Sweet Epiphany: Poetry mojo at work on the West Side

Deidre Carmen Smith loves Sarah Vaughn and Nancy Wilson. She absolutely gushes about Ella Fitzgerald. "I studied Ella. She is more polished than Sarah, who has a richer tone. Still, I gravitate toward Ella because of the scatting."

Jazz is her first love.  But when she hits the stage, everything about "D.S. Sense" (Smith's stage name) screams hip-hop. Underneath a sign that reads, "where beautiful minds meet," her blend of hip-hop and poetry captivates the audience on this snowy night. They respond with shouts, cheers and head bobs.

All this poetry and music happens in an unlikely spot. It's a storefront building on West Seven Mile Road near Outer Drive. It's next door to the barbershop and not too far from a Coney Island restaurant. The owners call it a coffee shop, business center, spiritual center, and more. Every Wednesday people from the neighborhood and surrounding area gather there for "Sweet Escapes," an Open Mic night at The Sweet Epiphany.

Neighborhood poets

These are not the students from local MFA programs, nor are they the competitive voices from the slam scene. These are largely neighborhood residents who happen to choose poetry as a form of expression.

Working the door is Matthew "LuckyLefty" Sawyer. "I feel more at home coming to a poetry spot in the neighborhood," he says. "I like the energy and the love I get. It's family oriented."

If it's a family, then owners Karma "Sweet" Williams and Jennifer "Epiphany" Williams are the parents. They refurbished the storefront, decorated it with community art and opened the place to showcase the talents of local artists. "Sweet Escapes" is the most popular night, but they also host parties, art exhibits, and community education classes for children. Only nine months old, it is quickly becoming a haven for art and culture in the neighborhood.

"From the moment anyone walks into our doors, they instantly become family," says Memphis, Tenn., native Karma Williams. "They donate to the place and they are all eager to do their part in making The Sweet Epiphany more than just another hang-out."

The owners and patrons may be a family, but Wednesday night is not a place for kids. The performances, mostly poetry, are raw. Indeed, many of them are R-rated. They are also variegated, vibrant and inspirational. Hip-hop, poetry's tough cousin, is as equally welcomed in this place for beautiful minds as the rendition of "Edge of Seventeen" belted out by guest host for the evening, Candace Deekah Wyatt.

Self-published poet Dimonique Boyd represents a more introspective side of the artistic offerings. On this Wednesday, she reads a stirring ode to Jennifer Williams in honor of her birthday.

A regular, Boyd understands that opening a poetry spot in the neighborhood is not always simple. "It's harder to get a following in the neighborhood. For the first four weeks, we had four people. Then it began to grow."

Sawyer agrees, "There aren't more poetry spots in the neighborhood, because many people don't understand the significance of poetry."

Poetry mojo

The Sweet Epiphany has been successful. They have already developed a strong, mostly young -- 20s and early 30s -- following. Many patrons never miss a Wednesday. It's almost a ritual for Kjai Sanders, "It's not the same as spitting poetry in your bathroom," she laughs. "When I go two weeks without poetry, I start losing my poetry mojo."

Hmm mojo ... There is something magical about people creating art in a neighborhood. It's how communities are built and experiences are validated. It's the Detroit way. Look at Motown. And Dudley Randall's Broadside Press was started with $12 and a poem. Maybe this humble, storefront on the west side of Detroit will start its own revolution. And if all the beautiful minds who attend regularly are any indication, it already has.

Hosted by Shah Blacq and Whitney "Syphax" Walker, the Wednesday night poetry set runs from 7 p.m. until 10 p.m. The Sweet Epiphany is located on 13305 W. Seven Mile Road (near Outer Drive) in Detroit. Admission is $10 and food is included. There are also poetry nights on Fridays and Sundays. Check the website for more information

Rhonda Welsh is a local freelance writer and poet. Send feedback here.

All Photographs © Marvin Shaouni Photography
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