| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Youtube RSS Feed

Features

Local wordsmiths produce a preponderance of poetry

Fable the Poet

It's being written and read in classrooms, spoken at slams, slung at bars and shared at storytelling events all over the city. It's poetry, and when writer Audria Larsen checked in with Grand Rapids Poet Laureate Lew Klatt and visited the weekly event The Drunken Retort, she found the local scene alive and well.
To the uninitiated, the Grand Rapids poetry and spoken word scene may still appear to be an underground movement. But to those in the know, it is exploding in popularity with regular events happening at a myriad of venues across the city.
 
The continued vitality of the community in part may be owed to those like Azizi Jasper, who played a role in ushering the scene from the raucous era of the late 90s and early aughts to the new generation of wordsmith culture. In 2012, Rapid Growth Media covered Azizi, his poetry and the decades-old history of spoken word in Grand Rapids. His influence is still palpable. 
 
I spoke with a few of the current movers and shakers who are actively pumping lifeblood into the scene to see what kind of words are being slung these days, and why it matters.
 
Reigning Poet Laureate of Grand Rapids, Lew Klatt, hails from a scholarly realm of letters. An associate professor of English at Calvin College with a PhD in Creative Writing from University of Georgia, Klatt discovered poetry in college. “I’ve had a long and winding road,” says Klatt. “I don’t think poetry has enough of a public place, so it’s hard to believe that it is a legitimate calling.” But call it did, and now Klatt is an official ambassador of the craft. “[The Laureateship] is an educational role and is meant to expose people to things about poetry that they don’t know,” he says. “I’m a catalyst.”
 
Lew KlattOne facet of that role is to launch public projects aimed at engaging the broader community. His proposed missions include encouraging book clubs to include poetry in their readings; connecting with school children on a project called Grand Poems and Rapid Transit, which delves into the city’s history through the written word; and bringing a graphic arts element into people’s experience with poetry.

“I’m certainly not the only person in town that is interested in promoting poetry,” says Klatt. “It’s all over the city. It’s happening on its own with or without me. I can call attention to it and create certain emphasis.”
 
It’s true, poetry is booming. According to Klatt, collegiate events are drawing hundreds. And outside the sphere of higher education, bars and clubs across town are hosting weekly or monthly events all featuring their own brand of spoken word. The Eastown Hookah Lounge has showcased the Smokin’ Spoken Word event for seven years and counting, which the current host Antonio Taylor says is the “longest, [continuously] running open mic, spoken word show in Michigan.” SpeakEZ Lounge offers a monthly MartiniMOTH storytelling show, The Mixx runs regular poetry jams and Harmony Brewing and Rowster Coffee are getting in on the action, too, not to mention countless other venues.
 
But the new hotbed of live word slinging resides at an event called Drunken Retort, which happens every Monday at Stella’s Lounge. Fronted by Marcel Price, aka Fable the Poet, and G Foster, aka Auto Pilot, the show stems from a wellspring of passion not only for performance-style spoken word but also for community building.
 
“I’ve been doing spoken word a long time,” says Marcel Price. “I learned from Greg Bliss and Azizi Jasper. They really got me into it. I’ve been one of the longest people still doing it to date [from their era] who are really involved in the scene.” Price got turned on to the Grand Rapids poetry world after moving here from Ann Arbor in 2008 and finding a home at the Eastown Hookah Lounge, which was also a pivotal experience for Foster. He got his start at the same Smokin’ Spoken Word events and two years ago the pair teamed up to launch and co-host the Drunken Retort.
 
“When people hear [the word] poetry they tune out,” says Price. As a result, when spreading the word about the event he doesn’t always mention the poetry because he feels that once people get in the door, they will be won over regardless of their preconceived notion of what spoken word is. “People leave saying ‘this is so diverse,’” he says.
 
The duo likes to describe it as an acoustic arts show. And while it does feature musicians and even comedy, it is predominately a poetry and storytelling outlet. “It’s a very loud, energetic room. People are ready to be impressed,” says Price. Because Price and Foster’s roots are in slam and performance style poetry, the audience is typically very engaged and takes a participatory role.
 
A unique aspect of the Drunken Retort is that out-of-town feature performers are brought in bi-monthly through connections culled from Price’s own experience as a nationally touring poet. With support from Stella’s Lounge and BarFly Ventures, they are able to pay a modest fee to traveling guests, which is augmented with pass-the-hat funds. According to Price, the event is becoming known as a go-to destination for touring poets -- not only as a place to enjoy a large audience but to also get paid, which is a huge factor for typically underpaid poets. Plus, they get a three-show deal that includes work at venues in Kalamazoo and Lansing.
 
While Price and Foster clearly feed off the frenzy of their Monday nights, a major aspect to their work is community outreach. “We do a lot of work with the youth and try to improve the scene for the future,” says Price. Along with other local poets, they have presented programs to numerous middle and high school students and even have a weekly workshop at the Kellogsville High School Rocket Learning Lab. “If you come in there just kicking truth and speaking in a way that they can relate with, it resonates,” he says. As poet activists, they offer the Learning Lab workshop for free but admit that with funding they could do so much more. The community invests in a lot of things, but if people would invest in poetry, we directly interact with the future of tomorrow.”
 
“Poetry is hope,” says Foster. “Through poetry you can accomplish things you wanted to do but never had.”
 
You can find out more about Poet Laureate Lew Klatt at http://www.grpl.org/poetlaureate/ and dive into the Drunken Retort at www.FaceBook.com/TheDrunkenRetort. 

Audria Larsen is a freelance writer, entrepreneur and professional entertainer who got her start in the GR poetry scene in the late 1990s. Her work has been published in Rapid Growth Media, Revue Magazine, Michigan Blue Magazine and Hooping.org. She is the founder of Audacious Hoops, Grand Rapids' original "hula" hoop company and produces a myriad of art and entertainment ventures. 

Photography by Adam Bird

 
Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts