Is the revolution a rerun?Confessions of a spoken-word careerist
At this very second, I'm Stacey Tolbert-mama, wife, writer, teacher, best taco maker, militant born-again feminist.
Run into me later and you may just come mouth-to-ear with the Brown Suga Poet. The Brown Suga Poet doesn't make tacos. The Brown Suga Poet makes inner rhymes, metaphor sandwiches.
Behind every creative persona, there is a Clark Kent-a day jobber plying his or her way through the world. Robert Frost was a poultry farmer, William Carlos Williams a pediatrician, T.S. Eliot a banker.
Wallace Stevens was the vice president of an insurance company, for chrissakes.
The first time I performed my "this is only for me" poetry in front of a crowd of 100-plus artists and activists, academians, slammers and poetosophers, I was pure nerves. I noticed a man in the front row wasn't paying much attention-staring, instead, at my funky, psychedelic shoes. He was probably unaware of their trés chic style, but he had noticed the pink toilet tissue stuck to the soles.
What he didn't know was that the tissue was planned-a visual aid for my first spoken-word performance.
I had written quite a bit and inhaled the words of Sonia Sanchez, the Last Poets, the Watts Prophets, Langston Hughes and Amiri Baraka. Yet it was the films Slam and Love Jones that really stoked my fire for taking poetry to the streets (or coffee bars).
While reading Shakespeare in junior high, no one tells you that you can take your poetry to the stage as easily, if not as famously, as the Bard. Of course, no one told me that poetry didn't have to rhyme, either.
The long-standing debate is whether poetry is a page or stage art form.
And really, who's qualified to define the confines of art?
Either way, poetry is slightly more commercial nowadays, and the topic of heated discussions among bohemians and academians.
"Is it live or is it Memorex" has been replaced by "Did he or she rock the mic?"
Were they "the bomb" or did they bomb?
Poetry has now emerged from the underground, with famous faces like Saul Williams, star of the movie Slam, known for his expressive style and edgy political-mambo-gumbo, fast-talking presentation that shocks audiences. Williams isn't polished in the sense of "and now I'm going to recite some sophisticated work for you." His attire is T-shirts and ripped jeans, wild dreadlocks and an unshaven face. His performance pieces are strong, rhythmic, putting the audience on the edge of their seats even though some have no clue what the man is saying.
Williams rocked-a term that had never before applied to this reserved art form. Still does. After his first book, The Seventh Octave, fans and newcomers were able to read his words. They sat with those words, possibly understood them more than when he rattled them off live and in-person.
Within a year of the Saul Williams phenomenon, smaller versions of this poet tree sprouted, some even using his familiar stylistic devices ("I am that... I am that... I am that..."). Many of these Saulites replaced his unique mix of reality, politics and philosophy with their own mundane accounts of life. They looked like Williams, acted liked Williams, but they were no Williams.
Years later, Saul Williams isn't even the Saul Williams who altered the poetry world with Slam. He's had a successful hip-hop album on a major record label. He's recorded with Rage Against the Machine's Zach de la Rocha and Serj Tankian of System of a Down. He's had a recurring role on the UPN sitcom, Girlfriends.
But he is still one of the best slam poets on the scene.
And what, post-Williams, does that scene look like-specifically, in San Diego?
Imagine a world where hosts, poets and audience members are all interchangeable. Audience members wait, Matrix-style, for the Neo of poetry to save the night, impart life's golden truth. Or just make them laugh or cry or slightly intrigue them through a cup of coffee.
Spoken-word nights come and go. The intimate Poetic Brew, for example, hosted by superb wordsmith Marc Kockinos at North Park's Claire de Lune is no more, but there are still regulars you can count on, like Everything's Aloud at the bo-ho College Area hot-spot, Hot Monkey Love Café.
Over at R Spot, San Diego's first African-American-owned bookstore, Mistress of Ceremonies Toosdhi McGowan has seen lots of poets at her Friday night open mics. And though she enjoys the hosting, she does have a list of on-the-mic pet peeves-mainly poets who ignore the "two-piece maximum" rule, poets who read the same shit all the time, poets who can't read their own handwriting, drunk poets and poets who spit all over the mic.
"Dayum, that is gross," she says. "I don't get hazard pay."
Musician and poet Shannon Bates is the host of "The Soapbox," at the Living Room Coffee House in Old Town. Though the central thesis of the night is poetry, the evening often opens up to all kinds.
"Many of the regulars are also artists of many talents, and I welcome the diversity," she says. "We even have performance artists show up to share."
Breaking down the scene
With the help of Shannon Bates of The Soapbox and CityBeat's Troy Johnson (a poetry award-winner himself who held a short-term position as the "resident poet" on the now-defunct KPBS radio show, "The Lounge"), we have defined a few types of poets that you might see any given night-at The Soapbox, or any other open-mic session.
Ingtionationers-Those with large affinities for -ing and -tion suffixes. Example: Every generation has some contemplation over the frustration of ending the beginning.
Historically Aloof Revolutionaries-Those who constantly quote Gil-Scot Heron's famous line, "The revolution will not be televised" but have no idea who Heron is. Example: The revolution will not be televised, will not be televised, will not be televised. Somehow I forgot to study my history and that's my demise.
The Lovers-Poets who come off like a compilation of Hallmark Valentine's Day cards. Example: Love is the essence of my being and without you, I am nothing to love.
Spanish Flies-Poets who view poetry as the ultimate seductive power, trying to woo audience members as they stroke the mic with majestic, big, superficial egos. Example: I'm so good in bed at least that's what my last girlfriend said. See I like to make you cum while you hum songs of joy in my ear.
Laundry Listers-Poets whose content is detailed with minute minutiae. Example: Today when I got up to feed the dog, he was hungry, I gave him food, he slept and ate and then the phone rang. I answered so happily and then you hung up.
Semi Songbirds-Poets who sing after every other word. No examples necessary; you hear the tune I'm playing.
The Haters-Poets who hate the police, the system, politics and in some cases-each other. Example: Fuck George Bush, the men in blue, the monetary prison that we trust and you too, buddy, in the front row.
Ivory Tower Snobs-Academians who hate open mics because, well, a good portion of the earth's population is intellectually beneath them. They only grace the mic when requested, making sure to pass out flyers for workshops because they've got a lot of help to give, and you need it, my friend. Example: The sophomoric ways of our current millennium scribes sends a negative electric current of disgust up my well-educated spine and I question where the future of our literary greatness is going. (Of course, there would be a longer and better word for "going.")
Bleeding Hearts-Poets who should pass out tissue because their material is an endless procession of broken heart xample: The world is not at peace and children die daily from AIDS, poverty and neglect-down the street, not just overseas.
Blottos-Poets who get on the mic stoned out of their minds and get standing ovations because they are so "original." Example: Mother (pause) nature is (pause) the nature of my being so blessed (pause), distressed I don't let it get the best of my vest... ibule is what I've become (eyes closed).
Crystal Consultants-Poets who douse the stage with sage and incense after they discuss the meaning of good and bad karma. Example: You need to be cleansed, my brothers and sisters... what you put out is what you put in but what are you putting in... out?
One-Trick Ponies-Poets who come with five journals yet read the same poem over and over and over again-their signature piece, on which they give a dissertation before they read. Example: Now let's see (flipping pages) I'm feeling good tonight. I'm feeling real good. How y'all feeling? You know (flipping pages) I was just thinking about how I was feeling and how y'all were feeling and the feeling of that feeling is such a good feeling. (Flipping pages)
I have been one or all of the above at any given moment in my spoken-word "career." Open mic is my weapon or tool. Depends on how you look at it. Depends on how you use it. Depends on who's wearing the cape.
Although I poked a little fun at some of the types of poets, San Diego poetry is thriving.
A Second Soul
Words to know before you enter the big, bad poetry scene
As Charlemagne once proclaimeth, "To have another language is to possess a second soul."
And since anyone who's cut off an old lady in traffic or lived past the age of 6 has had their soul forever tarnished by the blunt force of this cruel world, we feel that, hell, having a spare is never a bad thing. And so as you venture into this imposing world of acrobatic language whose foot soldiers use metaphors like currency (well, OK, that's a simile), we hereby arm you with the basic words you'll need to get by.
It's like telling someone how to say "you're a snooty prick" in French before they head off to Versailles.
(Note: This list was a collaborative effort between poet Stacey Tolbert and Troy Johnson, who claims he was " totally into the poetry scene in college." As a general rule, the positive, heartfelt things written below are Tolbert's. Any tinge of sarcasm, jadedness, jealousy or spite is no doubt the result of Johnson's own failings as a poet. As they say, those who can't do become newspaper editors.)
Academian-Someone who was formally trained in creative writing at a university. Their poetry is often more formalized. They also are often broke because they're the most educated person working at Barnes & Noble and not doing well with those student loans.
Mic-Short for "microphone," because abbreviations are always cooler.
Open Mic-A poetry reading that allows anyone who signs the sign-up sheet to read at least two to three pieces of poetry aloud. (Some venues censor, some do not.) Quality ranges from genius to something that reminds you of your dog's breath after that one time it ate its own feces.
Spoken Word-Poetry that has escaped from the cold, mute world of dead trees to be read aloud to an audience or into some audio recording device. Usually written on paper first and memorized, if short-term memory hasn't been tampered with so as to result in its diminishment.
Spoken Wordist-One who frequently performs spoken word. And, yes, we poets are comfy with the fact that all we did was conjugate the act itself.
Slam-A loud, forceful impact. Though people have been known to dance in such a manner, it isn't recommended.
Slam Poetry-Performing poetry out loud to an audience in "competition" with other poets. The goal is to recite a hard-hitting poem that causes a reaction from the audience while staying within a certain time frame and being graded by judges on a scale from 1 to 10. And those judges are usually judgmental bastards.
Slammer-One who performs slam poetry. Again with the unimaginative conjugation.
Piece-One poem, as in "I have a nice piece I'd like you to read when you get some free time." Not, "That's a nice piece of ass"-although poets have been known to appreciate nice posteriors.
Workshopping-When a group of poets and/or writers come together to meet; usually includes several seasoned poets who offer critiques and guidance to newbies. Pieces are usually passed out to each person for comments-and the quality is always a crapshoot. Critiques-hopefully constructive-are given to the individual. Note that "That poem sucks," "You are an awful writer," "Open mic poetry is all bad, especially yours" and "You'll never make it as a writer" are not constructive critiques.
Poetosopher-One who prides themselves on talking about poetry 24/7. Worse, they usually try to engage you in the conversation. Refer to the definition of "piece," which reveals that poets do occasionally think about other things.
Poet Tree-One who feels poetry is a part of their nature-a poet who is not afraid to branch out, receive criticism, give honest critiques and appreciates the poetic stylings of others. These people also ride unicorns from one rainbow to another collecting gold.
Sign-up sheet-A piece of paper at a poetry venue on which people who wish to read their poetry aloud sign in. There's always that one guy who gets there super early and is first on the list. Always.
Virgin-A poet who is reading their poetry for the first time aloud to an audience. They usually suck.
Drop It-When one is getting ready to read their poetry. It makes us sound like rap MCs.
Going Underground-When a writer or poet decides to take some time out from poetry venues and, in some cases, takes a break from e-mail, instant messaging and phone calls. Also known as "checking into rehab," "visiting the funny farm" or "fleeing the state."
In The Lab-After one has taken a break from poetry and comes back to the stage and their pieces are much stronger. Also known as "plagiarism."
Well-spoken-A poet who appears to have a lot of knowledge of the art form, whether through education or not. Also known as "those rich bastards who went to Yale."
Shine-When a poet graces the stage and the audience immediately opens their eyes wide, stops breathing, stops chewing gum, sits on the edge of their seat and listens. These may or may not be the rich bastards from Yale.
Where they drop it
Our (by no means comprehensive) list of open-mic/spoken-word events around town.Open Mics
Spot Sessions at R. Spot Barber and Books
First and third Fridays at 8 p.m. $5
3013 University Ave., North Park, 619-297-7768
Upcoming: Lucia Conga (Feb. 4); Kendrick Dial (Feb. 18)
Third Word at Voz Alta
First and third Mondays at 8 p.m. Donations accepted
1544 Broadway, Downtown, 619-230-1869
Back to Back at Hot Monkey Love Café
Tuesdays at 8 p.m. (sign-up begins at 7 p.m.)
5960 El Cajon Blvd., College Area, 619-582-5908
Everything's Aloud at Hot Monkey Love Café
Wednesdays at 8 p.m. (sign-up at 7 p.m.), hosted by Victor Payan
5960 El Cajon Blvd., College Area, 619-582-5908
Expressions Unlimited at Malcolm X Library
First and third Wednesdays at 8 p.m. Free
5148 Market St., Encanto 619-527-3405
Floetic Escape at Club Rio
Thursdays at 9 p.m. (21+) $5 cover
1299 Camino del Rio South, Mission Valley, 619-299-3544
Vibes at the Coffee House on Broadway
Saturdays from 8-10 p.m., hosted by Eduardo Cong and Amara Momoh
2991 Broadway, Golden Hill.
San Diego Slam at Voz Alta
Second and fourth Mondays at 8:30 p.m. (sign-up at 8 p.m.)
$5 fee for competitors
1544 Broadway, Downtown, 619-230-1869
2005 San Diego/Miramar College Poetry Jam
Friday, Feb. 11, 6-8:30 p.m.
Miramar College Lecture Hall 101A/B
10440 Black Mountain Road, Miramar, 619-388-7800
Featuring: Toosdhi McGowan (Mistress of Ceremonies), Michelle Coons,
Sunflower Dubois, Jasun Edmonds, Bennie Herron,
Los Able Minded Poets (NAZ), Theresa F, Salim Sivaad