Sekoo Tha Misfit begins freestyling through his love neuroses. Dreadlocks cover most of the word Insecurity on the back of his jacket, but he doesn’t really have to spell it out. He is a one-man psychodrama, all qualm. He is also this year’s National Poetry Slam Champion, and just one part of one night at the Bowery Poetry Club.
The night Sekoo performs—and leaves the archaic term “poetry reading” in tatters—he is the feature, the artist who sets the standard, for this is a slam night. Slams entertain. Slams make poetry palatable even to those who hate poetry. Judges and hecklers are just part of the fun. So poet and MC Taylor Mali recruits the five judges who will score each poem from zero to 10, holding up number cards as if rating a figure skater. “The audience will try to influence you,” he warns the judges. Then he advises the audience: “Try to influence them.” The beauty of the format is that it gets a crowd to listen. How else can they score along with the judges? And decide whether to boo the poets? All in fun, of course.
Displayed center stage is one fresh Scrabble game, the prize that will go to the winner of this heat. But even during Open Mic, a few poets win prizes. OK, maybe it’s just a “junior novelization” of some odious Freddie Prinze vehicle, but how much do poets ever get? At the Bowery Poetry Club, they don’t just win the occasional book or beer; they are royalty, and MC Mali does not hesitate to demand, “Clap for the poet!”
The Bowery Poetry Club is about much more then slamming, however. Bob Holman, its poet-proprietor, fantasizes about scheduling the poet laureate of Yemen someday. He declares proudly that the “language” poets will start their series at the club in October. He vows that when poet Toni Blackman (“a visionary”) abandons her weekly hip-hop throwdown, Krunkadumpolis!, the door is open to whatever she does next. And he calls a 20-hour reading of Emily Dickinson’s entire oeuvre “a perfect model for what we want to occur.”
He’s built a word playground—”a place where traditions can coexist and can be passed on.” Holman’s desire to serve up poetry in all its variety isn’t even his biggest ambition. He is running the place as a seven-day-a-week for-profit club, with a staff of nine.
Tonight, September 25, is the final event in a three-day grand opening. (Readers include Sekou Sundiata, Sapphire, Maggie Estep, Jessica Hagedorn, and Max Blagg.) But the Bowery Poetry Club has been operating for months. Even last January, in the middle of a gut rehab, Holman opened the space for a Gregory Corso event. “No doors, no heat, no bar, strings of light bulbs, and nothing to sell. But we had space and we had poets.” The next event he couldn’t pass up was “the world’s first Viking Hillbilly Review” in February. Officially though, programming started in June.
Bo Po shares the ground floor with DVDojo, “our sister club,” a training and work site for digital filmmakers. Poe’s raven is perched on a lighting bar. A Lite-Brite portrait of Walt Whitman shines at the side of the stage. A sign on the bar advises Bukowski of cheap beers.
The Bowery Poetry Club is across the street and south of CBGB, which may not survive the next wave of NYU dormitories. Old Skid Row’s gentrification is nearly complete, squeezing out both flophouses and artists. Holman suggests that instead of watching a neighborhood turn into a theme park of itself, artists must begin to think about business, and nail down some real estate if at all possible. He did it by finding seven investors to join him in buying a building.
He’s been wanting to open a club, however, for at least 15 years. When he left his job as program director at the Poetry Project in 1984, he toured the cross-country poetry venues—all five or six of them. Then he toured again. “Not only was I going in circles, I was clogging up the works,” he says. “If I continued to do it, there would be no place for new people to go.” Time to open a fresh space, he decided.
Then in 1988, Miguel Piñero died. He and Miguel Algarín had been among the original Nuyorican poets. At a party after scattering Piñero’s ashes, Holman approached Algarín about re-opening the Nuyorican Poets Café, which had closed “temporarily” in 1982. Soon Algarín and Holman were among the Café’s five co-directors, and there Holman introduced to New York the wildly popular Poetry Slam—an event he’d witnessed at a Chicago bar. “The emphasis on event, not a particular poet. The emphasis on audience, not a literary heritage. In that collision of hip-hop, performance, and slam, the doors opened and everybody walked in.”
In 1996, Holman left the Café to run Mouth Almighty, the first spoken-word label funded by a major record company, Mercury. It lasted three years. He also did The United States of Poetry series for PBS. Always looking for ways to make “po” a mass art.
One of Holman’s recent preoccupations is “the absolute connection” between the African griot tradition and hip-hop. In 2000, he went to Eritrea to deliver a paper on “The Re-emergence of the Oral Tradition in the Digital Age.” According to Holman, that country’s revolution was built on poetry, “so one of the first things the government did was to set up a literary conference, while they were still at war with Ethiopia.” There he met a griot named Papa Susso, who divides his time between Gambia and the Bronx.
A week ago Sunday, Papa Susso brought griot to the Bowery for the first time. The audience was sparse, but Holman said he expected it to grow, like the crowd for Tuli Kupferberg’s Friday show. Few came to see the old Fug at first, but the audience kept expanding. Papa Susso wore beautiful African polka-dot garb and played the kora, invented by an ancestor. In songs handed down through many generations, he related the history of his people and their daily activities. Some of the words, Holman marveled, were so ancient that no one remembers what they mean.
On Mondays, Holman runs his Free-for-All, an open mic and slam. One of the regulars gets up to read. Bingo Gazingo. A lean, gray senior citizen, he looks uncannily like William S. Burroughs. (And Holman tells me later that Bingo is part of a hardcore band called the Bog Men.) His words are nearly indecipherable—Bingo does not appear to have too many teeth. Much of the poetry seems to be obscene. “Your youth goes crotching on” is one line I catch. Yet the performance is mesmerizing in its energy and focus.
“Digging into orality opens the eyes of our ears into a new consciousness,” Holman told me. So the poet needs the stage to make the poem live. From Sekoo to Papa to Bingo, that seems true. But what about Emily Dickinson? They started reading her at noon on a Saturday and finished at eight the next morning, Holman said. “She was present. We conjured her up.”
For schedule: www.bowerypoetry.com