In the mid-90s, poetry found a reawakening among Gen-Xers who paired the art form with the flash and performance of hip-hop through “spoken word” nights all across the nation.
Inspired by and the inspiration for films like Brown Sugar a
nd Love Jones,
the poetry scene was an essential auxiliary to hip-hop culture— slower, smoother, and calmer. The scene provided a respite from the aggressive pace of rap music. It was a place where one could mix, mingle, and flirt—onstage and in the audience. It was a movement and a moment.
Here in Detroit, the “it” spot was Cafe Mahogany on Tuesday nights. And that popular poetry night was hosted by Joel Fluent Greene.
“The legacy of Mahogany is in the people,” Greene says of the beloved venue that closed in 2000. “I'm one (still) doing the poetry work, but Mahogany wasn't just poetry. And if I'm being honest, (most of) those people are still doing amazing, beautiful things, great things. These are people I admire and love.”
Cafe Mahogany “alumni” include Grammy-nominated singer Dwele, poet/journalist/community advocate Khary Kimani Turner,
and acclaimed playwright Dominique Morrisseau.
Even this writer took a turn or two on the hallowed stage.
The night was promoted by Zana Smith
—owner of the venerated Spectacles Detroit
store. It was Smith who noticed Greene’s energy when he would perform and asked him to host. He was 19 years old, that support would change the trajectory of his life.
“He was tall and handsome, that was one of the first things you noticed about him,” Smith said. She notes that upon first meeting him, Greene reminded her of one of The Temptations. “And he was talented. He was a magnet that would draw other poets.”
On the back cover of his fifth book, The Detroit Poems,
Morrisseau calls Greene, “A Detroit Griot.”
She adds, “His poetry, since the days when spoken word blessed the rain kissed streets of Harmonie Park, has always been seeped in the soul of the Detroit majority… Fluent loves his city like he loves words and rhythms and the percussive sound of our automotive heartbeat. His poetic language is a lost art.”
Since his hosting days, Greene has gone on to produce dozens of poetry events around the city including the Half-a-Stack Poetry Slam that awards $500 to the winner of the illustrious event. He is looking forward to promoting more events again as the coronavirus pandemic (hopefully) comes to an end.
“After 15 months, I hosted my first event recently at Aretha’s Jazz Cafe. It was called Together Again. That was the whole theme of it. We had poetry, a singer, and a comedian. It's just a medley of just fun. I just wanted to have fun again.”
“It felt good to do an event, make some money and pay people. That's what I like to do. It's like a whole, for lack of a better term, ecosystem. And that's what I come from. At Mahogany, I couldn't do that. I was getting paid 50 bucks to host the poetry show that would be packed. And I was getting $50. Now that I'm in a position where I can pay people a little more, if I can afford it, I'm gonna book you and pay you. If I can't, I'm gonna let you know. So, it feels good to just be back in a position of just being out here in the community and supplying goodness to people.”
Part of the goodness that Greene is supplying to Detroit is through his fifth book which is dedicated to the city. The Detroit Poems
is a short collection of poems about and for the city, with cover art drawn by his eight-year-old daughter, Olivia.
As we speak prior to the Father’s Day weekend, we talk about fatherhood and why it was important for him to include his daughter in his newest project.
“My daughter. She loves art. She’s very creative, she’s a lot like me,” Greene says. “Livy is so open and she's very much a daddy's little girl, type of girl. And she's just this creative, beautiful person. And this is something we'll always have, you know what I'm saying, like years from now. This is something we've done. This is our first of hopefully many things we'll do together.”
Greene also has an older son, Gabe, who will start his first year of college in the fall. The poet says that his fatherhood journey has been very different from his first child to his youngest.
“Gabe is more into sports. He’s a very different person from me. I like that he’s his own person. But, Livy is a lot like I was with my own father.”
His father, Charles Greene, was a jazz musician, who provided somewhat of a fatherhood blueprint. “I was going to Dummy George, Baker's
, London Chop House
late at night with him when he would pick up checks. He would sometimes end up sitting in with a trio or something. I would be in the audience sipping a coke with cherries in it,” he says with a laugh, sharing that his experience with his daughter has been a lot like his own childhood.
“She's with me everywhere. And so, the ins and outs of the city, she's seen it, she's met most of my friends. We'll be downtown and she'll see people I know. And she just loves this whole thing. And so, just being a part of the creative community, I see her being a part of it. And so, this is my way of getting her started.”
Livy’s artwork adds another level of authenticity to the book which features thoughtful and loving poems about the city that Greene treasures.
He started the book during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I needed a project. I wanted to be creative and give myself to the world at a time when I wasn't doing events in public. And I had time to really sit,” Greene says. “I knew for a couple years that it was going to be The Detroit Poems.
This has to be it. I wanted to make something that was timeless, something that was very much ours, and it's like someone like you, me, someone East Side, West, Southwest, wherever… to read it and be like, ‘whoa, I feel that. I've seen this place. I've smelled that before. I know that person.’”
...BUT SOME LIKE THEIR DETROIT
With a side of danger
To them I say
You ain’t from here—
Give me my home
With a main of pleasure
Subtle Midwest gestures
They keep me here—
Some like their Detroit
All urban explorer
Tell that to my brother
My big city of stagnant
Where the residents imagine
To us i say
There’s more to here.
“I think that a lot of times we talk about Detroit... And it's the people that win the grants. It's the people with the shiny names, the people that are well-traveled and are fancy. It's the people that are constantly in the press, things like that. But this is for your cousins, for your auntie, maybe the relatives that you don’t even get along with,” Greene says of the book.
“I just want to give a real feel-good project for the city. So, I had time to really think about what our city feels like and how it could really hit people.”
And the book has hit people. The first printing which featured all autographed copies has sold out. The second printing will be available on July 5. “The Detroit Poems it's like a labor of love,” Greene says.
“The work I do, the poetry at work, it's important to me to keep doing that. I don't scream ‘Mahogany’ all the time. Because it's been 20-something years, you feel me? It's been a long time. I'm grown now.”
“But my personality, my essence of welcoming people to my stage, my introduction, showing love to people, I'm very much about recognizing who people are and being vocal and visible in my love. Same way I talk about you on the phone, I'm gonna talk about you to somebody else. You feel me? That's who I am.”
Joel Fluent Greene is hosting his first “Half A Stack Poetry Slam,” since the beginning of the pandemic on July 9th at @arethasjazzcafe, 350 Madison St, Downtown.
Find and follow him on Instagram @joelfluentgreene