Volume 10:3, Summer 2009

Guest Editor: Toni Asante Lightfoot
Photographs by Thomas Sayers Ellis

by Holly Bass


In the spring of 1994, I was living in New York City, the cultural mecca where I planned to spend the rest of my days. But before settling into my East Coast existence, I had a summer internship in Washington DC to complete.

A few weeks before I was scheduled to leave, Amiri Baraka and Max Roach gave a featured performance at the Apollo Theater backstage. There was also an open mic, so all the young poets came out to read. That day I met a couple of DC writers, including a very young W. Ellington Felton. I asked about the poetry scene in DC. The response? Go to It’s Your Mug—that’s the place for DC poetry. Ask for Toni Asante Lightfoot. She’ll take care of you.

photo by Thomas Sayers Ellis

And so weeks later, on a muggy June night I found myself walking down a cobblestone street lined with quaint Victorian brick houses, until I arrived at 2601 P Street NW. None of the grittiness of Avenue C, home to the Nuyorican Poets Café. Or the incense vendors and heckling hair braiders from the Harlem venues I had become accustomed to. Just a small, charming café with quirky, abstract-art-style signage. Stepping inside, I found my artistic home. And fifteen years later, I’m still here in DC.

What was it that won me over? The poets were warm, rigorous, playful, open-minded. The audience ran the gamut from Duke Ellington High School students to middle-aged professors from American University and Georgetown. And while the population was predominantly black, there were also whites, Asians and Latinos in the house—a true representation of DC’s demographics at that time.

Each week, we crammed and squeezed into that attic-like room—poets sitting on the floor, on every chair, along the staircase, and sometimes standing outside, heads tilted up towards the second-story window, catching words as they fell from the sky into our open ears.

Running from February 1, 1994 to August 20th 1996, the It's Your Mug's Tuesday night poetry reading was a community event had a lasting impact on Washington’s poetry scene. So many prize-winning books, plays, reading series, recordings and writing careers can trace their beginnings back to that humble little café. So much of DC spoken word community owes a debt to this reading series.

But what truly made this reading different from any other I’ve participated in was the inclusion of weekly open workshops. Thursday nights, the most dedicated poets (a much smaller group) gathered to share what we had been reading and writing, proverbial red pens at the ready. “Do you really need to say that? Doesn’t the line before say the same thing, but with much stronger language?” Whole stanzas would be excised, as poets sussed out each line, each word, with surgical precision. Heated arguments would ensue over a given line break or the proper enjambment. It was a space dedicated to growth. If on Tuesday night, your poems weren’t improving or lacked enough poetic muscle, Ms. Lightfoot would gently pull you aside after the reading and inform you that if you had any hope of reading on the open mic again, you had better show up to the Thursday night workshop and start revising your poems. Her house, her rules. And we were all the better for it.

Perhaps, the greatest marker of It’s Your Mug’s influence, and this is evidenced amply in this issue of Beltway Poetry, is how many of the poets and artists from that time are still writing, still reading, still revising. And still evolving. Witness Thomas Sayers Ellis’s images, created with the same keen eye and rhythmic pulse that marks his gorgeous poetry. Notice how many of the authors in this issue (at least nine) are also members of Cave Canem, the writing retreat/community for African-American poets founded by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady. And at least three from this issue—Toni Blackman, Dehejia Maat, Ernesto Mercer—have run other reading series, ranging from freestyle hip hop to Afropoetics to jazz and blues poetry. This is DC spoken word culture at its best—from the page to the stage to cyberspace. Can’t stop, won’t stop.



A little (oral) history of the It’s Your Mug, or The Mug, reading series.
*Quotes taken from interviews, emails and Facebook threads.
Compiled and edited by
Holly Bass


Like all good artistic developments, It’s Your Mug didn’t arise out of a vacuum, fully formed.

As Brian Gilmore explains: "Renegade [Joel Dias-Porter], me and Kenny [Kenneth Carroll] had the 8-Rock Collective which comes out of 8-Rock, the community center in Southeast. Toni Lightfoot shows up at 8-Rock one Sunday and asks to read, is how I remember it. This is about a year or so before The Mug got going…8-Rock closed down."

Kenny Carroll: "Yep, Brian has it right. At the risk of sounding like Little Richard, The Mug follows both 8-Rock’s opening and the 8-Rock Collective (which was really a ruse for me, Brian and Renegade to make some dough)."

Toni Asante Lightfoot: "Yeah, I came up into 8 Rock after attending service at Union Temple Baptist Church. I ate at Imani Cafe and heard y’all was going to be there in a few, so I just stayed around."

Brian Gilmore: "I never knew you were actually coming from church that day. I think you did sing. Did you read the 'Jesus' poem?"

Toni Asante Lightfoot: "Uh, yeah, a funny, shit-ass piece titled 'If Jesus Were A Bass Player.' Y’all them was some days!"

Brian Gilmore: "What about Soul Brother’s Pizza? Isn’t that a minor connection that didn’t work out but leads to The Mug?"

Toni Asante Lightfoot: "Yes! Soul Brothers Pizza is where Renegade schooled me on how to run a reading. Soul Brothers Pizza closed December 1, 1993. Toni Blackman [founder of the The Freestyle Union] was the first reader at It’s Your Mug on Feb 1, 1994 which is why we had so many crossovers—poet as freestylist and freestylist as poet. Chris Willoughby was the owner [of Soul Brothers Pizza] and then opened Mangos the same year that It’s Your Mug closed. That previous relationship is why we were able to move from It’s Your Mug café to Mangos."

Brian Gilmore: "Do not forget the last feature at the Mug: Peter Harris’s legendary 'Stay in My Corner' reading. Peter is a DC poet, as you know, and was publishing The Drumming Between Us at the time. It was a festive night, though it was the last night.

One of the special segments of the It’s Your Mug open mic was the inclusion of O.P.P. (Other People’s Poetry) sessions. During these segments, poets could not read their own poems but instead brought in works by their favorite writers. This gave many of the open mic readers a crash course in the literary canon that they otherwise would not have received. Lightfoot also invited visiting artists whenever possible. New York poets such as Saul Williams, Willie Perdomo and the Nuyorican Poets came through. American University professor and Pulitzer prize winner Henry Taylor read at It’s Your Mug, as well as national slam champion Gayle Danley (who later married Mug poet Twain Dooley). This broad, inclusive approach to the written and spoken word contributed greatly to the diversity of voices in the DC scene.

The cafe went out of business, so the It's Your Mug final reading took place on August 20, 1996. The Tuesday reading then transferred to Mango’s (now Jin Lounge, 2014 14th Street) on September 10, 1996. Lightfoot continued to host for another six months or so, and then Raquel Brown took over hosting duties. It’s no coincidence that the largest regular open mic in the city, at Busboys & Poets (2021 14th Street), which is next door to what was Mango’s, happens on Tuesday night. IYM regulars started other readings—on every night except Tuesday—congregating along the U Street corridor. Darryl Stover and jazz improv poet Askari (now deceased) started an open mic at State of the Union (1357 U Street), where later the Vagabond Poetry Series took up shop. Dehejia Maat started the Nagchampa Nights poetry and jazz series at Bohemian Caverns (2001 11th Street), which took place on Wednesdays. Ernesto Mercer and members of Generation 2000 hosted readings at the Kaffa House (1212 U Street). One of the longest-running series, The Movement Sessions, which featured poets, MCs, DJs and live bands, took place at Bar Nun on Monday nights.

Toni Asante Lightfoot: "The Movement came right after the Mug but I think it was the same time as the Vagabond Series at State of the Union. Kwame Alexander’s Black Words Press anthology 360 Degrees of Revolution published several of the Muggers as he came out of the reading. Takoma Station’s Jazz Poetry Series also came out of the Mug."

Ernesto Mercer: "Afoche was at Kaffa. Generation 2000 also hosted there. The Movement spawned from The Mug as Matt Payne, [the host and organizer], announced the first readings there. I had a Tuesday reading at The Andalusian Dog, "The Twisted Saliva Sweatbox," that I shut down to join up with the Muggers. And I'd say the Black Rooster [Collective] started at The Mug as well."


It’s Your Mug was not only one of the most influential open mic series in the region, it was the epicenter of a creative groundswell in the DC literary community, giving birth to numerous artist collectives.

A reading by DC native Thomas Sayers Ellis and the Dark Room Collective inspired several Muggers to form The Modern Urban Griots (aka The M.U.G., in homage to the space). The original members included Jane Alberdeston Coralin, Holly Bass, Danny Boylan, Brandon D. Johnson, Toni Asante Lightfoot, Lori Tsang. The group performed at the National Theater, the Whitney Museum, American University and Dartmouth before disbanding to pursue separate horizons. The women of The M.U.G. also formed a multi-ethnic all-female collective called DiasFora, along with Sreerekha Pillai.

Generation 2000, comprised of Sam Jefferson, Charles McCain, Lisa Pegram, Darrell Perry, Tiffany Thompson and Patrick Washington, which performed a mix of spoken word and hip hop poetry, spawned Def Poetry Jam performers the Poem-Cees. Lisa Pegram, a.k.a. Lady Pcoq, went on to win a Mayor’s Arts Award and become a key figure in DC’s youth poetry movement.

The group Collective Voices formed in 1996 with J. Joy Alford, Angela Boykin, Carolyn Joyner, Billye Keene O'Kera and Sylvia Dianne Patterson. The first reading for this all-women’s group was at The House of Ruth, a local women’s shelter. They eventually toured England, as well as starting the annual literary tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. which ran for 10 years. The Black Rooster collective, comprised of visual artist Renee Stout, Brandon D. Johnson, Gary Lilley, Ernesto Mercer, and Joel Dias-Porter aka DJ Renegade, formed in 1997 and published two books: The Black Rooster Social Inn (This Is The Place) and Hoodoo you love: Prose, poetry, and art from the Black Rooster Workshop.

In Our Own Voices, a collective of Asian-American poets also came out of It’s Your Mug. As Eric Antonio recalls: "In Our Own Voices spawned from the MUG readings. We—Lori Tsang, me, Peter Tamaribuchi, Cindy Nguyen, and Melisa Casumbal—ran the Choking the Dragon readings out of that Thai spot on 18th and P (don't recall the name) with Nonilon Queano and Nick Carbo. We also sponsored the Asian American Movie Festivals for a while but, to me, this was nothing compared to the Vagabond Poetry Series, that featured many of us as hosts and readers. We went up to B'more, Catholic University and up and down historic U street...our last show was with [saxophonist] Jacques Johnson—Meshell Ndegeocello’s pops—and what was left of the Last Poets."


While It’s Your Mug was open, we honored poets with DC history through events such as the 100th anniversary of Jean Toomer’s birth in December of 1994, the Sterling Brown tribute, as well as master classes hosted by Reuben Jackson, E. Ethelbert Miller and others. Several It’s Your Mug poets joined Cave Canem, the premier poetry workshop for writers of African descent. One year, nearly a fourth of the select group of participating writers were from Washington, DC and It’s Your Mug. Many of the emerging writers who found a home inside the readings and workshops at It’s Your Mug went on to successful careers, not only in the literary field, but in journalism, music, theater and academia.

Ta-Nehisi Coates was a regular at The Mug; A former staff writer at The Village Voice and Time, he has contributed to The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and numerous other publications. His nonfiction book, The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and An Unlikely Road to Manhood, was published in 2008.

Toni Blackman, founder and director of Freestyle Union, a cipher workshop that uses free styling as a tool to encourage social responsibility, went on to start the Hip Hop Arts Movement, and later became the “Hip Hop Ambassador,” traveling around the world for the State Department.

A. Van Jordan, author of the poetry books Quantum Lyrics, Rise, MACNOLIA, has received a Whiting Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award, and the Pushcart Prize. He is a professor University of Texas at Austin and at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

Kamilah Forbes, who was a regular when she was an undergraduate at Howard University, went on to found the NYC Hip-Hop Theater Festival.

Artist Collectives/Groups that emerged from IYM
The Modern Urban Griots (The M.U.G.)
Collective Voices
In Our Voices
Generation 2000
Black Rooster workshop

IYM-related Reading Series
Vagabond Poetry Series
Nagchampa Nights
The Movement Sessions
Takoma Station, Jazz Poetry Reading
Afoche at Kaffa House
Choking the Dragon

Holly Bass (Introduction) is a writer and performer. A Cave Canem fellow, her poems have appeared in Callaloo, nocturnes (re)view, Role Call (Third World Press) and The Ringing Ear, an anthology of Black Southern poetry. Her work has been presented at respected regional theaters and performance spaces such as the Kennedy Center, the Whitney Museum, and the Experience Music Project in Seattle. She is one of twenty artists to receive the 2008 Future Aesthetics grant from the Ford Foundation/Hip Hop Theater Festival.

To read more by this author:
Holly Bass
Holly Bass: Audio Issue
Holly Bass: Langston Hughes Tribute Issue

Toni Asante Lightfoot (Guest Editor) is a 1999 Cave Canem Gradaute and left Washington, DC in 2000 to open The Haven, a bed & breakfast in the two island nation of Trinidad & Tobago, with her sister Michelle Sujai and her niece. Lightfoot moved to Boston to do the CD Some Nights and ended up becoming the Artistic Director of the Blackout Arts Collective of Boston until October 2002. Finding the life of a teaching artist was a more lucrative proposition in the Windy City, Lightfoot is now the Director of the T.E.A.C.H. program at Young Chicago Authors and a teaching artist for Eta Theater and Chicago State University. She resides on Chi's Southside with her husband Setondji and her daughter Leontyn.

To read more by this author:
Toni Asante Lightfoot
Toni Asante Lightfoot: Tenth Anniversary Issue


Table of Contents

Eric Antonio

Frank and His Little Anoks

Holly Bass

the political landscape: change
Black Broadway

Toni Blackman

dinner conversations
is this love
global warming
excerpts from Inner-Course

Jane Alberdeston Coralin

For Black Girls Who Don't Know
Portorican Anthem
River Silk: A Song for Maria

Joel Dias-Porter

Night Train
Still Life
The Empress of High Desire

A Solo for LaSon

Twain Dooley

Out Loud

Thomas Sayers Ellis

[The Wrong Time of Day to Shoot Color]

Brian Gilmore

the tonight show
bronx war

Monica A. Hand

Everything Must Change
Melatonin: Notes on the Black President

Reuben Jackson

East Barre
Untitled Poem
Dreaming of Buyouts

Brandon D. Johnson

this is not insomnia
starry cloth

A. Van Jordan

from Thought Clouds

Carolyn Joyner

Swollen Plaits and Stiff Ponytails
Red, White and Bleak

Dehejia Maat

Love Spell

Ernesto Mercer

The Beg

Lisa Pegram

children and old men
The Unsaid
After Dinner
Mirror Image

Venus Thrash

She Give Me She Bowl
Elegy for the Living

Patrick Washington

October 31 2005
Mr. Fantastic