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Confessions of a Working Poet

Meet Marvin Tate, a man who lives on words alone

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A poet in a vest and black stovepipe pants stands in the center of a mostly young, black crowd in the subterranean space of Literary Explosions, the Afrocentric bookstore in a basement at the intersection of North, Damen, and Milwaukee. His hair is a nest of sprouting baby dreadlocks that point straight up. A skinny Snidely Whiplash mustache covers his pouting mouth, and sunglasses hide his small brown eyes. His head is cocked to one side, and his hand rests on a raised ledge as his quirky voice, slathered with sarcasm, pierces the silence.

I am a sometimes poet,

a genius but in a useless

kind of way,

who thinks.

And I drink and I bullshit.

I bullshit a lot.

I am a junkie waiting for

popular culture to hit rock bottom.

I am not to be confused

with a role model.

I will not be your role model.

I am the homeless,

a CTA comedian without

bus fare.

I am the youngest of five playing the role

of the worried mother and the absent father.

I'm in love again with a pushy bottom.

I am an azz lover,

a tit lover,

a leg lover,

a man's man,

a woman's man often feeling broke,

sucked, suckered, and dry.

I am a popular nobody,

a pot head,

a 1990s sex head.

I am a serial masturbator.

I'd like to give you some head . . .

Three weeks later at HotHouse, the same poet, Marvin Tate, is performing before a crowd that's mostly white, plaid-shirted and grungy. Tate, in shades, a tuxedo jacket, forest green vest, tight black pants, and platform shoes, is flanked by a cellist with a silver-painted face and a woman in a flowing white dress. He sits in a big wicker chair at center stage with a cigarette in his mouth.

"I'm bored!" he bellows. "Where's my poet? Ainsworth!!!"

A black man in whiteface appears, ringing a bell, yelling with a poker face, "Five-eight-eight! Two-three-hun-dred! Empire!"

"That was fuckin' bor-ing!" screams Tate, leaning on a cane with wheels on one end and a toy duck on the other. "OK, bring on Ceatia! Ceatia!" A pale belly dancer in a midriff moves in front of him. Leaning closer, Tate feebly claps his hands.

"That was boring!" he yells again, tossing his head back. "Please! Off with her head!"

"What happened to Marvin?" asks a voice from the audience.

"I'm tired of him," Tate says, waving his hand. "He's locked up somewhere. He's got some silly book out."

Marvin Tate has amassed a following by reading his beat-influenced verse on the local poetry slam circuit. In 1990 he became Chicago slam champion, earning the title by clobbering all comers at contests over a six-month period. After that he was featured on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and began hosting the open-mike poetry nights at the Bop Shop. Last year he was on the local team that went to San Francisco for the national slam championship (they finished third). This summer he won a slam against six poets on the first day of Lollapalooza. In July local publisher Tia Chucha Press brought out a volume of Tate's poetry, Schoolyard of Broken Dreams. He also performs on Tia Chucha's spoken word CD, Snake in the Heart. Now, at the age of 35, he's trying to widen his circle of influence. He's planning an all-black performance poets show at the Double Door and hosting a live talk show called "Talk-A-Riot-Y," every Monday night at the Bop Shop. He says someday he'd like to be on the radio and maybe teaching college.

That would be some funky college.

The first time I saw Marvin Tate he was crammed onstage at the Metro with the huge throng that forms the dance funk band Uptighty. He wasn't center stage or even singing solo, but he tossed his head, flung his arms, and shook his body with all the ferocity of an Ikette. Singing backup on a stage full of people, Tate still managed to stand out from the crowd. It's one of the things he does best. He has a penchant for tight pants, platform shoes, and bold-colored vests that expose his chest. His skin's a smooth chocolate usually glistening with the sweat of excess energy. He moves with the cool of an underworld figure but without the hardness. He nods his head a lot in the manner of old southern gentlemen, with a slightly gallant tilt, but his gestures are fast and jerky and slightly feminine.

Yet it's Tate's voice that stands out most, and it's the hardest thing about him to describe. It's high and fast paced with rich undertones, like a Fat Albert cartoon character crossed with Screamin' Jay Hawkins and a little bit of Martin Luther King Jr. "Marvin's voice is very distinct from everyone around him," says poet Michael Warr, director of the Guild Complex, the local literary group. Warr says Tate's voice is largely responsible for making him a slam champion. "There's music that comes through, there are tonal changes, rhythmic changes."

But Tate's voice wasn't always admired. When he was seven years old, Tate and his twin brother Melvin were pulled from class to undergo therapy for a speech impediment. They both had trouble pronouncing the ch sound and words with the letter c. "We talked really fast. There were certain words we couldn't say. There was no emphasis on speaking correctly when I was growing up. They called me "Chinaman' because I had small eyes and talked fast. It did make me insecure. So we were taken to this tiny office, and a teacher would go through our vowels and consonants. I thought it was cool to get the hell out of class. I felt special, not knowing the reason behind it. People made fun of my rapid way of talking and I'd make a game of it, making up words to make people laugh."

Young Marvin became infatuated with words and learned to use his voice to his advantage. "Doing the dozens, I was really quick on my shit. They couldn't beat me," he says. "I used to love to learn new words. The first word I was enchanted with was "barbarian.' I really liked the sound of it." Talking in rhyme was considered hip. "Muhammad Ali was always rhyming, my brother James was always rhyming, and my sister was writing poetry," Tate says. "I always read a lot. I was in love with words and I was a good signifier. You had to be in those days."

Growing up in the west-side community of Lawndale, he was close to his mother Ophelia, a strong and sensitive woman who raised six children as a single parent. But it seemed the block practically belonged to his family anyway--an aunt and cousins lived right across the street.

That didn't help one afternoon in 1969. Tate recalls, "My mom was racing us through the alley. We get home, and there's a couple of guys hanging out in front. My brother James worked at Bilko and wouldn't give them some free cold cuts. They were messing with my sister Linda. Then James started beating one guy and [the guy] whistled for his boys and my family came down with sticks and guns. I'm nine years old and I'm cursing at these guys.

"This guy was in front of our house with a baby blue Volkswagen and he had a silver gun. My mom was beating this other guy, and the guy in the car said, "Man, you let that bitch do that to you?' There was a pause and my mom pushed me out of the way and he shot her three times."

I remember 1969

The nigga with the silver gun

that shot Ophelia and hearing Fahey Flynn

report it on the ten o'clock news

"Mother of six shot three times in critical condition

at Cook County Hospital."

His mother survived the shooting, but the details of the incident remain embedded in his memory. Tate claims he can recall childhood episodes with photographic precision. "I'm full of images," he says. "I remember all these vivid images."

By sixth grade he was reading poetry books and reciting his own interpretations. He once again turned to words to gain acceptance. "We'd be on the concrete baseball diamond, and I was fed up with not being one of the guys," he says. "They never picked me to be on the teams, so I'd recite this Gwen Brooks poem: "We real cooool / We play pooool / We lurk laaaate / We strike straaaaight.' I sang it like a funk song, and kids started liking me. It was my first poetry recital."

When Tate was a teenager, the bands Parliament and Funkadelic captured his imagination, and he incorporated their upbeat rhythms and unusual metaphors into his poetry style. "They really didn't emphasize writing in high school," he says. "I remember writing a short story and my English teacher yelling, "You'll never get anywhere writing like this!' Because it was my own voice. My voice was talkin' shit. I wrote what my friends and I talked about, in the jargon of the day. My teacher didn't dig that." But Tate's interest in poetry had grown to the point where he started looking at college literature classes. He eventually decided to attend UIC because he wanted to study with writers Gwendolyn Brooks and Don Lee, who now goes by the name Haki Madhubuti. "But they were all gone when I got there in 1978," Tate says. "Instead, I met Sterling Plumpp. I'd read poetry in Sterling's class and black history class. Anywhere they'd have poetry classes I'd go."

Plumpp, an English professor and a respected poet, introduced Tate to blues rhythms. "Sterling showed me how powerful blues is. Every music has its blues. Writing blues songs showed me how to develop stories. Before I was reading romantic poets like Keats. I thought, that's how you write. Sterling opened me up to Amiri Baraka and the black pride scene. I didn't really find a voice of my own until I started reading poets of color."

After a stint at Columbia College, Tate moved to New York at the age of 23, living the dicey life and wrestling with his sexual identity. His girlfriend got a scholarship to study with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater in 1982, and Tate tagged along bringing nothing but a few clothes. He was constantly calling home for money. "I wore Western Union out. They'd close the doors when they saw me coming. I spent a couple of weeks on the streets. I'd use the Bible my mom gave me as a pillow, sleeping in doorways."

He met his first wife Christina at the Vanderbilt YMCA. "She was from Sweden and she was staying at the YMCA. I knew something was wrong. I figured she was a prostitute, but that was OK. We hung out, we did the marriage thing. [But] I was going through an "Am I gay or am I straight?' issue.

"I had not had a father figure, but I had strong males around me," he says. "But I didn't want to be like them. I was inventive. I had brown Earth shoes that I dyed orange red. I dressed in checkered suits with broad shoulders, stuff that wasn't really cool among my friends. I was into colors and then I did poetry too. Plus I didn't have any girlfriends."

Tate remembers his crowd decked out in three-piece suits and Stacey Adams shoes, while he was buying his wardrobe from street merchants and stores on Maxwell Street. "I couldn't afford suits and I wasn't that materialistic. My dress was a combination of

not being able to afford stuff and coming out with my own style."

Listening to David Bowie and P-Funk, Tate was drawn to Bowie's glam look and George Clinton's spaced-out hipster dress. "I liked the androgyny," he says. "The ability to not be typecast interested me. I dyed my hair with brown streaks. I wore heels and tight knit shirts. It was a Grace Jones look with Bowie influences. I tried to redefine how black men look."

In New York, Tate's style attracted gay men. "I'd wear these shirts that were like vests that would show off my chest because I had a great body. I'd wear tight jeans. I danced very freakish. All the alternative-type guys would like me. I came from the tradition where men are men and I was fighting with myself."

Dressing differently and not having girlfriends as a teen made people question Tate's sexuality while he was growing up. He internalized it and began to wonder if he really was gay. "Everybody in my family is supermacho. My mother would call me faggot, my aunts, my brothers. In New York, I decided to find myself." He began frequenting gay clubs. He liked the freedom to look as he pleased and do what he wanted but that was all. "I went to gay clubs and realized, "Oh, I'm not really into this shit.' When guys would try to get with me, I'd be like, that's not me." Still, he started a stripper service and even tried his hand at hustling. "Dancing, being a callboy, and the stripper shit all tied in. I was just probing, trying to find who I was. I was a callboy twice, and that was it. It wasn't glamorous."

"Marvelous Soul Movers" was the name of Tate's stripper business. He'd bring along a friend, and they'd strip for about $25. "I'd mail fliers and I'd go out and get my own gigs," he says. "I'd have a bandanna on, and it would fall off my shit. I'd just move my hips and throw my legs up in the air. The bandanna was cooler than a G-string because it tied around my waist and my hips would be greased up. I had a flat stomach and a Grace Jones haircut. I did about four gigs in all. I thought it was cool but in the back of my mind I'd be like, "You know this ain't right.' I was trying to define myself: What the hell did I want to do? I decided I'm a straight male, but I'm a kinky straight male."

New York street life started wearing Tate down. He broke up with Christina and slowly started to deteriorate physically. "I had a hyperthyroid. I lost all this weight and I was stressed. I was drug-addict skinny and shit. I was drinking, getting fired from jobs. It got to the point that I had to get the fuck out of New York."

When he returned to Chicago in 1986, Tate found his mother debilitated by arthritis. He turned back to poetry as a form of therapy. "I started writing in abundance," he says. "It helped me out with my mother, who died the next year. I started reading on the north side, winning slams."

Tate met Michael Warr at Lower Links, and Warr invited him to host open-mike shows for the Guild Complex. He appeared on a local poetry show on cable television and was invited to join the "Writing From the Source" program in Chicago public schools. "Luis Rodriguez called me and said I should start working for the program," Tate says. "It's not reading Dick and Jane shit, but real stuff, writing about the students' experience and opinions. You touch some of them, some you don't. I get letters. Some ask me to come back, some ask me not to. That's how I teach."

Last summer Tate returned to New York, the scene of his struggling days, to perform in clubs with Uptighty. When Tate is onstage, his frenetic dancing and funk daddy posing lend spicy irreverence to the ensemble. "I add the punk to Uptighty," he says. "I'm with them most of the time when they tour. They always have interchanging musicians. It's more interesting visually with me, more dancing, more chanting. I just wrote two songs with them for their upcoming CD. Sometimes I do my poetry with them, it's usually a spontaneous thing."

Spontaneity is Tate's byword. Sometimes he's plainspoken and subdued, almost like your normal academic poet. Other times he's overwhelming, physically and mentally, more like a street-tough preacher. The one constant is that he's always ambiguous. It's never clear if he's really angry or just acting, confrontational or poking fun, straight or gay.

"I'm not locked into a persona," he says. "I don't have to be a certain way. I'm able to write a poem about washing dishes and make it believable. I'm no fag onstage, but my mannerisms and clothes are never macho. Sometimes I copy Bowie's operatic voice. In a lot of my poems, women are leaving men. The woman is saying, "Fuck you.' The man is not being insensitive but being caring."

Tate uses his live talk show, "Talk-A-Riot-Y," to bring performance poetry to another level. "My cohost Gianofer [Fields] and I don't know what we're doing, but we're shooting for cable," he says. "It's a variety show. It's everybody hangin' out--hip-hoppers, film directors, three-year-olds, dominatrixes--that's the kind of shit I dig."

Tate also creates art paperweights out of old bottles and miniature plastic toys. "I was inspired by my love for glass. I always loved to look at my mom's perfume bottles and cracked street lamps when I was young. I had those Santa Claus paperweights, but I didn't like them. I wanted to do my own images." Images like military men shooting at black penises and the Statue of Liberty holding a basketball are what Tate had in mind. The bottles, filled with glitter and mineral oil, are both disturbing and dreamy. They convey brutal political messages with whimsical, childlike imagery.

"They all have ambiguous messages if you look closely," he says. "They're paperweights but they're more. It's almost like voodoo, creating these lives in bottles." Tate hunts for the toys at thrift stores, bubble-gum machines, and Walgreens. "The best toys are never found in toy stores," he says.

Between working part-time at the Logan Beach restaurant, "waiting tables and crackin' jokes," Tate teaches poetry and creative writing at the Chicago Teacher's Center, works on his poetry, and drums up guests for "Talk-A-Riot-Y." Tate and his wife Lucy are expecting their first child in May. He's come a long way from playing the dozens, but he still talks lots of smack. His wit is machete sharp and can cut the unsuspecting person to the bone. His years of being a misfit on tough west-side streets have trained him to use his mouth as a weapon.

"I'm still trying to make a change," says Tate. "I'm about bringing two worlds together, the music and the poetry. In order for poetry to shake its bad reputation, you have to put different media in there. My whole thing is that visually I'm this bittersweet court jester, getting the last laugh, exposing all your dirty laundry. I like extreme things, seedy people. I like telling stories of people who don't fit into society. That's what makes me different from another poet.

"I do performance poetry because I like to perform, I like to combine theater, dance, and music. I like to bend my voice to match the instruments like a singer. I want to create stories as farfetched as Sun Ra. I don't get on a soapbox. All I am is this character showing this story," he says.

"Everybody--black, white, gay, straight --needs to start dealing with things. I believe that's what Marvin Tate was put here for. Here's this black man. He looks so scary with this boa on, the stereotype of a pimp transvestite, but he's telling a story with a twist."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photos/Randy Tunnell.

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