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Words Like Freedom: Black Poetry Movement Wants Acceptance, A Home

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"Sometimes, I think it's the only thing I know how to do. I know it's the only thing that I want to do." I could hear myself saying these words, spilling my soul, to my friend Michael Norris, aka Verbal, one of the few white spoken-word, hip/hop artist in the city. He was telling me to go for it. Just write. He asked me if I had ever read any of my work before. When I responded that I had not, he invited me to a place that he was sure would help with my anxiety: Seven All Arts Cafe. I had heard of it before. A friend had invited me to go with her for reggae one night, but when we got to the location, 110 Wesley Street, we found padlocked doors.

Turns out, Seven had reopened on McWillie Drive next to Stamps Burgers, one of its many stops since jazz musician Ezra Brown first opened the doors in 2000 to give local spoken-word artists a forum of their own. When I finally went in July 2001, I was hooked. In one spot was a conglomeration of mostly African-American writers, artists, and musicians: a mixture of people who made my work seem childish, people who inspired me, people whom I had to be near. Thus, I began to regularly show up at Seven late Thursday nights for poetry and jazz, often inviting my Millsaps friends, black and white, to go along.

Some people don't even know a vibrant underground spoken-word movement exists in Jackson, or in the country for that matter. Others, including some younger artists inspired by the movement, think the art form was born with black Chicago "slam" poet Regie Gibson's famed appearance in New Line Cinema's 1997 film "love jones."

Some believe Russell Simmons' "Def Poetry Jam" on HBO created the form. Others would mistakenly refer to the popular poets Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez, who graced Jackson State University, along with Gibson on Oct. 16, as "those poets who have been on 'Def Jam,'" not realizing that these are the "elders" of a decades-old black arts movement.

Although black poets Margaret Walker Alexander and Maya Angelou wrote and read poems here in the 1960s, a black arts movement didn't take root in Jackson until the late 1970s. Since then, it has routinely faced an array of obstacles from both within (artists being concerned with the art and not business; personal squabbles) and without (being forced to move around so much that followers get lost in the shuffle; being shunned by mainstream venues).

Yet, the movement always lives, in one form or another.

"THE BISCUIT PLACE. What was the name of that place? Ask." I am listening to the sultry and intelligent voice of Ramona Ward, now an assistant professor of theater at Alabama State University in Montgomery. In the 1970s, she was one of the founders of the spoken-word movement in Jackson. Ward, by phone, is now trying to describe to me one of the many places where poetry readings were held, including Frank's World Famous Biscuits, which used to be on President Street downtown.

Ward is being careful and methodical, repeating details and trying to bring along the young, white girl she has assumed she is talking to (only later to find out that I am, in fact, black). Ward takes me back to a time when a conglomeration of young writers, artists, poets, musicians and dancers needed to vent. In 1980, along with then-husband Brian Ward and D. Brian Williams, she started "The Shop" as a place where about 20 beginners, all from places other than Jackson, would come together at different times and locations to workshop poems or just to listen, share and talk. "The Shop" was first held at Crystal's Lounge, a club formerly on Tupelo Street near Jackson State. The artists had contracted with the owner to provide non-alcoholic beverages and take a cover at the door. "It's always been a team effort," Ward says. But it was a team of artists and not businesspeople, thus "The Shop" "broke down" after only six months.

These young artists were following in the footsteps of orators like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Before them, back in the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance produced poets like Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Gwendolyn B. Bennett.

Before those spoken-word giants, of course, were the many black men and women who, although they did not read or write, passed along the oral tradition in a vivid way that perhaps only the illiterate can. During slavery, then emancipation, Reconstruction and the dark Jim Crow days, African history was recorded orally and passed on, producing some of the greatest orators and writers of all time.

An oral tradition, however—with its very roots in an illiterate, but articulate way of communicating—is often antithetical to what many scholars consider high art and acceptable literary standards. This traditional intellectual discomfort, and even rejection of political protest and more raw and narrative constructions, can leave a movement riddled with problems and with no strong support system. In Jackson, the black poetry movement has had to slink its way from biscuit restaurant to watering holes with too many drugs in the bathrooms just to find a stage for its poets to perform on. And it's been hard to find people dedicated enough to lead the arts movement here into permanent quarters and a more acceptable standing in the community.

Ward says that while different "independent" poetry gatherings happened at restaurants or clubs throughout the city, the efforts were sporadic and disorganized. And even then, some announced events might not happen, and even when they did, maybe only every other month. Still, the spoken word was working its magic: bringing people, especially black people, together.

JOLIVETTE ANDERSON is wearing a gray-black head wrap. Calorie shell earrings that match the choker around her neck dangle from her ears. She has a round face with straight eyebrows; and, though she is jovial-sounding—laughing quite often, her shoulders shaking—she is serious-faced. To hear her speak is to marvel at how one person can know so much. Anderson, an actress originally from Shreveport, La., came to Jackson in 1993 at age 25 after receiving an internship at New Stage Theatre, the only professional theater in the state.

In the fall of 1996, Anderson began hosting events at a small coffeehouse called the Java Parlor (formerly located at the end of West Capitol Street) on Wednesday nights. After its closing, Anderson partnered with Ezra Brown to host events at the Living Room Coffeehouse in 1997, which drew both black and white poets to listen and read.
But too much work, ego, and a "fallout" between Brown and Anderson led to the end of the partnership and a lull in the events.

In order for the poetry scene to survive, more formal organization was necessary. A group of local young black intellectuals—Derek Johnson, Marcus Uganda White, Diallo and C. Liegh McInnis—began hosting poetry/educational events throughout the city, calling themselves Southern Vibes. They first held readings at Frank's Biscuits. Anderson began hosting the roving events for the Vibes in January 1998. The events were, she says, reminiscent of Harlem intellectual circles where thinkers as different as Thurgood Marshall, Red Foxx and Malcolm X would gather to discuss art and politics.

Also in 1998, a Farish Street club, The Birdland, started featuring jazz and poetry on Sunday nights. Jackson jazz singer Rhonda Richmond would perform to a "cross-section" of Jackson residents that included everyone from "drug dealers, professors, attorneys, the young and old," who came for "the vibe," Ward remembers. The scene was taking root …but not for long.

After a shooting at The Birdland in the summer of 1998 in which one person was killed in the parking lot while poets read inside, the crowd grew thin. "People stopped coming," Ward says simply. The movement was again homeless.

Spoken Word's Jackson history is plagued by a rootlessness that frustrates the poets. Although the art form is extremely popular, it has been difficult for the artists to find venues where they can hold jam sessions, readings and workshops. The primary reason has not been because it is the type of art form that attracts violent activity. If anything, the poets and their audience are shunned for not drinking enough alcohol, buying enough food or tipping well enough.

Brown says restaurant owners have been reluctant to allow their spaces to be used as poetry and jazz venues because of the risk of not making enough money. The cover charge, says Brown, usually pays the band. Restaurateurs then count on food and alcohol for profit, which isn't very high when the attending crowd is primarily new artists with little money and people who are there for the vibe that only the combination of music and poetry can bring.

Subtle racism and different cultural habits may also play a role. Restaurant workers will complain that black patrons "do not tip," even as black poetry patrons are willing to pay cover charges in order to hear performances.

C. LIEGH MCGINNIS a Jackson State English professor and writer, says that even if the readings draw a crowd of 150 or more, most restaurant owners do not see it as "a feasible way to earn capital." McInnis fondly remembers times when the lists to read would be cut off as early as 10:15 p.m., but the events would last well until one or two o'clock the next morning. Everyone just read or listened to poetry, often the type that might motivate them toward radical change or to fight against certain political or social ideas.

The academy might not approve, but these poets don't care. "Real thinkers do stuff. PhDs quote what they do," McInnis says. McInnis, a large black man, has a neatly trimmed beard and fresh cornrows. He wears a red shirt, black pants, black loafers with no socks. Although he teaches at a university, McInnis is, more importantly, a writer inspiring young writers. He writes and publishes poetry, fiction and essays in his Black Magnolias, a literary magazine. For the black arts movement in Jackson, he is one of the "elders." Featured alongside Giovanni, Sanchez and Gibson at the recent Artist Exchange Poetry Jam, he is not just local talent. He speaks of his goal for writing: to challenge people to think and to help create a record of history. McInnis wants his words, not the performance, to move his readers and listeners which is why he chooses to no longer read with musicians. He asks me to read something titled "Brief Notes on Writing vs. Spoken Word." In it, he talks about something that I have asked every poet: Where is spoken word going? McInnis is frustrated with poetry that works well in performance, but is "flat and one-dimensional on the page." The emphasis, he says, should be back on "writing, reading and sharing," not on poetic performances.

Anderson agrees, saying that some "spoken word is written for the stage … in a book, it's trash." Likewise, she believes that poets hold a great responsibility and must, therefore, hold a certain level of consciousness and be involved with social actions of the community. McInnis argues that in order for the art to survive, black artists need "linguistic liberation." That is, they must control the spoken-word movement and use it to "show a bridge to the written word," and showcase the aesthetic of black people, he writes.

How do you define and control a movement that the participants themselves don't always agree on? Some poets say their work can only be performed and not understood on the page; others prefer that their poetry be as powerful on the page. "Spoken word" poetry typically has a message; "slam" is about speed and performance. "Def poetry" is typically political, but the rules, especially on TV specials, often blur. Anderson says spoken word can help expose young poets to "elders" such as Giovanni and Sanchez, and push them to develop their craft. Still, she argues, shows like HBO's "Def Poetry Jam" may lead to bad knock-offs such as that network's "Punani Poets," and slam competitions often focus on negative images of the black community. Other poets, such as Verbal, believe the exposure will help people understand the art better before getting involved.

Not everyone is thrilled with the politics and blatant race or sex discussion behind many of the pieces, which are often performed passionately. ("As a black woman/All whites are potentially dangerous/As black children/we would lose our self esteem/In their American dream," Anderson wrote.) Unfortunately, such "revolutionary" thought, as Anderson refers to the education of young black minds, was not always in line with the light-hearted "club" atmosphere that many bar and restaurant owners tend to promote.

BY 1999, MCGINNIS AND the Southern Vibes had jumped to HighLites, a restaurant on West County Line Road across from Tougaloo College, where they performed Saturday nights. Brown had started his own band, E.B. & Company, and would play at the Living Room on Thursday nights, with poetry readings during the band's breaks.

But soon "artistic differences" led to the end of the Southern Vibes with Diallo walking away from the project, White moving to Italy and the rest now calling themselves Mississippi Vibes. While one member wanted to censor the poets and writers, and tone down the revolutionary overtones, another wanted to let individuals grow into their own voices no matter what was said, says Anderson, now a member of Mississippi Vibes. The events they hosted came to a standstill. At the same time, Brown's stint at the Living Room ended, he says, because black poets were speaking in a location that drew a predominantly white crowd who were not comfortable with many of the sentiments expressed by the poetry. He spent the next couple of years hopping between locations including Sandy's, the Red Fish and George Street Grocery. He points to myriad reasons for his continual bounce, including both capitalism and racism.

Brown decided to start his own poetry and jazz cafe. So he opened Seven All Arts Cafe at 110 Wesley Street. In a way, the cafe flourished; it was featured on ETV specials and was the site of two public-access television shows about poetry and jazz in the city.

But artists were subjected to "trashy conditions," Brown remembers; the air conditioning and the heat worked only sometimes or worked too well when not needed. Due to what he calls "owner problems," Brown had a hard time rectifying those conditions. Worse, the club was featured on a local TV news show as one of the hottest places in the city to buy Ecstasy, which Brown says he had nothing to do with. Brown then moved to 4652 McWillie Drive, right next door to Stamps Burgers where the Mississippi Vibes were hosting poetry. He stayed there until May 2002 when he vacated the spot; he is now involved in a lawsuit with the owner that he will not discuss.

BARELY A MONTH AFTER its tangerine double doors opened in fall 2002, Brown's new Seven*, now at 206 West Capitol at Roach Street, is well known to a few and unknown to most. Poetry enthusiasts can walk into the world of hip-hop, spoken word and black culture.
Black leather couches cradle the entrance; wood-trimmed chairs with black seats line the walls and bump up to the tangerine-topped tables. The bar top is lined with magazines like Vibe and XXL and books like "bum rush the page: a def poetry jam." The room is lit by only two symmetrical IKEA lights that look like seashells spiraling from the ceiling. Artwork of local artist Felandus Thames hangs on the blue walls that frame a haven that caters to poets, spoken-word artists, jazz and neo-soul musicians, artists and free stylers.
The scene is alive again with Brown's latest effort gaining popularity, despite some inconsistent hours, initial disorganization and uneven sources of revenue (many events are no cover; the cafe serves only non-alcoholic beverages).
Brown hopes to eventually be a full-fledged Internet cafe and the only cafe in the city that provides a home for creatives—writers, poets, musicians, artists and photographers.
Meantime, Mississippi Vibes artists are not meeting regularly, but urge young writers to continue supporting the scene, including attending events at Brown's Seven*. "Everyone has to support everyone's stuff—the Mississippi Vibes, Ezra's stuff," Ward says.
While the spoken-word community has seen its share of difficulties, all agree that the art will never end. Whether it is because of a love for performance or oration, or whether it is because the power of truth in poetry is unstoppable, the black arts movement has proved resilient and as powerful as other popular literary traditions in Mississippi.

Previous Comments

ID
76694
Comment

Shannon Buckley, My name is Jessica Holter, founder of The Punany Poets. (Not "Punani") I would love to have a conversation with you and/or Ms. Anderson...If I wasn't busy planning my world tour... regarding your reference to The Punany Poets as a "knock off" of anything. Perhaps you are not referring to our group, but rather to the group that "KNOCKED OFF" of us called The Punani Poets...From down south somewhere... However, if you have mistakenly suggested that The Punany Poets did not catapult the art and entertainment of spoken word into the mainstream with the first documentary featured world wide on a major American Network, then I am convinced, that since you did not spell the name of my collective correctly, you also did not reasearch the history of my group.... strong black women who have survived everything from molestation to child abduction, infidelity to child birth, welfare to warfare...we are military trained, college educated, God fearing and law abiding black women, who are only misunderstood by those who do are dead to their own power. And SO... they ride the night air like vampires sucking the blood of those who dare to be alive. Besides, the fact that HBO Real Sex filmed my performance in 1999, our first book was release in 1995, after Eazy E died, as a tribute to his honesty and a warning to the growing number of young, black AIDS victims. "Knock off" of who?... As a former journalist, I should advise you to be careful of allowing your interview subjects to defame others...least of all without allowing a rebuttle.... It's unprofessional. I would go on...but women who are afraid of Punany, are just afraid enough of their own flesh, to die of ignorance. Peace be unto you and Ms. Anderson. Respectfully, Ghetto Girl Blue

Author
Jessica Holter
Date
2002-12-09T17:12:10-06:00
ID
76695
Comment

Ms. Holter, My name is Shannon Buckley, the writer of this particular article. Thank you for visiting the website and for reading the article. First, I would like to apologize for the incorrect spelling of your organization's name. However, the article that I wrote was dedicated to the history of the art and its presence here in Jackson, so I did not specifically research your collective. I am sorry if you were offended by the comment in the article; it was certainly not meant to defame your show. Finally, although I have seen your show several times and my opinion remains unchanged, congratulations on your world tour. Sincerely, Soul Steppin' Sister

Author
Shannon Buckley
Date
2002-12-12T17:46:08-06:00
ID
76696
Comment

Shannon, Thanks for taking the time to provide a definitive history of the spoken word scene in Jackson, Miss. Jolivette, indeed, played a major role in magnetizing spoken word artists and art-lovers to the scene. This note is really to provide some insight as to why I walked away from Southern Vibes. As a member of Brown River Productions, the entity that founded Southern Vibes, a time came when Derrick Johnson was preparing for the bar exam. During this period most of the logistical work was on my shoulders. . .from arranging talent to setting up microphones and collecting money at the door. As a Christian, I believe people have a right to express themselves. However, when I open the mic with regards to producing an event, I am in fact providing a platform for positivity, upliftment or whatever goes over the mic. While I was prepared to provide a platform for diverse voices, my goal was to create an atmosphere conducive for family and cultural nuturing, not profanity and sexual promiscuity. After making unsuccessful attempts to steer Southern Vibes in what I might call a more familial direction, I decided to walk away and focus on other projects. Today I reside in Nashville, Tenn., where I continue to do spoken word, organize concerts, and serve my Lord and Savior. Take time to visit my website at www.thedialloexperience.com and post, or e-mail me at [email]i_overstand@yahoo.com[/email] Peace, Diallo

Author
Diallo
Date
2006-04-20T23:31:36-06:00
ID
76697
Comment

Shannon, Great article. It really does justice to how the spoken word movement has evolved. C. Liegh and Jolivette are definitely a big part of the reason why many of us feel such freedom with sharing our work. Three other names that have been instrumental are Ken Stiggers and David Brian Williams as well as Ramona Ward.

Author
c a webb
Date
2006-04-21T00:11:58-06:00
ID
76698
Comment

C A Webb, Thanks! I'm glad that you liked the article and continue to educate me. Shannon

Author
Shannon
Date
2006-04-21T09:53:41-06:00
ID
76699
Comment

Shannon, It is indeed a pleasure to become aware of the movement in Jackson. My name is Everett Webb, I go by the pseudonym "TopCat". I live, love, laugh, and write in Shreveport, La. My website, http://www.topcatlive.com, is devoted to the movement here and abroad. I am very much interested in forming a link with the movement in Jackson. Love the article, and am interested in bringing one of Shreveport's finest performance poetry troupes, The Versified Flow Team, to Jackson and am inviting you and poets from Jackson to Shreveport's 'Conscious Only' venue known as Versification. Contact me at the email address in my profile. Looking forward to bridging minds and distances with the Spoken Word community in Jackson. TopCat

Author
TopCat
Date
2006-05-23T04:39:22-06:00
ID
76700
Comment

Shannon, I had to come back to this article, not just to read it again (which I was compelled to) but also to request that you share some wisdom and more of the history of the movement in Jackson at PoetsRegistry.com. Your story eclipses that of many of the underground movements in this country. It certainly is indicative of our struggle here in Shreveport, where we dare to open minds while widening our own... Everett "TopCat" Webb www.poetsregistry.com www.topcatlive.com

Author
TopCat
Date
2006-07-23T10:43:51-06:00

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