Spoken Word, Shared Emotions

Club scene

February 04, 2007|By Daamon Speller | Daamon Speller,Special to the Sun

On the second floor of a refurbished rowhouse is a small room where the ambience gives off an immediate cool-out vibe.

Its color scheme is burgundy and white. Several fans hang from its ceiling. The tables are candlelit, and there is an array of decorative African art throughout.

It's 8:30 p.m., and the room is sparsely populated.

Twenty minutes later, it's nearly standing room only, with patrons in their 20s to at least their 50s.

LaTasha Tayree, the evening's hostess, steps onto the small stage at the head of the room. Before introducing the first poet who has signed up to speak, she muses on:

The Business of War. ... Is it surprising to the masses that we're

in a Total Recall

But who'd ever thought body parts would

be our downfall

Ship 'em off to war and bring 'em back

with "limb loss"

Prioritize them by nerve receptivity and let

the public eat the cost

As long as they continue feeding terror

to the people

They maintain the flow of fresh meat

for the upheaval.

Welcome to Poetic Sit, every Thursday night at Notre Maison - French for "our house."

"We're an intimate, laid-back kind of club, an alternative to the smoky club scene," says Notre Maison's owner, Jacqui Cummings. "We don't allow profanity or any type of vulgarity in an artist's performance. Poets of all art forms are welcome in `our house,' from virgins to the mike to professional poets who are published authors and recording artists."

It's not very boisterous at 18 W. 25th St. But there is plenty of applause and an intermittent "I know that's right" whenever a poet strikes a chord that resonates with the audience.

Any given night of the week, spoken-word artists can be heard honing their microphone technique in front of diverse audiences at Baltimore clubs and coffee houses such as Eden's Lounge, Xandos and Teavolve.

Like rap and hip-hop, spoken-word poetry is about self-expression. Unlike rap and hip-hop, it isn't watered-down in various degrees of gimmickry - such as a stage full of scantily clad backup dancers.

The performers this night use only the words they pen, their emotions and their unique styles to move the crowd.

"I love the character of the [spoken-word] scene. It's true to its form; raw and uncut for the most part. Baltimore is an immensely talented city," says Jo'rell Whitfield, a student at Morgan State University and a poet who has performed at local venues such as the 5 Seasons and farther north in New York City's Nuyorican Poets Cafe.

Spoken word has its own subculture, says Fred "Fredlocks" Keene, publisher of Mic Life, a semimonthly magazine started in 2005 that includes a directory of open-mike venues in Baltimore.

"To find others who share that same voice is very special," he says. "This spot and others like it bring these types of people together."

Freelance writer, poet and Towson resident Julie Fisher, creator of poetryinbaltimore.com, an event and networking Web site, agrees.

"Poetry has the ability to foster community. [Poetry venues] bring people together physically. The audience has to slow down, get quiet and listen," Fisher says. "It's not about being bombarded by sound like at a concert or nightclub. It's about being in the moment to catch what the artist is going to craft verbally. It's a communal event."

Just as in the early years of rap when pioneers such as Run-DMC pranced back and forth across concert stages singing about their Adidas, and the later years when artists such as Public Enemy, KRS-1 and Tupac mused on weightier matters of social awareness, so too has the spoken-word culture seen a progression in terms of what its performers speak and write about.

"When I first started going to poetry venues, a lot of poets seemed to be into what I call `earth consciousness.' The `I have to change the world' vibe," says Tayree. "If a poet wasn't on that tip, he or she wasn't doing good poetry. Now I think a lot of what you hear is very personal in nature. It's OK to read a love poem now. People are receptive to that kind of thing."

One poet who has made a name for himself in Baltimore is Komplex, whose real name is Kirk Bernard. Originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., Komplex is a gifted hip-hop/spoken-word recording artist whose style and delivery are reminiscent of rappers such as Common.

His latest CD, Jus Kom (Keep on moving), features 14 tracks of lyrics set to hip-hop beats and jazz. The CD is void of offensive language.

"Writing and performing poetry has been very therapeutic, explorative and introspective for me," Bernard says. "It's a necessary form of expression."

Gayle Danley is another Baltimore resident who has gained acclaim nationally and internationally as a champion slam poet. (Points are awarded on performance, originality, delivery and creativity.)

These days, Danley uses her slam skills as a tool to educate students in grades four through 12 around the country.

"I use poetry to show students that writing can be more than something one does for a grade," she says. "[I] show them that writing can be a tool to release emotions."

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