Giving voice to poetry Poets: Putting their thoughts into words, young writers hope to stir things up.

September 11, 1998|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

This is not your typical bar crowd.

Patrons come alone or in pairs, mostly silent, with nervous expressions. They clutch book-bags and battered notebooks.

Just inside the window is a lone microphone on a stand. Facing it are a couple of dozen chairs and stools filled with people who have come not to talk or drink.

They have come to hear and speak poetry. At a bar.

At open-mike poetry night at Larry Stewart's on Calvert Street downtown, Carla Thomas -- part-time student, full-time mother and health-clinic administrative assistant -- sits on a bar-stool fingering an icy cantaloupe-colored drink. Touching her cropped afro, she flips through tattered pages of writing filled with scratched-out phrases and inserted words, intent as she prepares to take the mike.

A virtuous woman -- who can find her?

I cleave to fervor that overrides my flesh

Of inept escape

From that purple river.

She has labored over this poem, inspired by a man who once flirted with her and shook her hand. He felt her "purple passion," in that handshake, he told her.

Romantic union, "oneness," as she calls it in another poem, are the heart of her verses. She has been writing two years, performing barely a year. "I was scared to get up there," says the bubbly 25-year-old with a brilliant smile.

On a typical night, Larry Stewart's attracts young folks, mostly African American, for the usual food and drinks. But on Tuesdays, the place is transformed into a set from "Love Jones," the 1996 film that wove a tale of young black love on the thread of what's now known as performance poetry. The movie spawned the Tuesday-night sessions -- and several others in the city -- as well as what some are calling a renaissance of black poetry nationwide.

This weekend, dozens of the nation's top poets are gathering in the Baltimore area -- today at the Baltimore Museum of Art and tomorrow at the University of Maryland, College Park -- to perform, discuss the state of their art and highlight new talent.

For the two midnight open-mike sessions, local poets like Thomas, Albert "Noot" Woods and Terry "Da Minista" Missouri are brushing up on their cadence and inflection, re-memorizing their best poems, getting ready to broadcast their innermost feelings to an audience of strangers.

They will perform in the same program as such acclaimed poets as Amiri Baraka, poet/playwright who lives in New York; June Jordan, a professor of African American studies at the University California, Berkeley; and Sonia Sanchez, author of 16 books and a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. Baltimore-based poet Laini Mataka and Baltimore native Afaa Michael Weaver, now an English professor at Simmons College in Boston, also will share their poetry as part of "360: A Revolution of Black Poets."

An anthology of poems by the same name is being published by BlackWords press, a Virginia-based company whose owner is the driving force behind the two-day event.

"Thirty years ago, New York publishers gave out big publishing deals to black poets by the dozens," says Kwame Alexander, BlackWords owner. "As we approached the '80s, there was sort of this axiom in the industry that poetry doesn't sell. White poets weren't getting published, and, of course, black poets weren't either.

"Now, it's sort of like the cycle is returning to where we were 30 years ago. ... Now, they're saying, 'Oh, poetry is back!' But most of the people who supported 'Love Jones' were supporting black poetry before [that]. The poets never left. We've been here all along."

Many of Baltimore's young poets know well that their forebears laid a literary and political groundwork for them, dishing up revolutionary verse to the jazz melodies of John Coltrane and Sun-Ra. These young poets, too, talk about opting out of the system and turning society on its head with their passionate words.

But they are clear on their desire to push the envelope beyond that Black Arts Movement, to nurture their own movement.

Many are politically progressive and intensely spiritual, and their verses are steeped in themes of racism and oppression -- and dreams for the future.

Noot Woods, a lanky 31-year-old with long dreadlocks and a patchy beard, dabbled in journalism and college courses before finding his niche in poetry. He scrapes together a living by driving a taxi and doing courier work.

"Why do I do this?" he asks. "I speak of what we need to be aware of to get to the next level."

He writes: Cruisin' through the streets of B'more/look at all of the children, peepin' at the people on their block/and most of them illin and willin to sell their souls/by paying a toll to the beast looking for peace.

He is now revising a script for what he calls a rap opera called "The Rapsodik Opera," and is working with Morgan State University music professor Clinton Johnson to have it in production next year. It's a heroic tale, he says, of a a former drug dealer, welfare system abuser and crack addict mending their ways and becoming community activists.

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