I said, “The Hope of youth,
fictitious truth, lays covered in a shroud.”
–Larry Norman’s Nightmare #71
Any attempt describing the Kansas City Poetry Scene will of necessity be incomplete. Doubtless hundreds of thousands of Kansas Citians trudge through their days on both sides of the state line without the first thought for poetry. The idea of a Poetry Scene would seem alien to those people.
Perhaps they would imagine Beats howling verse from City Lights. Or perhaps they saw Dub poets spitting from the Def stage as they flipped past HBO looking for shoot-em-ups. Perhaps they think of fops in puffy shirts and feathery quills scratching rhymes on watermarked vellum. Maybe they only think of the sing-songy sentiments the scribes over at Hallmark slap inside their greeting cards.
The notion of some monolithic Kansas City Poetry Scene is simplistic. Future literary historians might make a big deal out of casual, tangential encounters and label it. That’s probably true for any art “scene” centered anywhere.
All I know about is my experience of Kansas City.
The poetry scene I know is not the poetry of Academia nor of the Laureate. It is not flowery verse of wispy spinsters whispered over teapots. Nor is it some ritual, mystical recitation to the Immortal Memory in a Johnson County living room.
The poetry scene I know is edgier, more underground.
I snuck in to that KC Poetry Scene through a friend of a friend who hosted a meeting in the Skies Over Midtown every other Friday several summers ago. There’s a whole other story there.
That Midnight Poetry group had existed in some form for decades in one location or another, germinating among friends performing original work in coffeehouse venues who used the sessions to hone their art.
Others probably remember it differently. Those who were there in the beginning most certainly do. My story is secondhand. And the details of origin myths vary with every telling. This group marked its 555th meeting last year. Trying to fix its origins by counting back meetings is as unreliable as adding the ages of the Patriarchs to calculate the moment of Creation. The meetings haven’t always been biweekly.
The host of that first Midnight Poetry session I attended was local filmmaker Bill Peck. We had that in common. My own degree is in filmmaking. Well, “Journalism, Broadcasting and Film with a Concentration in Television & Film.” But that never fit on job applications. So, Filmmaking. Communications if I don’t feel like answering questions about why I’m not working in the Industry.
Bill was Events Coordinator at the Uptown Arts Bar, across Broadway and ten stories down from the penthouse he shared in a mostly vacant, pre-gentrified apartment building skirting Hyde Park. One of the bar’s events was a Wednesday night poetry open mic called the Poetic Underground.
The Arts Bar hunkers in the middle of the 3600 block of Broadway, in a strip of buildings showcasing the range of Pendergast-era architect Robert Gornall. From the Hyde Park Hotel (now apartments) to the Uptown Theater’s ostentatious façade and beyond Gornall’s fingerprints are all over this neighborhood.
Proprietor Greg Patterson showcases local artists. Their photographs, prints, and paintings adorn the walls. The stage hosts an extraordinary array of performing artists, including poets. Neophytes, amateurs, and seasoned performers are all welcomed. “I wanted the bar to serve as an extension of the Fringe Festival: unjuried and uncensored,” Greg says. That attitude is Poetic Underground’s hallmark.
That commitment to letting anyone read whatever they have created means we hear some brilliant work. We also hear some unadulterated shit. It’s all good. I’m sure someone has passed both those judgments on my own poems.
Both audience and performers are predominantly young people. By which I mean younger than me, though that demographic grows daily. Youth is palpable in the passion of their poetry. They don’t just feel everything they are the first person ever to feel these feelings in the history of humankind and they are eager to share deep draughts from that fountain with us who have been hitherto bereft. Rage, Ecstasy, Anguish gush full vintage into upraised cups, a bacchanal celebration of LIFE and Idealism and why-doesn’t-everyone-get-how-rich-it-can-be?
Dipping my toe in the Poetic Underground pond rippled out into other poetic groups. Through PoUnd I met headlining local poets with ninja-level marketing skills. Poets like flamboyant Professor Nightlife Jones, who works with urban kids and takes poetry workshops into the regional prisons through his KC Poet Tree, U-Lit Slam coach/pixie road warrior MVP, and hoop impresario MissConception whose verse weaves strands of Pop Culture into a tapestry of hope.
It was PoUnd friends who invited me to Prospero’s Pit, that longstanding literary fellowship orbiting through Will Leathem’s storied Prospero’s Books.
Some score or more cozy performance spaces lurk inside the red brick shells of structures built by Gilded Age entrepreneurs and magnates and robber barons with Midas’ touch here in the heartland poured it back into the Bottoms and the Business District creeping up the hill from Union Station toward the Big Muddy.
These renovated rooms host members of the Kansas City Theatre Scene performing chamber plays, or intimate concerts by members of the Kansas City Folk Scene, or yarn-spinning bards from Kansas City’s Storyteller Scene, or exuberant dancers of the Kansas City Burlesque Scene, or tumbling harlequins from Kansas City’s Mime or Red-nosed Clown Scene. Yes. Yes, there is.
Some of these many stages even allow poets. Some weeks open mics are available almost every night. Besides open mics and workshops, stages around the city host special performances. There Urban Literation holds a monthly slam Downtown, which counterintuitively north of Uptown. In the historic 18th & Vine District a Jazz Poetry Jam is a monthly gig at the Blue Room. Both the Arts Bar and the Writers’ Place are Uptown off Broadway. Special poetry features crop up incongruously in Westport dojos and coffeehouse basements. And, of course, Prospero’s hosts the Pit and book releases and the National Beat Poetry Festival and a whirlwind other literary and musical endeavors.
This past Friday night I made a special point of hitting Prospero’s.
During the Renaissance patronage was one method of flaunting wealth. Patrons from members of the Gentry, upper-echelon Clergy, and the wealthiest merchants commissioned works as a means of social climbing. The system worked for many artists, who had considerable latitude to pursue their own passions within a commission.
Other cultures and other times have had similar arrangements where those with wealth hired talented people to make beautiful things. Indeed, most cultures throughout history have had some Artisan class beneath the nobles and warriors and priests. The United States seems to have a corner on thinking artists need to confine creativity to the hours after they’re done toiling in the fields.
We don’t have patrons.
It’s up to us to support each other.
Keith Bohannon, a poet I met through PoUnd, sponsored a showcase last Friday at the bookstore. Keith uses the name Prim-1 onstage. The Showcase featured Freeman Word and Selena Slang Burch, St. Louis poets Prim met while representing KC in a national slam.
Prim is a wizard.
I’m serious. If words are majik and sentences are spells then Prim-1 is an alchemist melding base Metal with Hip-hop and from the heart of the heartland creating treasures more precious than gold. With facile linguistics he pummels your preconceptions, his rope-a-dope rhythm driving words home.
When I learned Prim’s poems exist only in his head, never a word set on paper, I was gut-punched. It felt … it felt like Murray Abraham’s Salieri learning Wolfie Mozart didn’t make drafts but inked exquisite music off the top of his head. That was Peter Shaffer’s plot device. This—this is confoundingly real. Props, Prim.
I’m learning not to compare myself to others. There are a thousand different kinds of poetry and no reason mine should fit in any boxes. Here is Keith’s heart: after the show a bunch of folk were standing out on 39th talking art and culture and poetry. Someone asked me if I wrote, which I answered with an I-write-a-little-somethin-somethin shrug and Keith’s distinctive baritone sounded over my shoulder, “He’s an excellent writer. Don’t sell yourself short.” He didn’t have to do that.
He had arranged this showcase of the talents of two St. Louis poets he had competed against and admired. Each of them, aside from indicting Injustice with their words, set their shoulders to the Sisyphean boulder of alleviating that Injustice. Prim invited several local poets to open, besides blessing us with some of his own.
Urban poets seethe an underlying disappointment that 1965 was just for show. These women and men are keenly aware of their history as African-Americans, keenly aware of European-American history, the history we like to forget or pretend outrages us as we enjoy its benefits.
As a scholar and student of history I know the patterns of human interaction, migration, conflict. I understand all our ancestors are those who survived encounters with outsiders by a) distrusting them and b) killing them. It’s in our DNA.
In Kansas City even Art is tainted by the Troost Divide. That’s what it’s called, the not-so-imaginary line formed by Troost Avenue which has been a racial Maginot Line since the late 19th Century. Blacks to the east; whites to the west. It is the result of decades of redlining and economic segregation and the fact people just can’t assimilate out of melanin.
Jim Crow is not dead. He ain’t even sick. I have never suffered the post-Racial delusion. But if I took the oh-so-tempting Exploration of Socio-Economic Injustice tangent I would never get back to the Poets.
These young Poets—Prim and Freeman and Selena and Bee Wize and Samantha and many more than I can list who spit from stages east AND west, who mimic Malcolm shedding slave names for bardic names of their own creation reflecting their life and art, these souls understand Jim Crow is not dead Existentially—experientially—in ways my academic parsing and dissection can never comprehend.
But they don’t rant.
They are artists, whose palate offers rhythm and wordplay and characterization and color and acrobatic turns of phrase to leave the listener reeling, spinning, whirlwind carried to that place we can hear the still, small voice.
For me Friday night that still voice spoke through Selena’s poem exposing everyday power plays as a persistent customer feels entitled to a smile from the narrator cashier. It is an entitlement men often exhibit toward women but aspects of race and age and class and social status all apply. “Equality,” she revealed, “always means somebody loses power.”
People don’t like losing power. The Young will have plenty of grist.
When up walked Elmo Lincoln
And he said, “I beg your pardon,
But we left it oh, so long ago,