Volume 10:3, Summer 2009
IT'S YOUR MUG ANNIVERSARY
Editor: Toni Asante Lightfoot
Photographs by Thomas Sayers Ellis
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.
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
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
EVOLUTION OF AN OPEN MIC
Like all good artistic developments, It’s Your Mug didn’t
arise out of a vacuum, fully formed.
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."
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)."
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
Gilmore: "I never knew you were actually coming from
church that day. I think you did sing. Did you read the 'Jesus' poem?"
Asante Lightfoot: "Uh, yeah, a funny, shit-ass piece
titled 'If Jesus Were A Bass Player.' Y’all them was some days!"
Gilmore: "What about Soul Brother’s Pizza? Isn’t
that a minor connection that didn’t work out but leads to The
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
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
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
Dooley). This broad, inclusive approach to the written
and spoken word contributed greatly to the diversity of voices in the
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.
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.
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."
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
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
Generation 2000, comprised of Sam Jefferson, Charles
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
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
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.
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.
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.)
In Our Voices
Black Rooster workshop
IYM-related Reading Series
Vagabond Poetry Series
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: 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:
Lightfoot: Tenth Anniversary Issue
Table of Contents
Frank and His Little Anoks
the political landscape: change
is this love
excerpts from Inner-Course
For Black Girls Who Don't Know
River Silk: A Song for Maria
The Empress of High Desire
A Solo for LaSon
[The Wrong Time of Day to Shoot Color]
the tonight show
Everything Must Change
Melatonin: Notes on the Black President
Dreaming of Buyouts
this is not insomnia
from Thought Clouds
Swollen Plaits and Stiff Ponytails
Red, White and Bleak
children and old men
She Give Me She Bowl
Elegy for the Living
October 31 2005