Hartford has its own emphatically articulated spoken-word renaissance
June 23, 2009
It's a Monday night and the Russell Restaurant on the corner of Pratt and Trumbull is packed with smooth patrons. The crowd is flirting, networking, drinking, and enjoying being a part of Hartford's premier open-mic poetry night. Since it started nearly four years ago, the Love Jones Experience, has introduced new poets and singers every week while expanding its roster of regular performers. The event has helped to usher in a new poetry movement in the city.
Area poets like John Jewel, Midnight, Sabu, Dov, Black Panthress, Zimbabwe, and NuNuu captivate the audience as they address love, sex, politics, and societal issues.
"The poets here can paint a picture from their perspective of how they see life and everyday circumstances," said Jose Andino who comes to the LJE at least three times a month. "There's a few here I really enjoy and look forward to hearing. I love the diversity in the poets and every one of them is special in their own way."
Today, poetry may have acquired a new hipness, but it wasn't always that way. For a long period of time, readings were reserved for stuffy old men in academic circles before getting a makeover by the Beat Generation.
"The professor of literature was going to come out in this tweed, he was going to give the poetry reading, there was going to be a wine and cheese reception afterwards, then the poet was going to get drunk, bring home a grad student, and divorce his wife. This was the stereotype," said Stephen Campiglio, the host of Manchester Community College's Mishi Maya Gat Spoken Word and Music Series. "One aspect of the revitalization of the reading as a dynamic art event goes back to a famous reading in San Francisco called the Six Gallery Reading, held in 1955. ... People were writing from personal experience and the poetry involved a lot of spirituality, nature, and earthy topics. It was poetry for the people and not for academia."
Spoken word gained a new stature, with pop artists and Black Power poets reaching a wider audience. Artists like Paul Goodman, Michael McClure, Jim Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, the Last Poets, Watts Prophets and Gil Scott-Heron presented poetry's new face. Hip-hop and slam poetry attracted new fans to these forms of verbal artistry.
"Slam can be broadly defined as more theatrical performance of poetry," said Campiglio. "Even though some slam poets may read from a paper in front of them, oftentimes, the poem is memorized, allowing the poet to express themselves through gestures and the poem itself. Slam poetry was very instrumental in making poetry popular again."
Along with the HBO series "Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam," which showcased poets from across the nation, open-mic poetry venues started sprouting up in every major city, including Hartford.
One poet making her way around the Hartford circuit is NuNuu, who began writing poetry at the age of 5, and has been doing open mics since 2001. With long locks, model looks, and poems that range from the erotic to conscious, NuNuu is one of the city's most popular poets.
"I think the poetry in and around Hartford is eclectic," said NuNuu who often combines singing with her poetry. "From the way people express their poetry, the language, their mannerisms, and to what they write about. People here aren't just writing about 'Oh, I'm mad at the establishment,' they are writing about love, guns, and sex."
Coming with a grittier and edgier side, John Jewel combines street wisdom, unorthodox singing, and a hip-hop swagger to his poetry.
"My poetry is conscious," said John Jewel. "I like to show that no matter what struggles you have or fumbles you make, getting up without committing yourself to negativity is a commendable thing to do. If I'm at the Love Jones, I like writing sweet nothings for the ladies. A lot of times I like to show that this is a branch to me of being a b-boy, so I like to mix up some hip-hop in there."
Although he is new to Hartford having moved here recently from Chicago, Dov is bringing a Windy City suaveness, mid-western twang, and dramatic presence to the local poetry circuit.
"It's been a change coming here," said Dov. "They've showed me mad love and in the same way they've showed me crazy hate. Because of the style of poetry that I do, which is expressive and animated, many poets have told me that Hartford isn't ready for that yet. Being groomed in Chicago, I'm like, 'Ready or not, here I come.'"
The male/female poetry team Mira and Mind Evolution have been combining their talents for the past two years, with a recent CD "Real Brothers and Real Sisters" to showcase their efforts. The pair finds that being a team helps to keep their motivation and focus.
"We have the ability to lean on each other," said Mind Evolution, the female half of the duo. "There's days when I'm like 'I'm done, I'm quitting, I'm not doing it anymore,' and he'll be like 'No you're not, you're just having a bad day and you'll feel better tomorrow.' Sometimes if you are alone, you can fall into the discouragement and give up, so it's good to have someone there to push you."
Recently, with the help of June Archer, the creator of the Hot Chocolate Soul Series, Mira and Mind Evolution began a new poetry series held at Cloud 9 (7 Congress St.) called "The Cipher."
"We started out with a section of Hot Chocolate Soul which was strictly for the spoken-word artist, and we called it 'Spoken Word with Mira and Mind Evolution,'" said Archer. "People started looking forward to it, and whenever we would get to that part of the show, people would go crazy. ... So we decided to have something with Mira and Mind Evolution to showcase them and give them their own room and give other spoken-word artists their own platform."
The Cipher will be held every second Thursday of each month, and it begins with an open mic before concluding with a group of local poets going back to back in what is called the cipher.
"The cipher is going to have eight poets, and including Mind Evolution and me, that's 10 all together," said Mira. "Our goal is to really provide a place where poets across the state can get together and vibe. We have a strong message of unity."
Other open-mic poetry series in or around Hartford include "Who Am I," held every Wednesday at Barça's Restaurant located at 1429 Park St., the Central Valley Poetry series held every month at Wood Memorial Library in South Windsor, the Mishi Maya Gat at MCC held on every third Thursday of each month, and the poetry club also at MCC holds open-mic events as well.
"It's very good to have all of these different venues," said NuNuu who can be heard at various open mics. "A lot of people who go to The Russell go to hear a certain kind of poetry. Then you have Hot Chocolate Soul where you expect more class because it's [held at the Bushnell]. Then there's the Cipher which is a whole other animal which is straight on, freight train poetry. This for me is actually better and more inspiring."