Spoken word venues in Los Angeles

By Manuela Yim, 16, Fairfax HS (Los Angeles)
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Poetri (right), one of the hosts of Da' Poetry Lounge at Melrose and Fairfax, introduces Yvonne, who performed her poem about a cheating boyfriend.
Photo by Manuela Yim, 16, Fairfax HS

Hip and trendy. Those are the two words that best describe the some hundred people gathered around the Greenway Court Theatre on Melrose and Fairfax on a Tuesday night. As I look around at what seems to be a crowd fit for an indie film festival, I find myself fitting right in, yet fearing getting crushed like an 8-year-old in a mosh pit. This is for sure, Da’ Poetry Lounge is not for the claustrophobic.

It is 20 minutes ’til 9 and there are no signs of them letting anyone in. Yet the crowd is growing as people gather around by the handful, greeting each other with hugs and high fives as if they have been friends for ages. The crowd ranges from high school students to people in their late 30s, but age does not seem to make much of a difference because adults are actually talking to teenagers and vice versa.

Established about six years ago in the home of poet Dante Basco, Da’ Poetry Lounge moved to the Greenway Court Theatre in 1999 and claims to be the largest weekly open mic poetry event in the country. An average night during the school year consists of about 200 to 300 people. "The main purpose for Dante [to start Da’ Poetry Lounge] was to have a place for his friends to come and spit poetry," says Poetri, one of three founders and co-hosts. "Shihan, Gimel and I kept that tradition and also set a goal of keeping a place that was free [except on first and third Tuesdays] where anyone could come and have an enjoyable time." He says that Da’ Poetry Lounge is "a place where we can all learn from each other. It truly is kind of amazing that all these people from everywhere come to share their thoughts. It is just proof that we are all human and that we all go through the same things."

At first, I was pretty nervous about attending by myself. I worried that I would be the only teeny bopper there amidst the "cool" and "radical" poetic minds. Not being a poet myself, maybe I wouldn’t fit in or understand their deep intuition. Another reason was the fact that despite its wide recognition, Da’ Poetry Lounge seemed foreign to most of my friends. But to my relief, half the place is buzzing with teens, especially from my school, Fairfax High. (The theater is on my school’s campus.)

I recognize the group of teens to my left as seniors from my school. Seeing them laughing and joking around signals that they are comfortable in this setting. I also notice that thin trickles of people are constantly moving up the stairs, cutting in front of others to get into the theater. I soon find out they are not V.I.P.’s, but performers. (To perform on stage, one should sign in an hour earlier.) Finally, after what seems like an eternity, the green gates at the Greenway Court Theatre open. Everyone rushes forward, eager to make it inside before the theater reaches capacity and the gates are closed.

I am surprised by how crowded it is inside. David Banner’s music is booming from the DJ spin table. The seats are filled to the bottom row with people sitting on the steps. There are even seats on stage. Despite all this chaos, it still feels cozy because people are lounging around as if in their own home. I migrate to a seat in a far corner near some bean bag chairs.

It is now a bit past nine and people are settled. Poetri takes the stage. He greets everyone with warmth and humor, as if we are in his own house, "Wassup Poetry Lounge!" He tells us to introduce ourselves to three people. I turn around and see a girl a little older than me, and on the other side is a man with bushy hair and a beard, kind of like a vegan look. Very cool.

After all the introductions, everyone is quiet for the first person performing his poetry. He is a Jewish man, reading from a long sheet of paper. His poem is about the anti-Semitic struggle in Israel and why can’t they all just get along? The D.J. in the corner of the stage, Gimel Hooper, plays some hip-hop music as a signal after four minutes, which is the limit for any poet.

Variety is definitely the highlight of Da’ Poetry Lounge because after the poem about the Jews, the vegan guy performs a poem called "For whom the bell tolls." "Ask not young sister for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for you, it tolls for me." I’m not exactly sure what he means, but I like it because he recites to a beat and repeats the line over a dozen times, giving it a surreal mood. Next comes one of the best shows in the house, according to the audience’s response. The poem is titled "What If" and the performer touches on racism, prejudice and discrimination. By the end of his poem, everyone is whistling, clapping, shouting out and going crazy giving the him props.

Another popular topic is love. What surprises me most is that the majority of the performers are male. The females in the crowd respond to these sensitive souls with "aawww"s and probably wish their boyfriends were as poetic as those guys. On the opposite of love, Paul Maybon carries out his poem about cheating. Jumping from one line to the other, he acts out the story on stage. When one of his "ladies" pops out of nowhere at the mall, he pretends to run in terror and hide in the men’s room. Next is a teenager who speaks about the advantages of being a female over being a male, his excuses ranging from "They can carry EVERYTHING in their purses" to "I wish I can have an excuse once a month to eat chocolate and act like a b****." Not a favorite of the women, but lots of enthusiasm from the men. Also a reminder, since Da’ Poetry Lounge is open to anyone, the language is sometimes not mild.

A favorite of mine is a young man, Aundre Mathews, who recites a poem about religion and how his best friend is Jesus. It moves me to see how bold people are in what they believe in and standing up for it in front of hundreds of people. I am awestruck by the skill displayed on stage. I cannot believe I have been missing out on something that has been so easily accessible to me!

When I go back a month later, I notice that there are a lot more messages about religion and spirituality. Poetri speaks humorously yet honestly about "J-Dog," aka Jesus Christ. He debates how to properly introduce Jesus if he were a poet. "I don’t know how to begin, but his father—God—invented the world. Give it up for Jeeeessus Christ." Everyone is in an uproar by then, clapping and shouting as if the Man himself was actually there.

A man named David recites a poem dedicated to expressing for others, titled "A thousand milliliter beaker of distractions." He expresses himself in a steady beat at first, accelerating into a flurry of emotions and thoughts. "My mind is a thousand milliliter beaker of distractions. I spit for those who listen. And I speak for those who don’t dare to speak. I write and speak for those who live."

Another aspect that I absolutely love about Da’ Poetry Lounge is the sensitive souls who are not scared to show their emotions and share the deepest secrets of their hearts. Ken, a tough-looking man in a greaser hairdo, cuffed jeans and an expressionless face, recounts his regrets about having a bad relationship with his dad and makes peace with him through his words. "Dad, if you were here right now, I’d look at you and say you’re the greatest in the world dad, and I love you in every way." As he pours his heart out to the attentive audience, he tears up.

A fun part of Da’ Poetry Lounge is the "slam," a competition where poets perform their spoken-word pieces and five judges selected randomly from the audience give them a score from 0 to 10. Slam Nights are every third Tuesday of the month, and cost $5. The $5 goes to the Hollywood Slam Team and helps pay rent for Da’ Poetry Lounge. Many cities have their own five-member slam teams that compete throughout the country. Da’ Poetry Lounge’s Hollywood team has represented at the National Poetry Slam since 1999. They have been on the final stage the last three years and won the whole thing twice! Talk about talented.

Although there were lots of teens in the audience, only a few were actually performers. It is obvious that not too many of us expression-hungry teens are aware of this cool place where we can not only express our ideas and opinions, but also receive great feedback from an attentive audience. So poets, get ready because you don’t have to travel all the way to hip New York to perform at the country’s largest weekly poetry venue, it’s right in your neighborhood and you’ll make it home before curfew!