Word Is Bond
“We don’t have poetry slams,” says Besskepp, impresario of A Mic and Dim Lights, the weekly Pomona, California poetry event now in its sixth year of continuous operation. “A lot of times when venues have poetry slams, you get a lot of tension, a lot of competitiveness. Not having slams sends the message that we’re just here for poetry, we’re here for each other.” “We’re here for each other” had a special meaning in the early days of A Mic and Dim Lights. Besskepp—aka Cory Cofer, former University of LaVerne all-conference football player and current high school special ed teacher in West Covina—didn’t have much company. In fact, the crew of poets who came to read could and sometimes did just sit around a table to perform.
But the concept of a venue for Inland Empire wordsmiths slowly but surely took hold. A Mic and Dim Lights outgrew its first home at the Millennial Arts Lounge and its second one at Taco de Nazo. It now attracts upwards of one hundred people a week to the Downtown Cal Poly Center theater at 300 Second Avenue in Pomona.
When you arrive on a Thursday night you walk by vendors in the plaza, through the lobby where there’s always an art show up, and into the theater. Plush seats. Plenty of room. JB the DJ playing underground hip-hop. People you’ve never met greet you warmly. And the lights are very, very dim.
The hip-hop vibe is deliberate. Besskepp, who says hip-hop is what inspired him to become a writer, explains: “When you first write something down on a piece of paper, a lot of times it’s considered a journal entry. When you edit it, it can become a poem. When you read it out loud, it can become spoken word. When you perform it, it can become a performance piece. But a lot of the poems that people write on a piece of paper, with this generation of poets right now, they can actually say it to a beat as well, so it can be hip-hop. Right now you have a lot of poets kicking poems over beats. The line is being blurred.”
Yet the boundaries at A Mic and Dim Lights go beyond the junction of poetry and hip-hop. Professors come and read and so do senior citizens. It’s not unusual to hear a poet offer Christian testimony followed by a poet delivering steaming hot erotica. In fact, “Erotic Night” is one of many “theme nights.” There’s also “Ladies Night,” with a female host, all female poets, and a female DJ (the men do the grunt work and provide each lady with a gift). There’s “Napkin Poetry Night,” designed for short new poems and to make new poets feel comfortable. And, yes, there is of course “Hip-Hop Verse Night,” where each poet performs their favorite verse from a hip-hop song, seldom getting beyond the second line before being joined by much of the crowd.
As the reputation of A Mic and Dim Lights has grown, its stage has attracted well-known poets such as Saul Williams, Bridget Gray, Luis Rodriguez, Georgia Me, and Jerry Quickly. There have been poets at the mic from Canada, Sweden, and Australia, not to mention San Diego, Bakersfield, and Oakland. Yet no matter who the featured poet is, the best poet of the night may be someone no one in the house knows—an unemployed teenager or an older techie who somehow found their way to that stage, only to make you think about the world, and sometimes even about poetry itself, in new ways.
Collectively this operation is run by a group of artists known as The Alumni. Besides Besskepp, it includes Brother Davooay, Tamara Blue, Kat, Ghetto Spear, JB the DJ, LaVoice, Bomani, and Mark Gonzalez. They often take their show on the road, performing at high schools and colleges and even in jail. Recently, The Alumni held forth for 700 boys and girls at the chapel in L.A.’s Central Juvenile Hall. “We got a call from a teacher there,” Besskepp relates, “who told us that the day after we were at Juvenile Hall was the first time ever that a lot of those kids had picked up a pen and written in the classroom. To write a poem. Stuff like that makes it all worthwhile.”
A Mic and Dim Lights also has a friendly rivalry with the largest spoken word venue in Southern California, Da Poetry Lounge in Hollywood. Last year, the two played each other in basketball, with the winner getting a chance to host a night at the loser’s place. Pomona’s poets beat Hollywood’s, the IE’s poets commandeered the stage at Da Poetry Lounge, and now a hardwood rematch is in the air.
All of this activity is infused with a social conscience, with a vision of a peaceful world without barriers. You can see it onstage at A Mic and Dim Lights, feel it in the crowd’s warm embrace of poet and listener alike, and, above all, hear it in the words amplified by the mic in a dimly lit theater. For instance, this verse from Besskepp’s “Welcome to a New World”:
Where everybody’s affording the necessities
Nobody’s hungry, thirsty, or roofless
Where the old and toothless got dental benefits
Benefit concerts not necessary because we're all rich
Even regular folk can survive off of being broke
Soak up soap operas and novellas
Cause that's the only drama
IE Weekly / 2006