat market.” He says it got so bad that one evening “this dude came in and passed out roses to all the women and read this super-seriously fucked-up poem. That was probably the low point.”
Even Lightfoot had her limits. Tired of hearing people reading erotic poetry just to call attention to themselves, she put a ban on lust and love poetry for a month. She also instituted workshops on Thursdays and OPP (Other People’s Poetry) sets, in which someone reads a famous poet’s writing, with the hope of exposing people to better work.
Carroll isn’t sympathetic. “I think part of the reason Toni stopped the shit was not that she had some aesthetic epiphany. I think she began to get criticism for the shit….I think it’s important that she stopped the shit, but I don’t know how important because…it’s [still just] entertainment.”
Heart and Soul is a black restaurant in Southeast Washington that features an open mike hosted by the poetry collective Generation 2000. Many of the members of Generation 2000 got their start at the Mug. Generation 2000 member Tiffany Peagram feels that the open-mike scene has definitely helped her poetry. “When I first started writing,” she says, “I was really just writing for catharsis, but it’s different when you have feedback….And even when you don’t get feedback you can definitely, like, measure when you get a response and when you don’t. It makes you think about what you write.”
But it is exactly the type of response that people get, mainly in applause, that many claim can hamper growth. Out of politeness, most people clap for whoever is reading, regardless of whether they like what they hear or not. Even if applause were effective, often the people in the audience know very little about poetry; even if they heard a good poem, they might not know it.
“I don’t write for the audience. I write for other writers,” says Brandon Johnson, a frequent patron of the Mug’s Tuesday open mike. “The whole thing I want is for other writers to come up to me and [critique my work]…or I’ll ask other people, ‘What did you think of this particular line?’”
Johnson is also a member of the M.U.G. (Modern Urban Griots), a poetry collective formed by It’s Your Mug regulars. He doesn’t seem to place much stock in applause, saying merely, “It’s nice.” Undoubtedly, Johnson’s take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward applause has much to do with why he’s considered one of the best poets at the Mug.
Carroll summarizes the whole scene rather simply: “Look, literature is a solitary event. You gotta go, like the musicians used to say, to the woodshed. You can’t get better in a crowd….If you read from now until the end of time, that won’t necessarily make you better….I don’t see that commitment among a lot of [open-mike poets]. They don’t wanna to go the woodshed, cause ain’t nobody clapping….This shit ain’t glamorous.” CP