Respect the mic

Every Tuesday at the Cotton Club, poetry's the word

click to enlarge KRYSTLE CLEAR: Krystle Mondesir's poem asked angry questions about Katrina. - Max Linsky
Max Linsky
KRYSTLE CLEAR: Krystle Mondesir's poem asked angry questions about Katrina.

Krystle Mondesir steps to the mic, notebook in hand, eyes closed and head bowed. A pink spotlight burnishes her thimble-sized blond dreads. Mondesir, who goes by the stage name "Krystle wit a 'E'," pauses a moment. And then the 22-year-old hairstylist picks up her head, opens her eyes and smiles the most sarcastically wide smile she can muster.

"911. What is your emergency?"

Mondesir has never performed this poem before. She wrote it just two days ago, the words coming to her in the shower. She jumped out still soapy and scribbled "Emergency" into her notebook.

"So 911, can you help me?" she asks back, switching from the operator voice to her own. "I don't blame one for all/ but/ Where was Bush?/ When people were lost/ lost their lives/ their minds/ families, the fight..."

Mondesir has stepped in front of the mic now, her hands punctuating each line as her voice projects throughout the Cotton Club South. The 40 people in front of her, most poets themselves, sit in silence as she vents, occasionally shaking makeshift rattles in lieu of applause. There's a rule at Black on Black Rhyme's spoken word nights — respect the mic.

This September marks the four-year anniversary of this weekly Tuesday event, a prodigious run for a spoken word night in Tampa Bay. Usually, open mic nights struggle to build a consistent following and quickly fade, says Black on Black Rhyme poet and organizer Walter Jennings. "Anytime you're able to sustain a spoken word venue past six months, you're doing pretty good," says Jennings, aka Wally B (his stage name). Black on Black Rhyme is a Florida-wide black poetry collective, and Jennings runs the local chapter, The Conscious Party, with two other local poets. They co-founded the Tuesday spoken word nights, and they're three weeks into a month-long contest to celebrate the streak. The finals will be held on Sept. 27.

It's a diverse crowd listening to Mondesir. Law clerks, teachers, pool cleaners — black and white and Latino — sit mesmerized as she works through her lines, which culminate in a fusillade of angry challenges to the federal government.

"People have this notion that poetry is really soft and sensitive, that it's all about flowers, trees, sunsets and beaches," says Jennings. "But we encourage the people here to talk about trials and tribulations when they get on the mic. Those cross gender lines, and race lines as well."

Most of the poets are young, and most tap the rawest of emotions in their work. They're making themselves vulnerable — standing in front of their friends and fellow poets, rhyming about heartbreak and rape, racism and social justice. But opening up can be cathartic.

"We put our lives down on paper," says Lizz Straight, a Black on Black Rhyme member and host of WMNF's Poetry Is. "Nine times out of 10, what you're hearing really happened. It's a part of yourself that you put out to the world. Therapy, that's really the best word to describe it.

"Spoken word is a true expression of pain and love and joy ... all of that," she says. "And it can be all of that in one poem."

Not everyone is as intense as Mondesir or Straight, who reads with such passion that the veins in her neck seem ready to bust through the skin. Kevin Simmler, aka White Squall, tries to bring some humor to the mic. A skinny white guy with Buddhist leanings and a quick wit, Simmler sticks his hands in his pockets as often as he thrusts them to a beat. He describes himself this way in "Pool Guy," the poem that won him the first round of the "inspirational" category in this month's contest: "I cannot be duplicated, I am the original/ Pool guy, slash poet, slash spoken word artist/ Japanese koi enthusiast, aquarium hobbyist."

"I wouldn't be where I am if this venue didn't open me up," says Simmler, who hopes to become a professional poet. "White Squall wouldn't exist."

The Tuesday night event has moved from spot to spot over the last four years, settling at West Tampa's Cotton Club South two months ago. The 50-year-old bar sells full bottles of gin and whiskey for customers to mix themselves, and on poetry night there's a simmering bowl of complimentary boiled peanuts. The bar is right around the corner from where Jennings grew up. "It's full circle," he says.

Wearing a Chicago Bears jersey and a black headband, Jennings bounds onto the stage after Mondesir finishes her piece. Usually he'll sit down when he's introducing the next poet, but "Emergency" has him riled up. "This is more than poetry, people," he preaches to the choir. "This is life experienced!"

Jennings has reason to be feeling good. Spoken word is taking off in the Bay — you can find an open mic five nights a week. Tampa recently fielded its first slam poetry team for a national competition, and Tuesday night at the Cotton Club is the premier spoken word venue in the area (at least according to its regulars). Still, Jennings and his partners aren't content. "I want Tampa to be known as a city that produces exceptional poets and exceptional poetry," he says. "I want it to be mentioned in the same breath as New York."

Introducing the night's penultimate poet, Jennings calls up a woman who's spent the past few hours sitting in a dark corner, far from the stage. Eugena Harris, 36, has never read a poem in front of an audience. She's been writing since she learned to write, she says, but this is nerve-wracking.

Sitting in a chair on stage that most of the poets have ignored, Harris nestles up close to the mic and stares down at her notebook. She's a big woman, and, as her poem reveals, she's proud of it.

"Boom boom," she starts. "Giggle giggle/ hear it clap/ watch it wiggle."

The other poets pick up their shakers, cheering the rookie on. Harris looks out from the spotlight, relaxes her shoulders, goes back to the notebook.

"Just walk in my shoes for an hour/ you'll see why it's hard to walk a mile/ cause no man can resist/ the big butt and a smile."

Catch the competition finals this Tuesday, Sept. 27, at the Cotton Club South, 2502 N. Albany Ave., Tampa. Doors open at 8 p.m., $5 cover after 8:30. For more information, check out www.blackonblackrhyme.com.

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