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Mouths From the South

A black poetry slam finds an unlikely home.

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By Benjamin Ortiz

"People get along pretty good here," explains Anacron, emcee for the Dandelion Patch open mike, "but some of the poetry, some people are not ready for, 'cause sometimes you'll have, you know, someone get up with some really militant poems like 'fuck white people blase blase' type of shit, and then there's some white people getting offended by this. By all means, I can't say they shouldn't get offended, 'cause if somebody got on the mike with 'fuck all niggers' I'd get offended, you know what I'm saying, but because it's poetry I try to listen and think about what people are saying for real."

This is not your typical poetry reading. Almost 80 people hungering for the mike pack this 600-square-foot basement space of plywood and brick. Only a few rules and lots of thick DJ breakbeats keep the rambunctious energy from careening into anarchy--that and the two bouncers. From out of the candlelit, smoke-filled audience, poets step up to a microphone, easy chair, and end table lit by a few tracking spots. They tend to introduce themselves by identifying their home neighborhoods, like Englewood, to enthusiastic calls of "South side!" from the audience. Yet the Tuesday-night readings are held at La Piazza Cafe near Broadway and Addison, a stone's throw from Wrigley Field. Anacron, a 19-year-old DJ and rapper, loves the diversity the location brings: "It draws people from all over the city. We got people coming from far south, far west, Evanston, everywhere."

Onstage, Anacron points a trembling, accusatory finger at a crowd of young black poets. "Damn you! Damn you to hell, you chimp!" The poets hoot and holler. "Now that's cursing," he follows in a subdued voice. "Cussing is OK, but there's absolutely no mothafuckin' cursing allowed on the microphone--that's one of the rules here at the Dandelion Patch open mike."

Anacron abandons his post to slap five on a friend, then runs back to introduce a reader from 35th out in Bronzeville. "I live right across the street from Bobby Rush, the congressman and ex-Black Panther," the reader starts off, "and anybody who's been around 35th, it's like real fucked up down there, but this poem is about that." He starts to read but trips over a few words as a noisy crowd knots up at the entrance, but he checks himself, and the audience urges him on:

What do you think when you come home

sipping on Dom Perignon

when you look out the window?

Do you see what I see when you look out the window

in the streets you live in?

The projects are full of niggas with heat

who wouldn't think twice about putting your wife under a sheet...

But you'll be sleeping in D.C. tonight...

Anacron takes to the mike, picking up finger-snaps and growls of approval from the reader's piece. "Shit was deep, yo, give up some more snaps. Can I get some music, please, we ain't paying you to sit there, mothafucka!"

La Piazza is no stranger to poetry, having hosted Marc Smith's Pong Jam and a weekly series with Antonio Sacre. But when cafe waiters Anacron and Irie decided to take advantage of the space with their own series, they had no idea the open mike would draw so many people. "When it first started in May, we promoted it with flyers, and we'd get a crowd of five people downstairs," Anacron remembers. "But now it's packed every Tuesday, and we have problems finding people places to sit. It's cool to see something like this blow up."

"We had to stop promoting," Irie adds, "because now we get like 80-plus people per event, and sometimes we've had 100-plus people show up, so now you can only find out about it by word of mouth."

Anacron moved to Chicago from the LA area in 1995 and met Irie, a 17-year-old south sider. "The open mike series is something we kinda fell into," Anacron recounts. "When I started working here, the owner of the cafe asked me about stuff I do or whatever, and I told him about the poetry and the music. Naturally, being the entrepreneur that he is, he figured we should tap into the poetry somehow and use it to strengthen the business." The Dandelion Patch started off as a free reading, but now Anacron and Irie charge a $1 cover to tip the upstairs wait staff, who work harder when the poetry crowd descends on the cafe. "The cafe gets overrun with business," Anacron raves, "'cause how many poetry readings get a DJ and break dancing during the intermission?"

Fifteen-year-old DJ Timbuck2 from West Town, a student at Gordon Tech, spins vinyl and mixes beats to the poetry. "When I first started coming here, I thought it was so dope 'cause it was like a party, a comedy club, real laid back, you see a lot of people you know," he reminisces. "We've even had some rap battles, but we don't have too much of that 'cause people get too serious about it." He listens to the poetry and tries to play off moods, lines, and subjects with his turntable selections. "People come down there, and some will rap, some will sing, speak their mind, but it's all poetry to me."

"At other events I've seen, like Lit-X, it feels like the vibe is very serious about poetry," Anacron explains, "whereas with a younger crowd you'll get more of a variety in performance and a lot of clowning. Me being young myself, I get up on the mike and act a fool sometimes, you know, I try to make people laugh. When I get on the mike, it's like Tim will come on with a song, getting everybody bobbing their head like 'Yeah!' they just heard a real good poem, like it's just going on and on real dope, so I try to keep the vibe going." For some readers, though, the vibe isn't a positive one. "The few white poets we've had come in here are very good," Irie admits, "but they don't come back, and that's real bad--they feel like they're not welcome, but really they're welcome as new voices to mix shit up."

On a typical night the Dandelion Patch stays a few steps ahead of chaos. That's where the rules come in. "One of the rules is we snap our fingers instead of clapping hands when people finish reading poetry," Anacron explains. "And this is kind of a loose rule, but the reason for snaps is because applause breaks up the vibe and disrupts the energy from the poems." Of course the emcee also demands respect for all poets and no talking during the reading of a piece. "Though there's a difference between saying 'Word! Word!'--you know, reacting--and running your mouth or acting ignorant." Irie ominously mentions the Cosmik Trybe Chameleon bouncers, Private Ion and Popsquali, though there's never been trouble and people always respect the spirit of the house codes if not the letter.

A few white cafe hoppers trickle down to the basement to check out the commotion; they seem surprised that they've been missing out on this underground scene. The first set runs from about 7:30 to 9 PM, with about 15 poets; the sign-up list for the second set bulges with the 35 to 40 readers who always push the reading close to midnight. The last poet, Deja, introduces her poem to a crowd anxious for coffee refills:

"Walking down the street in Englewood, all the sisters know, you get a lot of fools trying to approach you. I wrote this after an incident--"

You say I don't know who I am

Because I choose not to talk to you...

I choose to ignore you

as you holler across the street 'Hey girl!'

A sly audience member mimics, "Hey girl!" and the poet bursts out laughing, but she continues through the smattering of calls and laughter.

Can you see us on our first date?

Exactly what corner would we stand on?

And right when I kiss you goodnight

I'd get a bullet in my ass from a drive-by!

My faith is in God, and not a drug dealer...

Do not tell me I don't know who I am

just because I choose not to talk to your ghetto ass.

"Hell yeah!" sisters yell, and the audience gives up plenty of snaps while some brothers accent the noise with calls of "West side!" or "South side!"

"Everybody do the bankhead bounce!" calls a grinning Irie. "We want this reading to bring people together and spread hip-hop everywhere." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Irie, Anacron pohto by Jim Alexander Newberry.

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