At 7:30pm on January 4, I arrived at a local coffeshop in Decatur, GA called Java Monkey. At around this time each Sunday, the host, Kodac Harrison, puts out a sign-up sheet and sets up a microphone and a single music-stand. Closed off by a tarp but usually extending out into a small patio in the summer, the room is everything you’d expect from a coffeeshop open mic: an acoustically-convenient brick-wall, a scattering of chairs, benches, and tables across a stone-tiled floor, and a dimness of light that makes you a little less self-conscious of the blemishes on your skin but just enough brightness so you can interface with your newfound bohemian comrades. The terminology is worthy to note. Whether the subject is rap, an essay, or a spoken-word poem, the regulars called each performance a “reading.” When a burly, tattooed man named Joe Peacock walked into the room, a kid sitting off to the side approached, gave him one of those cool hand-shakes, and asked: “Yo, you reading today?” His rejoinder: “When am I not? If I’m here, I’m reading.” He would later perform a stand-up routine called “Assault with a Brownie,” a category of expression all-together quite different from reading off a piece of paper. As this was my first open-mic and my 2 minutes of research have thus far yielded no results, I cannot conclude whether the liberal usage of “reading” is convention at all coffeeshop open-mics or just at Java Monkey’s specifically. By using this term differently though, Java Monkey’s poets (and, perhaps, all spoken-word poets) generate a quirky, shared lexicon for themselves that makes it start to feel like an “in-group,” a family of sorts. And this is how I felt walking into the room last Sunday.
Spoken word had piqued my interest ever since I heard Taylor Mali’s “What a Teacher Makes” in 9th grade, but I’d never found a chance to perform anything of my own. After exhaustively searching through my high school English works in search of a free-write about my recently-deceased Grandfather, I rediscovered my poem concerning drug-abuse in policy debate. Admittedly, I did have a pre-conceived notion of what and who I would find at an open-mic. Because of spoken word’s popularization through “underground Black Communities in the 1960s” (Wikipedia) and with recent Brown and Garner protests, I expected to meet mostly black poets expressing an outrage with racism. A couple of hipsters might be dispersed among them. As always the case with stereotypes, mine represented an overly-simplistic and incomplete summary of people. Here’s a short-list of some of the poets I met last Sunday:
Spitter-Spatter People Matter:
Kodac Harrison, our host. He was an old dude with voluminous, curly, white hair. The most notable quality of Kodac was his deep, raspy voice. As I would later learn, he was a professional musician who had toured Europe. He taught poetry at Georgia Tech and was an Eagle Scout. Teehee.
Prophecy, a regular. He read his poem from half a sheet of notebook paper. Every once in a while, he’d grab someone coming off stage and whisper in their ear. For me, it was “hey man, that was some real verbal jiu jitsu right there.”
The Black Statue of Liberty, Prophecy’s daughter, a 4 year old girl. Literally, a 4 year-old girl. Please. After she spoke, every poet would start with an obligatory: “I know there’s a straight up 4-year old CHILD in this room, but I’m not gonna censor myself because of that.” Her poem was entitled the “Black Statue of Liberty,” apparently a piece that she does quite often as Robel had actually told me about it before.
Joe Peacock, who performed “Assault with a Brownie.” Apparently he lifts. Boom.
A Lesbian Black Girl. Her poem was called something along the lines of: “To [NAME OMITTED] and everyone else who uses the word cunt as an insult.” At the conclusion of her feminist poem, [NAME OMITTED] cheered the loudest.
A pair of autistic friends. The one who went first wore spiked bracelets and a death-metal shirt. Later in the night, I heard the second say to a black-poet: “I respect all people, regardless of skin-color.”
Unnamed dude who felt that his favorite author, Dostoevsky, best captured how his brain worked. His stream of consciousness, which he recorded in a notebook, expressed a romantic desire to understand a bird’s thought right at the moment it begins to take flight.
Finally, Ebola Cherries. Apparently his real name is Alan Sugar, but he goes by a different name every week. Resembling Woody Allen to a surprising extent in his appearance and to a lesser extent in his humor; he told the crowd: “This is not debatable. Happy New Years in Chinese is Kung Hei Fat Choy.” Meh…definitely debatable.
Of course these regulars were extremely welcoming. Upon my entering the room, two younger poets accosted me, “Hey, welcome! Here’s the line to sign-up for a slot. We usually give two claps for any first-time performers.” Adding to Prophecy’s post-performance camaraderie, Alan Sugar approached me during a break, “Thanks for reading Willy, I hope to see you again!” It was as much a safe-space as I could ask for my first performance.
Either way, speaking to this crowd about drugs was still a challenge to me. Before starting his reading, one regular admitted being drunk, and, waiting for the bathroom, another told me about the joint she had smoked thirty minutes before. For me, death had become a theme in the past two weeks, and it appeared in my additions to the poem as a theme too; the last two stanzas being nothing about drugs or debate and only about death. Especially after added references to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and the Game of Thrones, my poem took on a slightly more alarmist tone than I had hoped, resembling something that the health teacher from Mean Girls might say about drugs.
What actually motivated me was something else. At the time of the poem’s conception in the spring of 2012, a debater had just died from alcohol-poisoning. While I personally didn’t partake in the drinking or smoking in high school, like any liberal, “you get to make your own life-choices” kid, I didn’t quite have a moral-objection to those who did. To understand where I came from you’d first have to understand that I ate 3 different fruits for breakfast and limited my weekly chocolate muffin consumption to 0. I did pass judgement, but I passed judgement on my friends who smoked every night about as much as I passed judgement on my friends who decided to eat Chick-Fil-A sandwiches every morning. My body was a temple. In reverence, anything entering it must remain clean. So while I lobbied my friends to choose the slightly healthier Willy’s (Mexican Burrito joint, not my house) instead of Chick-Fil-A, the debater’s death also moved me to write this poem about what I thought to be a pervasive problem for the wealthy and liberal debate community.
Still, the audience probably understood the poem (as you might too) as my having just told them: “If I just smoke this every few weeks…death is waiting to make his next kill.” Not what I was going for…sorry… When I had finished reading, Kodac retook the stage, chuckling “Now I am an old hippie you know…I can’t imagine taking acid and debating, because all of a sudden you’d be talking up a storm and then…” as he fumbled about on stage, stroking a curtain off to the side. Hilarity ensued. The audience laughed; I grinned. As I sat back down, I realized I had forgotten two lines. They were the latest addition to the poem and happened to reference the Perks of Being a Wallflower: “And in those moments, who wouldn’t swear that we were infinite? / The Perks of being a Debater.”
In that moment at Java Monkey I felt…infinite. LOL, just kidding. I did have a great time though! While the night revolved around the readings, the open-mic was something like an all-purpose support-group. It gives its members a stage from which they can freely shout their sub-consciences and a room chock-full of others who would listen. With an open-mic and dimmed-lights, we could all be just a little bit louder and a little less self-conscious.
If you’ve never checked out an open-mic, I’d highly recommend doing so!