By Malia Kai Salaam
On February 1, 2014 Bus Boys and Poets hosted the 20th Anniversary of It’s Your Mug, the poetry series that began February 1, 1994 at a small coffee shop in Georgetown called It’s Your Mug. A vibrant venue for D.C.’s talented community of poets, It’s Your Mug engendered a literary arts movement in a capital city not known for supporting its artists. Located at 2601 P Street a few blocks from the dividing line of DuPont Circle and Georgetown, It’s Your Mug was a small, quaint coffee house with an artful ambience that drew artists like a magnet. Young writers from Duke Ellington High School to faculty members from Georgetown and American Universities would show up on Tuesday evenings to read or perform their works. One It’s Your Mug poet, Holly Bass, writes. “The poets were warm, rigorous, playful, open-minded. … 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.”
Founded and hosted by DC native Toni Asante Lightfoot, It’s Your Mug Tuesday Reading Series had a pervasive influence on the Washington literary art scene and a set of ground rules that served to enhance the artistic quality of the poetry. It’s Your Mug was one of the first reading series that included a mandatory writing workshop on Thursday nights. If the open mic poets’ poems did not measure up to a certain aesthetic standard, Lightfoot would boldly and emphatically suggest that they participate in the poetry writing workshop before returning to the mic. No racist, sexist, classist or homophobic verse was tolerated. It was all about growth and perfecting the craft, and perfecting their craft they did. Many of the It’s Your Mug writers are still turning out prize winning performances, books, plays, reading series, writing programs, recordings and have achieved the coveted job of earning a living through their art. Lightfoot shared her experience as facilitator of this popular reading series with anecdotal wisdom, humor and pride at the success of so many of the It’s Your Mug poets. Cave Canem, the nationally renowned retreat community for African American poets chose nearly one-fourth of their selected residents from DC area poets. The It’s Your Mug series lasted from February 1, 1994 to August 20, 1996, but its impact has continued to this day as the series spawned numerous other poetry reading series after the café closed. Lightfoot moved the series to Mangoes in the 14th & U Street corridor, but shortly afterwards decided to turn the series over to IYM poet Raquel Brown.
At a time that could be called the Golden Age of Poetry in Washington, DC, It’s Your Mug poets started series at other clubs in the U St. corridor so that everyday of the week there was a poetry reading at a different location. On Monday nights the Movement Sessions featured poets, DJs and live bands at the Bar None club. On Wednesday nights Dehejia Maat hosted the Nagchampa Nights poetry and jazz series at Bohemian Cavern. Daryl Stover and M’wile Askari started a series at State of the Union, and Generation 2000 hosted poetry readings at the Kaffa House on Thursdays; Poetry in Hell was a weekly open mic held every Sunday in Adams Morgan. Takoma Station’s jazz-poetry series hosted by Kwame Alexander was also a spin off from It’s Your Mug.
Of course, It’s Your Mug did not descend suddenly from outer space. It had antecedents that could be traced as far back as the Washington DC’s equivalent of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s when Georgia Douglas Johnson used to host readings in her home on S Street. NW to the likes of Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Bruce Nugent, Jessie Fauset, Angelina Weld Grimke and Alain Locke. However, the direct precursor was the 8-Rock Collective at the 8-Rock Community Center in Southeast founded by Kenny Carroll, Brian Gilmore and D.J. Renegade (Joel Dias Porter). Lightfoot happened to stop by an 8-Rock reading after attending Union Temple Church and participated in the open mic. About a year later she started a poetry series at the Soul Brother’s Pizza on 14th St. After Soul Brother’s Pizza closed Lightfoot approached the owner of the It’s Your Mug coffee shop in Georgetown about starting a poetry reading series, and as they say, ‘the rest is history.’ The Hip Hop Movement workshops directed by Toni Blackman trained young poets in free styling hip hop poetry, an improvisational performance style. The Hip Hop Movement provided the fresh and ingenious freestylers, slam, and spoken word poets to the It’s Your Mug mix.
I was an older poet who came of age during the Black Liberation and Black Arts Movements. Being a native Detroit growing up just blocks from Motown, I thought that there were no better poets and songwriters in the country than in the motor city that produced Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson, Holland & Dozier, Robert Hayden, Al Young, Haki Madhubuti, Naomi Long Madgett and Dudley Randall. I knew there were lots of good poets in DC when I relocated from Detroit, but my Motown poet-centric arrogance wouldn’t permit me to listen objectively to new voices in a new town. Plus, like most poets of my generation, I was turned off from the popular “ho-etry” known as gangster rap that I considered anti-art, and I mistakenly thought I would be hearing this at the spoken word poetry slams. Toni Asante Lightfoot was a good friend of my daughter, so I had heard about the It’s Your Mug poetry series for about a year when I finally decided to check it out. Lightfoot was an ebullient and charming host and a master teacher. The reading was conducted like a workshop as Lightfoot came up with an impromptu theme of “spring,” and the poets from Toni Blackman’s Free Style Union began improvising or free styling on the theme.
I was absolutely blown away by the mesmerizing fountain of words that gushed from the fertile imaginations of these youths. Reciting perceptive and fascinating poetry on the spot is no small task. It takes discipline, focus and a mental agility that taps into the wellspring of creative genius. That is what I saw and heard that spring night at It’s Your Mug—the genius of improvised poetry. Like the genius of improvisational jazz, it compels the artist to perform/play their own unique self. They had taken poetry to a whole new level, and I realized that hip hop poetry had reached the literary summits that Black poets had been seeking for generations. They had created a poetic form that approximated the genius of jazz. All of my misconceptions about hip hop poetry were dispelled that evening. Gangster rap, which got all the air play, was simply the evil twin of hip hop that reinforced the evils of capitalism and racism. Hip Hop poetry, on the other hand, subverted the machinations of the oppressor and was therefore forced underground. That is why the names of Saul Williams, Jessica Care Moore, Sarah Jones and Heru are not nearly as well known as Ice Cube, Ludacris, or 50 Cents. For the first time I saw hip hop poetry for the great art form that it was.
At the 20th anniversary of It’s Your Mug some of the former IYM poets shared their poems and stories about the series and its many derivatives, while I held in my mind my own story of a magical moment of poetic enlightenment in the crowded, quaint café. Listen for yourself to a poem by Holly Bass.