Get Lit Players Invade New York City!
By Mike the PoeT
The day is finally here.. After a few weeks of focused rehearsing Friday afternoon arrives and its time to fly to New York City! The Get Lit Players are flying out of L.A.X. en route to a performance at the Bowery Poetry Club in the Big Apple. The Get Lit Players are a troupe of teen poets, more on this in a moment. Taking off over the ocean just before sunset, the Channel Islands and Catalina loom in the Pacific below. The plane makes a subtle U-turn and heads northeast for Salt Lake City. After a quick layover in Salt Lake we board a midnight flight for the East Coast. Flying over America in the middle of the night. Some sleep, I read & write. I-pod rocking Marvin Gaye & Jeff Buckley. I looked out the window a few times in the middle of the night and thought about all the millions of people sleeping below. America was sleeping, but New York was whispering in our ear. Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac, Rem Koolhass, Langston Hughes, Roy Ayers, Frank O’Hara & Ted Berrigan. All of ‘em were speaking to me the closer we got to Gotham. Generations of poets, generations of musicians. We landed in Kennedy Airport at 5.45 AM.
Kennedy Airport is in Queens. After baggage claim, we boarded the airport train to connect to the subway to get over to Manhattan. The trip takes about 30 minutes or so across the boroughs to arrive in the island of towers. Wall Street. Tin Pan Alley. Titan city. We landed in the midst of light rain. Raining and cold but not too cold about 7AM. We were solid gold on the Metro riding in to lower Manhattan. 8 deep with luggage. I saw locals looking at us like, “Look at these folks!?. Where are they from?“ Poets from Los Angeles. There we were sitting in the subway car: Get Lit founder Diane Luby Lane, Artistic Director Azure Antoinette and all the teen poets: Dario Serrano, Ryan Jafar, Dante & Monique Mitchell, Briauna Taylor. The 8th member of the party is me, Mike the PoeT, coach of the teen poets in the Get Lit Players & author of this article. In between telling you about our trip to New York this piece will also give some quick notes about a lot of great books. We’ve come to celebrate the word.
The Get Lit Players are the brain child of Diane Luby Lane. A lifelong lover of poetry & literature, she organized Get Lit to raise teen literacy in Los Angeles. Starting in 2005 she started Get Lit and soon met poet Azure Antoinette. Together they began recruiting teen poets and creating curriculum studying classical poetry. Five of the Get Lit Players teen poets made the New York trip. Diane & Azure asked me to join Get Lit as the coach of the teen poets in August 2009. Considering I’ve been working with teen poets for the last few years at View Park Prep high school in South Los Angeles it was a natural fit. Now we‘re all here together riding the train in New York City.
We got off the subway somewhere close to the Lower Eastside. A bit disoriented after very little sleep we got 2 taxis so we weren’t lugging baggage for the 20 block walk to the hotel. Quick coffee pastry breakfast, no time for rest. Get Lit hit a rehearsal at the Bowery Poetry Club @ 9.30 AM. Welcome to New York.
California Poet Laureate Carol Muske Dukes met us at the Bowery. She heard about Get Lit last year and instantly supported the mission. Since then Diane Luby Lane and Carol Muske Dukes have teamed up to create an interactive poetry curriculum for the classroom. They planned this weekend’s gig as the East Coast Debut of the Get Lit Players. When Briauna Taylor rehearsed the Muske Duke’s poem “An Octave Above Thunder,” she impressed the Poet Laureate with her delivery. Get Lit was ready!
After the poets practiced it was time to take a nap. Sleeping from noon to about 3, we woke up hungry. I ended up taking a walk for some grub with Dante & Monique Mitchell. Dante & Monique are brother and sister two years apart. They were both in my class at View Park over the last two years. Dante first and then Monique the following year. Both great writers and dedicated young poets. Within a short time of knowing them they were accompanying me on poetry performances throughout Southern California. We walked a big ten block circle looking for pizza. We walked from Broome & Bowery through Chinatown over to Broadway and Canal Street.
These blocks of streets and the Lower Eastside look a lot different than they did back in 1890 when Jacob Riis wrote HOW THE OTHER HALF LIVES. During that era the Lower Eastside was the densest ghetto in the world, crowded with tenement houses lodging hundreds of thousands of folks. Luc Sante wrote about this in his great book LOW LIFE or you could watch GANGS OF NEW YORK. 120 years later the Lower Eastside & surrounding districts host chic hotels with $600 rooms, expensive boutiques, delicate eateries, art galleries, jewelry shops, hip lofts & more hipsters than Silverlake. Old time New Yorkers always talk about how much their city has changed. We saw street vendors quickly zip up their suitcases when the NYPD drove by.
There’s nothing more fun than navigating the dense streets. Taking in the technology of the fantastic, the Culture of congestion, capital of the machine age, Cathedral of the skyscraper. For more phrases like this check the architect Rem Koolhaas & his book DELIRIOUS NEW YORK. Another great wordsmith on New York City is Timothy “Speed” Levitch. Check his book SPEEDOLOGY or his documentary THE CRUISE. Levitch’s work is packed with astute observations, facts & pithy statements like “Congestion is the city-teacher’s method of inflicting patience on a population addicted to impatience.”
Saturday night arrived and it was time to perform poetry in Brooklyn. Taking the train across the water we got there about 7pm. The festivities arranged by the painter Phillip Martin aka PhiLLHarmoniC. PhiLL is my partner from UCLA. We met the first day in the dorms in the Fall of 1992. We became fast friends exploring Los Angeles together and sharing our early poems. William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound met under similar circumstances in college when they were 19. Eventually PhiLL & me hosted hundreds of art & poetry shows around California as the Poets of the Round Table. PhiLL left Los Angeles to move to Brooklyn in 2008. Painter, poet, soccer coach, renaissance man, PhiLL is a great man. Writing plays, painting canvasses, editing work, writing poems, coaching soccer, always producing in the community. The clusters of paintings hanging throughout his studio let me know it was business as usual. Art literally everywhere. Where there aren’t paintings there are books, records, a few other people’s paintings & selected silk screens. The wide open floor in the middle of all the art was a perfect setting to rock poetry.
PHiLL lives with his wife Theresa in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill District. They are a powerful gracious couple. PhiLL also invited the Brooklyn scribe Livingroom Johnston to perform with us. Skilled in writing fiction, poetry & clever articles, Livingroom Johnston has been called all kinds of things like the Black Bukowski. My friend Eddie Park told me about Livingroom’s work in 2004. Shortly after that I read some of his stories and read his book I DON’T WANNA THINK ABOUT IT RIGHT NOW. After 5 years of emails, phone conversations & online articles we finally met face-to-face. Livingroom came dressed in a suit as crisp as his prose, cooler than Don Cornelius, smoother than Billy Dee Williams. When Livingroom Johnston walked through the door, we knew it was on! We embraced warmly & just after 8pm we began speaking poems. PhiLL starts it all off by yelling out the window:
BROOKLYN MY HABITAT!!
WHERE IT HAPPEN AT!!
BRANDISH IRONS &
I SHARPEN UP MY BATTLE AX!!
Spoken word! Living word. Serving the word, we made poetry a verb. Livingroom Johnston read a poem from his journal & talked about manifesting dreams. His words were inspiring. Phillharmonic & me rocked some group pieces, “These are dancin times!“ We reminisced some historic ish like Phill’s poem
I WILL FIGHT FOR MY RIGHT TO SPIT,
TO THE KICK OF THE LICKS, STICKS!
DRUMS GET HIT!..
TO THE KICK OF THE LICKS, STICKS!
DRUMS GET HIT!
Poems kept coming. The Get Lit Players rocked next.. Dario Serrano, Monique Mitchell, Dante Mitchell, Briauna Taylor & Ryan Jafar crushed a poem each. Conversation continued and the vibe got even better when we walked up to the rooftop to see the vast skyline below the full moon. Architect Raymond Hood called it the city under a single roof. Dwarfed by the giants of Titan City, fog and sweeping clouds made the Empire State Building barely visible. Tall buildings surrounded us in all directions. Its no longer just Manhattan, Brooklyn’s been gentrified in the last decade and this includes several new skyscrapers. The poets absorbed the panorama of towers and felt thankful to be in New York. Phill yelled his mantra about Brooklyn one more time from the rooftop.
BROOKLYN MY HABITAT!!
WHERE IT HAPPEN AT!!
BRANDISH IRONS &
I SHARPEN UP MY BATTLE AX!!
After completing our poetry session, we left Brooklyn to go home and get some sleep. Little did we know we were gonna ride back to Manhattan in an Escalade. More on the Escalade in a minute, but after flying all night on Friday into Saturday morning, the poets were tired. We took the subway there but on the way home we needed to get gone. Sunday morning we woke up around 8AM. We got dressed, walked north into Midtown Manhattan and ate breakfast at a sandwich shop on 5th Avenue. After briefly hitting Times Square, it was time for one more rehearsal for Sunday night‘s show. Diane suggested the poets practice in Central Park. We stood in an open field a few hundred feet away from the bike path as an endless parade of cyclists, joggers & walkers passed by. Dario, Briauna, Ryan, Dante & Monique practiced their poems for the Bowery set. The impossible rap is ready to appear!
Somehow we found ourselves riding in Escalade Limos across Manhattan. PhiLL & Theresa had called us a car service in Brooklyn the night before and the driver showed up in an Escalade. The price is about the same as a cab, so the next day on our way out of Central Park I saw another Escalade and flagged him down. Bigger than taxis, big enough for six poets to travel together in one ride. Cabs can only fit five & that’s much too crowded in the back seat. Riding in the Escalade worked well for this trip. We took it from Carnegie Hall to the Lower Eastside. Back near the hotel, I briefly stopped in a book shop near Soho and found an awesome publication called THE BROOKLYN RAIL. What at first glance looked like a Village Voice or LA Weekly was a monthly publication more polished and literary than either of those two rags. THE BROOKLYN RAIL had interesting articles and even a few pages of poetry. Anselm Berrigan, son of the great New York poet Ted Berrigan is the poetry editor of the Brooklyn Rail & a key figure in the St. Marks Poetry Project. His new book FREE CELL just dropped on City Lights. New York City is a mecca for literary life.
Before the Bowery gig, Carol Muske Dukes invited Diane, Azure & the Get Lit Players to a book party on 14th Street between 7th & 8th Avenue, close to the Chelsea District. We went for a sec & then turned back to hit the Bowery by 7pm. “To rap the rap with the truest groove,“ a line I love from Bob Holman. Here‘s to Bob Holman, a pioneering spoken word artist, founder of the Bowery Poetry Club & visiting professor at Columbia University. The man is committed to poetry. The Bowery Poetry Club founded by Holman in 2002 features poetry related events 7 nights a week. They feature lots of well known authors and a smorgasbord of poetry: Spoken word, academic, hip hop, however you want it. The Bowery is in the elite company of the Nuyorican Poets Café & the St. Marks Poetry Project. All three of these venues are literary landmarks connected to the lineage of New York letters.
Literary history in New York City dates back to Walt Whitman, Theodore Dreiser, the Harlem Renaissance, John Dos Passos, Hart Crane, Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, the Beat Thang, Amiri Baraka, Frank O’Hara, Ted Berrigan, the New York School of Poets, the Black Arts Movement, the rise of Punk rock & the birth of Hip Hop! New York City’s literary history is undeniable. No city in America even compares with all the literature & culture exploding from the Big Apple. Novelists, poets, musicians, movements, Los Angeles is starting to catch up but New York is older. There’s a reason all the publishers are in New York.
Arriving at the Bowery, poet Beau Sia was finishing up a featured set. He got off stage about 7.30 pm. Beau Sia rocked some haikus and even had dudes on stage counting syllables. After Beau finished up, Get Lit started to stretch for their 8pm set. Soon enough California Poet Laureate Carol Muske Dukes introduced our young all stars. She explained why she felt compelled to bring Get Lit to New York. Reminiscing about her mom in Minnesota 50 years before, she recalled her mom quoting poetry like kids quote pop lyrics. Doing laundry, cooking dinner, even at the grocery store, wherever they were, her mom always quoted poetry. Constantly sharing selected lines from Milton or Rudyard Kipling. It makes complete sense Muske Dukes became the California poet laureate in 2009. She was born into poetry.
Muske Dukes said that when she watched Get Lit Players engage poetry she saw a connection with the same verisimilitude as her poetry loving mother. This common love for literature helped Muske Dukes & Diane Luby Lane join forces. Shortly after they met they began to create curriculum together designed to raise literacy around Los Angeles. Muske Dukes recently committed to Get Lit-Words Ignite mission to educate, train, and expose teens to poetry through in-school, after school, Get Lit Player and Magic Poetry Bus Programs. Like June Jordan used to say, Poetry for the people!
One of Get Lit’s specialties is the Call & response. It starts with teens studying Walt Whitman, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes & other classic poets. They read each poem closely, break it down and then write their own response to the classic. Get Lit calls this “Ignite Proactive Poetry.“ By having youth write their own response they are engaging poetic text on a higher cognitive level. The resulting poems are always brilliant. Get Lit’s formula is working because over the last 4 years Get Lit has performed in front of 10,000 youth across Southern California and performed in Washington D.C., Chicago, Sacramento & now New York. Two of the hardest working poets for Get Lit over the last three years are Los Angeles natives Dario Serrano and Ryan Jafar. They smashed a group piece together in Brooklyn that really excited the crowd.
The Bowery set was no different. The Get Lit Players rocked an hour of classic poems, responses to classics & their own original poems. Dante Mitchell & Azure Antoinette shared “The Impossible Rap,” by Bob Holman. They opened up the show after Carol Muske Dukes introduced Get Lit. Most of the group shared verses for Robert Pinsky’s poem, “The Shirt.” Monique Mitchell performed Joy Harjo’s, “If I Awaken in Los Angeles.” Briauna Taylor performed, “An Octave Above Thunder,” by Carol Muske Dukes. Ryan Jafar did a poem by Jimmy Santiago Baca & Dario Serrano rocked an L.A. original. Mix in the poet’s responses, excerpts from Herman Hesse & T.S. Eliot and you got a powerful set of poetry. The Get Lit players knocked their set out the park. Bob Holman & the California Poet Laureate were yelling from their seats for an encore.
After the gig the poets still had energy, besides it was only 9.30 pm. We walked down Bowery back to the hotel room and caught an Escalade to Brooklyn. We took a ride across the Manhattan Bridge. Though the Brooklyn Bridge is more famous, the Manhattan Bridge is still a force to be reckoned with. This trip across the Bridge was even more special because Sunday October 4th, 2009 happened to be the 100th anniversary of the Manhattan Bridge. Back in 1909 when the bridge opened cars were just getting on the road and Gotham only had 3 Million people, now it has 7 Million! Manhattan to Brooklyn, going back to Walt Whitman. Whitman wrote about making the journey between Brooklyn & Manhattan almost daily for years on end. We crossed the Manhattan Bridge three times by taxi over 2 days, the other trip we made by subway. Brooklyn & back again.
When we got to Brooklyn we gathered with PhiLLHarmoniC to rock more poems. After a few hours of freestyling, PhiLL suggested we take a walk. It wasn’t too cold outside so we decided to hit the boulevard. PhiLL took us to Prospect Park. Prospect Park was laid out by Frederick Law Olmstead, the same architect that designed Central Park and the White House Garden. Though Prospect Park is less celebrated, its every bit as fresh as its more famous counterpart. Walking under the decorated stone arch known as the Grand Army Plaza made it easy to feel the legacy of New York’s history. Besides Walt Whitman & Hart Crain, I thought about the soul-jazz Vibes player Roy Ayers. Often sampled because of his healing transcendent grooves like EVERYBODY LOVES THE SUNSHINE, I could hear Ayers’ 1971 classic WE LIVE IN BROOKLYN ring in my ear…
“We Live in Brooklyn baby.
Our time is now,
we’re gonna make it baby,
We Live in Brooklyn..”
Roy Ayers music is timeless reminding us that our time is now. We kept walking till we found ourselves in front of The Brooklyn CENTRAL Library. Looming across the street from the Grand Army Plaza, the Library is an art deco gem built by architects Githens and Kealy in 1940. Like so many great old buildings a few quotes appear over the door at the top of the structure. One of them read, “Farther than arrow— Higher than Wings. Fly Poet’s & Prophet Word.”
Word! We stood in awe of the Library and the Grand Army Plaza archway. Prospect Park felt like Paris. The sculptures, epic architecture and scenic vista made the walk well worth it. Our time is now. Some of the poets who were originally against our late night hike, found themselves skipping with joy. It was late Sunday night and the Get Lit Players were celebrating a brilliant weekend of rocking the Big Apple. Monday morning we were to fly back to Los Angeles but on late Sunday night we basked in the metropolis of New York City. Generations of poets, generations of musicians, old friends, new friends, east coast, west coast, L.A. to Brooklyn! We are the movement!
One last note. Flying home to L.A. I was reading Norman Mailer’s book THE SPOOKY ART, his tome on writing. All together a great collection of thoughts on structure, energy, meanings & processes involved with the art of writing. One particularly insightful passage involved one of my favorite authors NELSON ALGREN. Check Algren’s book CHICAGO: CITY ON THE MAKE, its an 80 page prose-poem. Mailer shared a story involving Algren and it reminded me of why writers need to learn their literary fundamentals…
“Back in the Fifties, Nelson Algren was giving a writing class in Chicago and invited me to sit in. He read a story by one of the kids. Third-rate Papa. Afterward, I said to Nelson, “Why did you pay that much attention? He was just copying Hemingway.” And Algren, who was about ten years older than me and knew that much more, said, ”You know, these kids are better off if they attach themselves to a writer and start imitating him, because they learn a lot doing that. If they’re any good at all, sooner or later they’ll get rid of the influence. But first, they have to get attached to somebody.”
The only way to find your style is to do it for awhile. Read the masters, the greats from the past. The meaning of this art is sacred, pick up a book. Get Lit Players took a trip to New York and celebrated the word. We believe in the power of books! After basking in the classics we are ready to more forward! Word!