The IV Poets like to talk. They talk a lot: to each other, to themselves, to anyone willing to listen, and quite eloquently at that.
Brian Duncan, Dave Durney, Jason Bruzzichesi and Khomeni Hopkins look and sound like any ordinary group of 20-to-30something guys: two black, two white, dapper, idealistic, aware. All work at the St. Petersburg restaurant Savannah's except Hopkins, who's a school bus driver, and all are deeply committed to facilitating spoken word. In fact, they're arguably the reason it still exists in St. Pete today.
It's not that they brought it to town, or opened everyone's eyes to a newfangled mode of expression, or anything grandiose like that; they just channeled their passion into a once-dying local art form and resurrected it with a fury.
We first meet on a dreary Tuesday afternoon at Café Alma, the cozy underground restaurant in downtown St. Pete where they perform on alternating Wednesday nights. Dave and Khomeni arrive first, Dave a bit flustered, thumbing through his Blackberry. Brian and Jay are notoriously, and typically, late. Khomeni sits stoically while Dave thumbmashes the keys and starts giving the latecomers shit via text message.
There's comfort in this, I learn. Raw humor is something the IV Poets rally around, work at as a team, with each member serving as target practice for the others' jabs. You'd want to say it's brotherly, loving, but they'd probably nail you with a verbal arm punch before you could.
Once all four are present, we take a seat. The dimly lit round table seems more than appropriate. I plug in and unravel their muse, the mic.
"See, that's the best part about having a group of friends like these," says Hopkins. "We come to each other with our shit. Like, just the other day I called Brian, freakin'. I was in Baltimore with my son and I'm thinking about this damn show and all this pressure and he's like, 'What the fuck are you doin'?' Real talk. 'You're trying to do too much, you're not a team player, and you're a bit of a dick.' [laughs] There's nothing smooth or nurturing about these fuckers right here."
Success in spoken word, like all live art forms, is largely dependent on whether the audience takes a collective liking to you. The immediate, tangible reactions — the boos, the jeers, and worst of all, the complete silences — can burn a hole inside the most stalwart of spoken wordists.
"Any poet who says they don't do it for the audience is
lying," remarked Bruzzichesi.
The rush, the risk of either falling flat on your face or garnering rapturous praise from a roomful of judging faces is what keeps things constantly interesting for these guys.
"It rivals anything else you can do. It absolutely does. Getting up and killing a piece for a good, big-ass crowd in a badass venue is one of the best things you can do. You get off the stage and you're electrified," says Durney, his cohorts nodding in agreement.
But writing, especially writing about yourself, can be a deeply introverted undertaking. The old cliché of the reclusive writer is cliché for good reason. J.D. Salinger, Emily Dickinson, Harper Lee, Thomas Pynchon — all great writers, and all, for one reason or another, averse to the slightest trappings of personal publicity.
So how does one pull off such a balancing act: manage both the calm introversion and untamed extroversion it takes to be a captivating spoken word poet?
"When I'm onstage, or in the presence of my friends, that's the only time I'm an extroverted person," explains Hopkins, his demeanor calming. "I'm an introverted person. I like being by myself, I like space, I like peace, I like calm..."
"He doesn't like answering the phone," Duncan interjects.
"Whatever," Hopkins laughs. "But, when you're up there, that's your freedom zone. When people get to know me outside of these jackasses, they get to see that I'm a lot more laid back than when I'm up onstage and I'm wildin' out and jumping around, cause I feel free. It's like all that's bottled up, I get to let it out finally, and that gives me something."
As any spoken word supporter who lived in St. Pete in the early 2000s could probably attest, the scene definitely existed then, the hub of it all being the Lobby Bar on Central Avenue. But the buzz died down toward the middle of the decade.
Bruzzichesi chalks it up to personalities. "Poets are fantastic performers, but they are the worst at organizing, at follow through, at being on time," he says.
"Artists, in general, are fickle," Durney muses.
During the down time, the four poets kept in contact, wrote and performed where they could. Bruzzichesi and Duncan hosted AMP (art, music, poetry) at [email protected], the other guys worked with each other in various poetry-hosting gigs when they popped up, they'd perform at slams (spoken word competitions) when they came to the area, but the centrality, the collective hominess of poetry at the Lobby was lost.
That is, until they decided to resurrect.
Bruzzichesi and the others put their heads together, pooled some resources and re-booked the first poetry night in years at the Lobby in early June.
It was, to put it mildly, a success. Performers hit the stage one after another at machine-gun pace. Tales of heartbreak, revenge, death and sex coursed through the air with fervency and bite. Spoken word was back, and the hunger that had arisen in its absence was apparent in every angry syllable, every rapturous round of applause, and most of all in the faces of the joyfully reunited poets.
However, a change in ownership meant an apparent change in practice at the Lobby. Gone, for one reason or another, was the 10 percent cut of drink sales Bruzzichesi and the others used to receive at the end of the night, money they'd use to reel in bigger name, national-level spoken wordists for future events. These funds, they felt, were key in grabbing new attention and re-cultivating the scene.
So they shopped around and quickly found a suitable home (and a suitable percentage) at Café Alma just a block south.
The IV Poets' Alma gig has been going on for about two months now, and each show I've seen has been different from the last. Immani Love, a frequent spoken wordist and writer in the area, took top honors one week in July with her ode to the almighty vagina. Although quite raunchy and hilarious in its own right, the fact that she'd lost her voice, whispered the entire thing into her "translator" friend's ear, and then had her speak the whole poem made it all the more laughable, and strangely admirable at that.
I asked her later via email how she felt about IV poets.
"These guys are my family and they are a great part of the spoken word scene here and throughout Tampa Bay," she replied. "The four of them combined are a power team of business minds, creative talents and passion for the arts and culture in St. Pete. They are the spoken word scene in St. Pete because without their various venues to perform at, a lot of poets who have gone on to great careers elsewhere that are from here may never have been heard. Myself included."
So, why? What's the goal, the hopeful end result of IV Poets and their efforts?
"I personally would like to see other artists, other promoters, other people, just kind of take the ball and run with it," said Duncan.
"Because, what happens when the power goes out? Poets rule the world."
Jason Bruzzichesi, Brian Duncan, Dave Durney, Khomeni Hopkins, poetry, spoken word, cafe alma, savannah's cafe, IV poets, andrew silverstein