The wind howls outside Washington DC’s Black Cat, a bar and music venue where a large crowd has gathered for a slam poetry reading. I step through heavy doors into a haze of floodlight and idle chatter and pass by frames containing signed photographs of bygone bands. I don’t recognize any of the names scrawled in black ink.
I pull away from the crowded cash bar, thirteen dollar cocktail in hand, and squeeze by dozens of DC castaways decked out in ragged vests and torn denim. The black and white checkered floor is awash with a sea of shaved heads, purple gauges and thickly lined tattoos. I bump into a woman sporting a number of eyebrow piercings and nod apologetically. She smiles at me, says, “Don’t worry honey, we’re all friends here,” then goes back to squeezing another woman’s hand.
In the back, just past the pool table lined with young men in tight shirts, stands the windowed door to the venue’s concert space. I am greeted by the smell of a hundred misfits packed like sardines in a dim backroom. At the far end of the space sits a modest stage illuminated by purple lights. Alain Ginsberg, a trans poet, is reading poetry from her latest collection Until the Cows Come Home.
“My doctor tells me that taking hormones is described as a second puberty,” Ginsberg declares, her hair cut short in a way that emphasizes the lines of her cheeks and the dark purple of her lipstick, “and I don’t say that I hope I’ll be taller this time.”
According to her Bandcamp page, Ginsberg’s book “is a small collection of poems centering around the transformative nature of self-discovery and survival as a trans person in the world.” This latter notion of survival is one of the night’s hot topics; the poets following Ginsberg read several poems that are politically charged and rife with anxiety over America’s tumultuous social landscape.
In an episode of a YouTube series called Avant Gods, a “series rallying support for independent artists from different mediums in the Baltimore area,” Ginsberg discusses the origins of slam poetry.
“The point of slam poetry, the way slam poetry was created, it was an excuse to get people to like poetry again. It was an excuse for people to engage and be interested in creative and good poetry. It was created for all of those purposes, like raising up marginalized voices and telling the stories that people don’t listen to.”
From the empowering poetry of the Harlem Renaissance to the rhythmic tangents of the Beat Generation, and even further to contemporary Rap and Hip Hop, spoken word seems to be the avenue of choice for young, disenfranchised people with an ax to grind. There’s a beauty in this kind of poetry that transcends traditional verse, something about these simplistic lyrical utterings that makes you think “Yeah, that is bullshit!” It reminds me of the real Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” in which he refers to the “best minds” of his generation as “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.”
Perhaps that is the reason why people find themselves at dive bar poetry readings; they desire unity in a world of uncertainty, whether it’s with the universe or simply with each other. Outside of college campuses these places are some of the last safe havens for poetic discourse.
At the end of the night, I find myself leaning against a wall at the back of the room, gazing out over the heads of a hundred angelheaded hipsters whose eyes are fixed on the brightly clothed MC as she wraps up. Wreathed in purple light, she thanks us all for coming out and supporting these artists, and reminds us all that we are beautiful. Several members of the crowd, arms and hands linked in affectionate solidarity, echo the word. “Beautiful.”