Editor’s note: Several years ago, while studying Journalism at Howard University, I started to appreciate prose. Having written mostly poems up until that point, I enjoyed the freedom prose gave me that I didn’t have with poetry. Poems seemed more demanding because of the various literary devices and space. Prose opened a new world to my writer mind. With that discovery, I started writing flash fiction pieces. The following one first appeared in The Arabesque Review, an international arts journal. I borrow a character, Fatback McGristle, who was created by my friend and fellow writer, Derrick Weston Brown. Thank you, Derrick, for permission to include Fatback in this story. Here it is:
Every Thursday night, eager performers rushed Fatback McGristle for the list as they cried, “Ohh.. mee, mee!!” The tired host let out a frustrated sigh while his gold capped tooth gleamed among the other three remaining ones.
Outside, Cornbread Othello was brushing back his sandy-brown ‘fro before taking the Black&Mild from over his right ear, lighting up and puffing tight O’s that stretched to loose hoops the higher they climbed the cool air.
“I ain’t never seen people this excited for the open mic since Yogi Records in Adam’s Morgan. But that was years ago. A few of these pups were nursing their mother’s tit then.”
Cornbread peeked inside at Fatback gesturing wildly that the list was closed, and that there were no intentions of squeezing on late-comers.
“This was a whole different scene nine years ago. D.C. was fierce then. Can you imagine being at a reading and every poet there at the caliber of those in the Black Arts Movement? You left every reading ready to put pen to paper under some desk lamp or whatever light you had to work with.”
Cornbread got his name from reading on the scene. It was awhile before the older cats took notice and was feeling his Shakespearean flow–everything from sonnets to rhyming couplets.
After the council of elders had watched Lawrence Fishburn play Othello, and after considering that his skin was lighter than corn meal, they unanimously decided what to call him.
The rest was history. From there, he’d go on to share his work in Switzerland, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Australia.
Cornbread’s work was in several national and international anthologies. He published over 20 collections of poems, 10 novels and numerous articles for the Washington City Paper, The Afro, EMERGE, and the National Newspaper Publishers Association.
Cornbread was also nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize and the National Book Award. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and journalist was invited to do speaking engagements throughout the African continent.
The D.C. scene was definitely a different place then. So much onus was on the writer to study their craft and not to take the reader for granted. Even the audience was well-read not just in poetry, but other literary genres and current events going on around the world.
“One night, this self-proclaimed elder got up on the mic and started doing this number by the Last Poets.”
Cornbread takes a long drag on his Black&Mild, now smoked to the mouthpiece. “He never even acknowledged that it was their piece.” He holds it in as long as he could before releasing a stream through his nostrils.
“I felt so sorry for that cat when he finished that poem. Right after, the host counted to three and damn near everybody in the place recited the same poem back to him before they banned his ass from ever performing there, again.
“That was then. Recently, I was at another spot nearby. Nag Champa was burning strong that night. This one cat does a poem and bites several lines from Saul Williams’ ‘Amethyst Rock.’
But everybody was so busy being righteous that they didn’t catch it and the chump got daps and back pats. I was so disgusted that I left. ”
Cornbread pushes through the heavy double doors. Cornel Shalom was on the mic.
Cornbread couldn’t stand this extra-righteous brother. Something about the guy’s whole image seemed artificial. Cornbread ran into many of these dudes preaching that “king” must love the “queen” rhetoric.
Most of these guys were womanizers, who postured as photographers, poets, teachers, and founders of non-profits. At 6′ 4, Shalom–who was bald–was wearing a long flowing ceremonial garment.
“The Tax Man’s!!…the Tax Man’s debt!!” ranted the militant, who was said to resemble Morpheus. “The Tax Man’s!!…the Tax Man’s debt!!”
He said it as if he were somehow stuck on repeat, as if the idea were a scratched record struggling to play past that point.
“The Tax Man’s!!…the Tax Man’s debt!!”
At first, Cornbread thought he was having a seizure. He was reaching for his pick just in case the performer tried to chew off his tongue.
But he realized it was a part of the performance when he picked up on the dramatic pauses and the way Cornel looked intently into the eyes of the mostly-women crowd. Five more runs of this and his piece was finished.
Cornel then whipped out two African Peach incense, lit them, and cued his boy to dim the lights before going into the love poem called “Black Queen,” a tribute to Baskin Robbins’ new flavor due to be released during Black History Month.
Cornbread thought, for a minute, that he was in a Dark & Lovely hair commercial when sistas gave Amen-affirmations to Cornel on the mic. Cornbread half-expected a cream-colored, dreadlocked brother to come from backstage–barefoot in Capoeira pants and a linen shirt, handing out roses to women in the crowd.
Cornbread shook his head.
“These people want to be entertained instead of enlightened. They don’t appreciate the poets sharing their craft with them nor do the poets appreciate the crowd. Instead they do poems for the cheap applause.
“Back in the day, a poet had to be on their p’s and q’s because they could be approached afterwards by someone in the crowd and have their work critiqued on the spot. If they misused a word, someone usually pointed that out while talking to the artist.”
Gone are the days of honest and constructive criticisms, he thought.
“And don’t even think of approaching people today because then you’re ‘hating’.” He disliked that whole practice of dismissing criticism: “Oh, you hatin’!”
But this wasn’t the worst night at Coco Loco’s. No sight of Moans da Poet, who usually walked around, ogling strange women with his lazy eye before trying to grope them.
Whenever Moans was around, he signed the list so he could do his sex poems to get the women in the mood.
But it was hard for anyone to grasp what he was trying to say in these pieces. One minute he was talking; the next he was making sonar noises.
Cornbread once overheard two women from a nearby table say it reminded them of PBS’s special on mating sea mammals.
“Things really were different nine years ago,” Cornbread remembered. “Rita Dove was the Poet Laureate of the United States then, which led to the discovery of the Poetry on the Metro Project.
“It was founded by this lady named Laurie Stroblas, who went around teaching writing workshops in D.C.’s public elementary and middle schools. You gotta get ’em while they’re young and the appreciation’s still there. I used to love to see the kids faces light up when they saw their poems going to and from school on the public transit system.
”’Hey Mister,’ one of them would tug on my sleeve. Keisha, I think was her name. ‘That’s my poem! Look!’
“I told her, ‘Keep doing your thing, sweetie. Don’t forget about those that came before you. Read all their work and keep it moving.'”