There has been a continuous, if broken, poetry scene in Grand Rapids for nearly 20 years. It started notably with the beatnik/Bohemian Rainbow Collective in the late 80s and early 90s. It was revived by host Greg Bliss at the eclectic, anarchic poetry slam scene at Morningstar 75 and 76 coffeehouses (in downtown and Eastown, respectively) in the early 2000s. There has, more times than not, been a place for poets to vent in Grand Rapids.
Poet, performer and activist Azizi Jasper is the latest at the helm, hosting a poetry open mic at the Hookah Lounge for the past three and a half years. Before the Hookah Lounge, Jasper hosted an urban, Nuyorican-style open mic at Urban Beanery near the corner of Madison and Hall. This lasted two and a half years until the shop closed. And when it comes to the current scene, Japser is quite enthusiastic.
"It's really, really diverse -- you never know what you are going to hear," Jasper says. "The poetry scene here is great because it manages to be not stereotypical. I [have] literally heard everything, and I've never had a bad open mic in eight years of doing it. I never had a show that made me question why in the Hell I'm doing it, even when things aren't necessarily going necessarily well. There are always great artists who come in and invigorate things."
Starting in April, Jasper will be hosting a spoken word and poetry open mic at Dr. Grin's in The BOB.
"With the Hookah Lounge, it's an 18 and up establishment. It's a smoking establishment. We have no food. We have no alcohol," Jasper says. "I love having a nice glass of scotch or Hennessy in my hand, getting a little bit looser. I hope to attract an older, more mature demographic. The BOB is arguably Grand Rapids' premier entertainment venue. I think that alone will attract a more discerning, mature crowd -- one that is more 30+ and couples friendly, not necessarily in content, but ambiance."
Jasper, born in Flint, graduated from East Kentwood High School in the early 2000s. He first started going to open mics hosted by Greg Bliss at the now closed Morningstar 75 coffeehouse with a friend. Inspired by that scene, Jasper started the Hookah Lounge open mic with Bliss. Though Bliss is no longer Jasper's co-host, they are still close. "Greg is my big brother and go-to guy," Jasper says. "He brought a sense of anarchy from the old scene."
He also lists Bliss as one of his favorite poets. "Some of my best friends are are my favorite poets," he says, citing 61Syx Teknique's Keegan 'Seoul' Loye as another one. Other influences include Tupac, Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, Ghostface Killah, Redman and Ray Clark. "Some of my favorite poets are not even poets, like John Coltrane, and Miles Davis and Bird Parker and people of that era of jazz," he says. "I've listened to that more than anything in my writing, and they probably helped from a muse standpoint more than anything."
Jasper describes poetry as a craft with no rules, saying, "My greatest attraction to poetry is also its greatest downfall; it doesn't have rules or parameters to follow. When you take the craft seriously, that doesn't matter. But you have some people
who are fly by night, who are not necessarily studied in the craft. Just because there are no rules doesn't mean it can't be studied and that there isn't a right and wrong way to do it."
Jasper's sense of right and wrong comes into play in his main passion: politics. He describes himself as a freelance political activist, and puts his political passions to words and his words to action. "It's a pet peeve of mine when artists complain about things that they essentially permit, since all they do is write or paint about it. I'm an activist first who happens to write."
Jasper has worked on campaigns for various state representatives, city commissioners and school millages. Lately, he has been campaigning for the grassroots initiative to decriminalize marijuana in Grand Rapids, Decriminalize GR.
"You will never get a group of people together [where] a fight happens because they are smoking [marijuana]," he says. Jasper's analogy: "Weed is the tea of drugs."
Jasper, who has toured the country performing his poetry, says that his proudest moment in poetry was performing a poem for Louis Farrakhan at Fountain Street Church, receiving a standing ovation.
"It was a 'Jesus, take the wheel' moment. A lot of the points I talked about in the poem, he highlighted in his speech."
Having no qualms when it comes to being a social critic, Jasper sees a lot of work to be done in Grand Rapids as far as racial relations. He is critical of the racial polarization in the city.
"I own a house off Wealthy, right over on Robey. Five years ago, this was a predominately black neighborhood. Now its predominantly white. When the white business owners came, there seemed to be no effort to employ the residents of the neighborhood. What makes a neighborhood a 'hood' is lack of jobs and lack of job opportunities. That would have been a good opportunity, with all these new businesses that were hopping up around here, to integrate. Here, you have people that need work, and you have people that are creating jobs -- all in the same area. But instead of seeing it like that, we are scared of each other. A lot of African Americans were priced out [and] a lot African Americans just left; a lot of white people had preconceived notions that a lot of these African Americans were unqualified. A lot of African Americans might have been unqualified, but there was no dialog on how we can work together to make this a more inclusive community."
In the end, it all comes back to expressing ourselves and talking to each other. Jasper sees poetry as a way to bridge cultural gaps in the community. And poetry open mics have always been an excellent vehicle for cross cultural communication. "I want Grand Rapids to be a community that eventually becomes as poet friendly as ArtPrize has made Grand Rapids [friendly towards] visual arts. Poetry is a culture; it is an avenue for change, and it is an avenue for dialog for a lot of people who would otherwise never talk."
He continues, "For everybody that has a complaint or an issue with the environment that they are in, a good place to voice that complaint is to write it down eloquently and come to an open mic. Nothing feels better than getting something off your chest to a captive audience."
Smokin' Spoken Word at The Hookah Lounge
(1522 Wealthy SE) is every Wednesday from 9:30-11 p.m. with a one drink minimum. Poetry at Dr. Grin's
(20 Monroe NW) begins Tuesdays, starting April 17 from 8:30-11 p.m., $5 in advance, $10 at the door.
Joseph Charles McIntosh is a local poet and an original cast member of Super Happy Funtime Burlesque. He was also a cabdriver in Grand Rapids for 12 years.
Azizi Jasper in downtown Grand Rapids.
Photography by ADAM BIRD