Soul Revival ramps up Gate City spoken word scene

by Jordan Green

There are poetry hosts who draw upon the deep spirit with incantatory, shamanistic focus. Then there are those who tear down all pretensions and invite the procession of wordsmiths to build up new layers of meaning and culture from the rubble.

S. Benson, the 26-year-old master of ceremonies for the new Soul Revival multi-media poetry series, reveals herself as host of the latter persuasion at a Nov. 19 celebration of oral expression. The event has drawn students from NC A&T University and Bennett College to the gallery space known as Light on Lyndon on the obscure industrial byway across the tracks on Lyndon Street.

As a benediction, Benson reads a composition entitled ‘“F*** Poets’” that mocks several categories of open-mic artists, including the ‘“Revolutionist Poet,’” the ‘“Kill-a-kracker Poet,’” the ‘“I’m trying to get some ass Poet/ no chance of getting any ass Poet,’” and the ‘“’I haven’t permed my hair in a year,’ so I write poetry Poet.’” Then she proceeds to sample some of the worst lines of poetry ever uttered into the mic.

Benson levels the playing field from word-go with her self-deprecatory presentation, complaining in verse about her luck with male lovers who suffer from sexual dysfunction and outsized egotism. After one open mic contender reads a poem questioning the sincerity of a romantic partner’s profession of love in the ‘“pivotal moment’” of seduction, Benson quips: ‘“I don’t even get the ‘I love you’ at that pivotal moment.’”

Soul Revival, a collaboration between Benson and events planner (and Bank of America employee) Chisa Pennix, is the latest entry in Greensboro’s African-American spoken word scene, joining the Collective and the Blazin’ Ice Productions partnership of Donalja James and R-sonist. The Collective convenes periodically at the Renaissance Jazz Café while James and R-sonist run a monthly cabaret at Club Orion. Soul Revival debuted in October at Alexander Devereaux’s but looks to be planting roots on Lyndon Street.

There is little apparent rivalry between the groups, and poets float freely between hubs in an elaborate network of cross-pollination and mutual support. When James performs a searing monologue about domestic violence that is dedicated to ‘“those who have been knocked down’” because ‘“I have been there too,’” Benson’s respect is evident.

‘“I am so not worthy,’” she says. ‘“I’m fired.’”

Other poets’ works range from cerebral rumination to plaintive religiosity. From the gallery’s front row, filled with Bennett Belles, a poet named Reid steps forward and reads a poem about a road trip: ‘“We just drive, lost in the back alley of a land where sunlight wears stilettos and extended metaphors take on value.’”

Some poets from Richmond, Va., who group themselves under the moniker of Poetry In the Light, arrive late and arrange themselves in the back rows. From their ranks, Cecilia Lewis delivers a poem called ‘“Relationships’” that declares: ‘“Love potions don’t work and psychics they lie.’” Following an immersion in the cruelties and disappointments of romance, the poem points to someone with ‘“unconditional love’” and affirms, ‘“Jesus is love; he proved it on the cross.’”

Then there is the lyrical boasting of R-Sonist, whose lines come off with the staccato insistence of Public Enemy’s Chuck D: ‘“I swim through milky ways and jump over barbed wire fences’… I’m deeper than any Jacques Cousteau could go.’”

There’s the velvet-throated crooning of Jeremy Johnson, a former Durham teacher who relocated to Greensboro to pursue a second career of poetry and music.

‘“I hope some of you might get married to this song,’” he says, as he pulls the quivering notes from his core and bequeaths a composition called ‘“Aware.’”

There’s the eccentric funk lyricism of the Mr. Rozzi, a local artist who straddles the worlds of poetry and hip hop. He cajoles audience members into shouting a chorus of ‘“I. Will. Always. Love. Myself,’” in response to lines like, ‘“I used to sweat the minimum wage, but crime doesn’t pay, I learned that.’”

Of both Rozzi and Johnson, Benson proclaims them to be her future baby daddies. After Rozzi’s performance, she threatens in jest: ‘“I’m gonna cut you if you mess with him.’”

James, her fellow host, calls from the audience: ‘“That’s a little violent for poetry, isn’t it sister?’”

Benson shrugs.

‘“Violence is life. Poetry is life.’”

The feature performer, a poet from Durham named Monica Daye, pursues her muse with a spirit that is the antithesis of Benson’s irreverence.

Her poems emanate from life experiences with sexual abuse and domestic violence.

‘“At eleven years old I was sexually assaulted at Shirley Caesar’s church convention at the Marriott in downtown Durham,’” she says. ‘“I got involved with drugs, prostituting and messing with older men. I was sent to a detention facility at fourteen’… I have overcome a lot at 25 years old.’”

She says poetry needs to address gang violence among the young ‘— the fighting between the Bloods and the Crips ‘— along with domestic violence. Her anguished lines rage: ‘“I can hear my ancestors rolling over in their graves’… Here you are killing yourselves over two American colors and the KKK is dressed in business suits.’”

Like a method actor, she embodies madness by inhaling with sharp, suffocated breaths in a poem about checking out of reality when the pain becomes too much to bear ‘— ‘“I look in the mirror and don’t recognize myself because I’m fading.’”

Poetry is probably the least materially rewarding of all the arts, many of the performers in the room will agree. And Daye testifies to a commitment to her calling that is almost intimidating.

‘“This is what I do for a living,’” she says near the end. ‘“I believe this is what God has planned for me.’”

She continues: ‘“I lost my job three months ago. I have struggled. Whew! I have struggled. I have had to pick up coins around the house some days to put gas in my car to take my child to school.’”

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