There are so many threads on Facebook about the recent liberating Busboys and Poet’s (BBP) life-size cutout of an archival photo of Langston from his very early days as a busboy in the segregated Wardman Park Hotel.
Poet/Photographer Thomas Sayers Ellis admitted to taking the cutout as an act of protest..and fully understand and agree with his sentiment for many, many reasons…I have ruminating on how I would respond to all the threads then I figured that was impossible so i would just do here that way I can say what i want how i want and not have to worry about making all the points i want to make in one shot…so without further to do
- No Press is Bad Press: Andy is loving all the press his restaurant is getting right now, as a very shrewd business man who does not pay for marketing this is a prime opportunity to increase his brand and the hype around it..even this post is adding to it. So let’s make sure something forward thinking and constructive comes out of all this and not just more hype for Busboys.
- In response to the pypinnock’s (BBP’s director of Events) comment on the Washington Post Realiable Source column. She said that they “hoped that it (the cutout) was a fun way pay tribute to the restaurant’s namesake on his birthday”. The reality is the image was in bad taste, why not a photo of him at is desk or on the typewriter. The image itself calls to mind the era when Hughes’ only choice at the Wardman Park was to be a busboy. Additionally, in the folklore of BBP the story is often told about how he slipped his poems amongst the papers of Vachel Lindsay, what the BBP folklore leaves out is that the reason he had to slip those poems in his Lindsay’s papers is because the Wardman Park Hotel did not allow African Americans into the hotel’s auditorium where Lindsay was reading took place. So for many us poets of conscience , poets of color, poets of compassion, witness and otherwise seeing a Langston cutout from that era is not fun or a novelty to us, it is an insult. We would rather see him how we would like to see ourselves represented doing the work we love.
- As a former poet-in-residence of the BusBoys and Poets (BBP) in Shirlington, VA, I must say that I agree with many if not all the criticisms posted on Facebook and in the comments of the Post articles. I left my post as poet-in-residence, not because the $150 (= cost of the Langston cutout) per month i was being paid was a pittance (for the amount of work i was being asked to doi), because the fact is it was a pittance and I did not need the money. I ultimately left because it was communicated to me by Andy that it was more important to have a packed house of warm, food and drink buying bodies than to have a smaller group of faithful poetry lovers and poets that would ultimately build a larger poetry following because of the quality poetry and demographic differences of the Shirlington location. Quite honestly, i understand Andy’s rationale as a business decision, but as an artist i was no longer able to commit myself to an arrangement that sacrificed a high quality art and a committed audience for a simple packed house. Some artist are OK with that, I am not. I understand that may be seen as privileged position but i am at peace with that too. i also want to note here that even though Derrick Weston Brown and Holly Bass got paid more than I did as Poet-in-Residence, what they are paid is still a pittance with respect to the effort,time, their education, credentials, publications and local, national and international acclaim. I understand that the profit margins can be narrow in the restaurant business, but i also know that well proven tenants like BBP get preferred lease arrangements with developers such as PN Hoffman, Lowe, Bundy, CIM , EYA (which is not an issue at 14th and V, because Andy owns the space) that greatly reduce the financial risk of this operation. BBP’s benefits from the gentrification that is occurring around the DMV area and will benefit from the same in Harlem, Seattle, Boulder and other areas that are in the pipeline.
- As the curator of the American Poetry Museum, an organization that operates on a budget probably less than BBP’s annual electric bill , we have managed to pay poets many $100 (and in some cases travel reimbursement) for featured reading in the series, it has not always been easy in fact i have almost gotten put on front street on a poet’s blog for late payment. Despite all of that we press on. If an organization like the American Poetry Museum can do it with our paltry budget surely a behemoth like Busboys could do the same. Anyway, I say all of that to say is that BBP is not the only place to hear great poetry in the DMV, nor is it the best (whatever that means). We have to challenge ourselves to hold and support readings in other spaces and venues so that one venue does not feel a sense of entitlement and ownership over the poets or the poetry….truth be told the poets don’t even own poetry, we are just blessed to be stewards of it for a while until poetry decides to dispose of us.
- My issues with BBP are many, but the core of my issue with BBP really centers around BBP’s relationship to the poets with regard to the credibility we have given it and how that does not translate into a respectable compensation structure. I don’t think it is too much to ask that a business’s rhetoric match its reality, especially because the business says that it does so. If poetry is the centerpiece of what you do as a business, why is it not reflected in the way you compensate your Poets-in-Residence and the featured poets particularly at 9 on the Ninth and Sunday Kind of Love, where world class poets are being brought in that add credibility to the establishment as the premiere place to hear poetry in DC, simply providing space, quite honestly is not enough.Without Langston’s narrative as a namesake…without the poets (the bookstore and the ideas represented therein) BBP would not be much more than just a restaurant in a great location with a performance space. Space is the place, but Space is not enough…
At the end of the day what I (as well as a few other poets) would like to see ss a meaningful conversation between Andy, the poets who are defending his actions and those of us poets with side with the liberated Langston. The Poetry Council that was established and may now be defunct was a great idea, but never really gathered any serious momentum, that needs to be reinvigorated or reinvented to include poets that are out in the community and that are not beholden to Busboys, this hopefully with ensure honest critique rather than capitulation.
I have many other thoughts on this but that’s all for now..i gotta go write some poems…