It's more like a performance-art revival than a poetry event. Music. Always music, the DJ using beats to carry the audience from poet to poet. The host, like a beloved minister, has his room at "Hello," and when the first poet takes the stage, there is an audience awakening. The poet grips the mic and breaks a momentary thread of silence with a question: "How are you all feeling tonight?" The audience responds in harmony: "Elevated!"
Elevated, the combination open-mic night with featured special-guest readings, is just one of the spoken-word events that have started since R. Spot Books on University Avenue closed last year. Hosted by Collective Purpose, a motley young bunch of spoken-word artists who think live performance is part and parcel of poetry, the event was born out of the necessity to unify a community of writers and poets left without a home. The collective crew came together and went looking for a space to perform.
They found what they were looking for at the Arts & Entertainment Center on University Avenue in North Park, a multipurpose community center with a gallery in front, a performance space in back and a powerful mural coloring the outside wall facing the alley. On Thursday nights, people cram into the back of the center to see the poets perform-the crowds have become big enough for the collective to switch Elevated from a bimonthly to a weekly event.
Last month, Collective Purpose celebrated Elevated's one-year anniversary-more than 300 fans lined up to see invited guest, Talaam Acey, a National Poetry Slam champion. But many in the crowd came to share in the collective's successes as a local arts-collaborative force and community builder. So what's the secret? How does Collective Purpose get hundreds of people to a poetry show on a Thursday night?
"We decided to pool our talents and our resources," says Christopher Wilson, who acts as the group's manager. Collective Purpose has a core crew of seven people that includes some of San Diego's most well-known poets: Anthony Blacksher (aka Ant Black), Eugene Albert III (aka The Passionate Poet), Kendrick Dial (aka Conscious), Rudy Francisco, Viet Mai, tai li la mumba mugambee and Wilson.
The collective is a tight-knit group. Their collaboration and support for one another is apparent to the Elevated crowd, and that translates into the audience's willingness to join in and participate in the performances. The poet hosts are skilled at eliciting reaction; from the start of every event, they make it known that Elevated is not a quiet poetry reading. The audience is encouraged to jump in and engage the performers and each other, sometimes through laughter and applause, other times through dialogue or even heated debates after the shows.
"Usually 20 to 30 percent of the audience stays afterward to talk about what was said, how it affected them," says Francisco. "We are a forum for free speech. People are going to have different opinions on what is said during course of the night."
"And if someone has a differing opinion," adds Wilson, "they are welcome to get up on stage during the show and respond."
The collective uses the example of Cecil Hayduke, the host of the San Diego Poetry Slam. The collective says Hayduke took a few shots at their unabashed Christianity-a common, but not overriding, theme on the Elevated stage-during one of his visits to the event.
Collective Purpose took Hayduke's rant in stride, and the two separate events and hosts have come to share audiences. They've even started working together; there's an upcoming Elevated poetry slam in the works as a fundraiser and promotional event for creating a new San Diego national slam team. Chances are a few members of Collective Purpose will make the team if it comes to fruition.
While Elevated is a free-speech event, the group prefers to keep it clean. "We want to make sure it's tasteful," explains Francisco. "But it has to be over the top for us to censor."
"It's a matter of truly offering something to the crowd versus pulling something out of your ass," adds Dial. "Shocking people without a purpose-we don't want it."
Wilson affirms that they don't want to censor anybody, but if things get out of hand, they will turn off the mic. "We had guy who did racist jokes," he says. "We shut him down. Even though the mic is open, we have a duty to make sure that type of thing is not represented in our space: homophobia, racism against blacks, Latinos."
The seven members of Collective Purpose say they are learning how to manage and grow the event as they go. They have become their own harshest and helpful critics.
"We are family," says Dial. "I'm constantly learning from everybody. We give honest feedback so we are able to see growth in ourselves and others."
"Everyone is openly critical of each other," adds Viet Mai, the newest addition to the collective, "but all out of love and growth. It's not a harmful criticism. To have that is very important, especially if we're all trying to progress. Something that I always wanted was that collaborative spirit."
"We stand together, united. It's powerful," agrees Blacksher, who's featured in an upcoming KPBS documentary called Poetry Live(s) by San Diego State University professor Mark Freeman. Blacksher says the strength of Elevated is evident in the number of A-list performers willing to come from out of town and take the stage. "We're getting talked up in D.C., New York, all around the nation."
Elevated takes place every Thursday at the Arts & Entertainment Center, 3026 University Ave. in North Park. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. $5. www.collectivepurpose.org or 619-260-1731.