There is a brick-walled haven on Triad Stage’s third and final floor, the Upstage Cabaret, where the Poetry Café lives and breathes on the second Friday and Saturday of each month.
Eleven years after a grant from the United Arts Council, now known as Arts Greensboro, enabled Josephus Thompson III’s creative venture, it’s thriving and, this weekend of April 12-13, the Poetry Café is donating proceeds back to the Arts Fund which provides grants for local and regional artists.
“The Poetry Café is centered around community,” Thompson says. “It’s not just for professional, traveling poets; it’s for the poet in all of us. We all have a story to tell, we all have a voice. I want the person who works at McDonald’s and writes in their spare time. I don’t need your résumé.”
Eight years ago, Thompson began hosting a 6 p.m. radio show every Tuesday on WNAA 90.1 FM that features some of the artists that grace the Poetry Café stage, and others from around the world.
“[The radio show] makes poetry more accessible to people who can’t come to open mic,” he says.
The two-hour events showcasing local talent are edited into two 30-minute segments for television now, too: My 48 at 11:30 p.m. on Sundays. Thompson says more than 9,000 people watched on March 24, and next month the show will appear on Amazon Prime. Poetry Café is launching a YouTube channel on May 1, too. Thompson says he aspires to taking the show international, traveling with the band and camera crew to Paris, London, South Africa, Dubai to showcase international poets — a long stretch from the early days of asking three dollars for folks to deliver poems behind pool tables in loud bars. Now there’s space for venders and guided deep breaths.
“Greensboro is an artistic city and art is one of the things that brings people together,” he says. “People like to go out, and I think the Poetry Café serves a niche. It’s not the club, but they are allowed to communicate and have a good time. People sign the list and get on the stage and see what happens. It could be a joke, it could be a poem, it could be a song, it could be horrible. But people get a chance to be who they are and to laugh and sing, which is what the show’s really about. Affirmation, validation from your peers is very important.”
“We share our gifts, we share our art and we learn about each other,” spoken-word poet and long-time Café supporter Jasmine Williams says. “It inspires us to want to do better and grow. I’ve grown as an artist.
“It’s organic, people are sharing their vulnerability with you,” she continues. “It’s truly humbling. When you’re on the stage, it reminds you it’s not about you, it’s about you sharing something with others. Your gift is not for you, it’s for someone else.”
Clement Mallory, who’s engaged Poetry Café audiences from the Cabaret stage since its founding, is Universal Mathematics onstage. As he saunters toward the front-and-center mic, he introduces himself: “I’m a walking open mic, I’m a walking open mic, I’m a walking open mic…mic…mic…” The willowy poet sets his own pace, offering innuendos concerning “peachy attitudes, banana slick moves” and options for participation beyond swaying, snapping and clapping.
The band, often ad-libbing in the backdrop, is Anna Williams on drums, Michael Reaves on keys, Marta Richardson on electric violin and vocalist JhaMai Milindez, who started working with Thompson on the Gate City Youth Slam team years ago. Now 23, the full-toned singer captivates with renditions of Erykah Badu’s “On & On,” John Legend’s “Ordinary People,” SZA’s “The Weekend” and a new original between performers. When she and Thompson open and close shows, he layers his spoken-word over her singing, but they riff through playful banter throughout; they’re family.
The celebratory “old school track of the day” brings the crowd back from intermission, and anything goes, from Usher’s “Nice & Slow” to “The Golden Girls” theme song. There are only a few rules at Poetry Café: Each performer is allotted time for one piece; snaps are for the performance, claps for after; and if you know the lyrics to a song, you have to sing along.
When singer Irie Child takes the stage, he assures the audience: “If you don’t understand what I’m saying, just feel the vibe.”
Some nights, like this, it’s more song than poetry on stage, but it’s always what everyone needs.
“This space is for us to build and share our lives, our art, our love, our pain, our struggles,” Thompson says.
Performers tell about fathers and tyrants, about freedom fighters and gazelles so swift they can’t be caught; they transform the Cabaret stage into windy beaches where love holds on tight, and then sail past the pyramids and moon until the end. After the hugs and expressions of gratitude, a man says goodnight to a friend in the hall (“Enjoy the peace, brah”) and a woman is still humming the café’s staple theme song in the restroom.
“Who are we without our hopes, our dreams, and our ambitions to be more?” Thompson says during his last poem of the night. “I may be nothing, chasing a dream of a comet following a star headed for Neptune, but I promise I will write you when I get to Neptune soon. Signed, Me. P.S. Never doubt the possibilities of poetry.”
Learn more at the Poetry Café’s webpage.