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Step Up to the Mic

By LeJuane “El’Ja” Bowens

“Poetry is what happens when nothing else can.” – Charles Bukowski

Whether you’ve lived in Fayetteville for years or just moved here, you’ve probably wondered at times about what there is to do here for arts and entertainment.

Of course, there are parks, movies, local nightlife and more. But when it comes to the arts, I’ll let you in on a little, but also BIG secret: Fayetteville is home to one of the largest poetry and spoken words scenes in the state of North Carolina.

Don’t believe me? Numerous events and major players in the area can tell you otherwise.

To get a better understanding of how deeply this art runs in Fayetteville, let’s talk about the place where it all started: The Coffee Scene.

Every Sunday night the coffeehouse on Morganton Road hosts Java Expressions. Monday nights, it hosts Java Jams. Both are open-mic venues for poets and other spoken-word performers. At 20 years and counting, Java Expressions is believed to be the longest-running poetry open-mic venue not just in Fayetteville, but in the entire state. Over the years, it has come to be known as a sanctuary for all poets, whether they’re veterans or novices.

By the nature of their work, writers can be solitary. “If no one else will listen, then the page will,” said poet Neil Ray. But it can be nice when people listen, too. Two decades ago, when some poets and writers gathered at a large table at the Coffee Scene for a writing session, someone suggested scheduling a time when people could read their work out loud. The ensuing event turned into the twice-a-week open-mic sessions now held at the coffee house.

Over the years, Java Expressions, the granddaddy of Fayetteville open-mic events, has become a home and an outlet for more than 10,000 writers. Every Sunday, you can see poets, old and new, line up to share their work before a crowd that’s waiting to be entertained and edified.

A fellow writer always hosts, explaining what’s going on, introducing performers and usually performing themselves. Hosting duties currently rotate among local poets Radar, Shauntel Gaines and Ray.

As Fayetteville has evolved over the years, so has its poetry scene. Even as The Coffee Scene events have continued, other open mics have sprung up. One of these other events is held nearly every week somewhere in Fayetteville. Each brings its own twist to the concept.

Euphoria Hookah Lounge on Yadkin Road hosts two stellar open mic events each month. The first Thursday of each month, Tiffany “TruBlu” Riddick hosts an open mic night. The third Thursday is the more risqué Erotic Open Mic, hosted by Deanna “Rebel Child” McLeod. Riddick said Euphoria’s events expose a diverse world (in verse) of pros(e) as the artists frame the art of storytelling with their words.

On the first Friday of each month, the Art Meets Life open mic is held at Sweet Palette, a downtown bakery with a large open space for meetings and gatherings. At this event, in addition to the open-mic sessions, guest poets answer questions from the audience about their work and their journey as poets.
On the second Friday of each month, VerseUs is held at Big Apple Restaurant and Sports Pub on Yadkin Road. At VerseUs, an open discussion occurs between performances, allowing audience members and performers to talk about all kinds of issues, silly and serious.

I can speak with particular authority about Art Meets Life and VerseUs. That’s because I host them. (I’m a poet, writer and performer, by the way.) Come by!

On the first Saturday of each month, there’s the Marquis Slam, a poetry slam competition at The Arts Council on Hay Street. The Marquis Slam was founded in 2013 by Eean “Enfinite” Tyson and Sherris Johnson to give local poets a chance to compete for both cash prizes and bragging rights and also to be part of a team that travels to regional and national competitions. Sherris says the poets love the thrill of competition. And regular attendees look forward to seeing – and hearing – how each poet’s performance changes.

The open mic held on the third Saturday of each month is at a wonderfully unusual venue – Barber Kings barber shop on Hope Mills Road. This is Spoken Word & Art Exhibit Night, better known as SWAE Night, and it’s hosted by Stephanie “Tuphlove” Brown. “The public gets the opportunity to perform and experience raw artistic talent in one place, in one night, for free,” Brown said.

April is National Poetry Month and, unsurprisingly, it’s marked in Fayetteville by a special event – the annual Southeastern Regional North Carolina Poetry Festival.

This four-day extravaganza, set for April 25-28, is sponsored by supporters and businesses throughout the city and provides different types of themed events, including a writing workshop, a Youth Slam for kids aged 13-19 and a Nerd Slam, which always draws out the nerd in every poet.

This year, for the first time, there will be a $500 Group Piece Slam, where teams will compete against each other using poems that team members must compose together.

The festival’s events will be held at various locations around the city. For information, check the festival’s Facebook page.

Since I’ve been a part of Fayetteville, art has always been my escape. The fact that I found poetry here is the reason I’ve accomplished so much as a writer, performer and poet. You may think this art form is not for you but I encourage you to attend some of these open mics. You may have a change of heart and learn something new about Fayetteville and the poets and other artists who are not just all around you, but also within you.

“Poetry is eternal graffiti written in the heart of everyone.” – Lawrence Ferlinghetti

If we want to use quotes from local poets as pullouts or whatever, here are some below. They were originally sprinkled throughout the text but didn’t work so well there. I like the quotes that open and close the piece.

“It’s like peeping into the soul of a person that wants to be heard but is afraid to let you in.” – El’Ja Bowens

“The way the eyes can undress the body, words can undress the soul.” – Deanna “Rebel Child” McLeod

“The vortices of my mind draw me in a cylindered tunnel of air encompassing my spinal column, eradicating toxicity I breathe in poetry…” – Shauntel Gaines