How a small spoken word community provides healing for all
A small crowd of people in mismatched chairs surrounds a man reciting poetry with his eyes closed. As he speaks, people nod or clap sporadically, lost in the meaning behind his words. As patrons enter the coffee shop, they glance at the man and his microphone. Some stop to listen on their way upstairs. A woman with a baby stands in the corner, cooing as the baby gurgles under the rhythm of the poet's voice.
Mind Gravy is a small collective of poets, musicians and listeners who meet on Wednesday nights to read their work, listen to others and discuss the state of the world. The group was started in 2010 by founder and self-proclaimed “trophy husband” Al Black, a gregarious, giving man who greets new comers with a handshake and a smile.
“I looked about for creative spaces to go to, and everything I found was basically segregated every way you could segregate,” he says. “I decided that if I believe in unity, I must find a space and very purposefully foster and create it — this is how Mind Gravy was born.”
The group currently meets in Cool Beans at 8 p.m. on Wednesday nights. However, they’re known for hopping around and have been at several different locations over the past seven years. “We move when we outgrow the space ... or more frequently, when owners or managers are not race or LGBT friendly,” Black says. “We like to stir things up.”
“We don’t do bars,” Black says. “We want a space that the under-18 crowd is welcome at, and we do not charge because, for many, a small entry fee is a hindrance to attending.”
This explains the diversity in attendance. College students, senior citizens, schoolteachers, activists and families can all be found at the Mind Gravy mic. Some wandered in. Some were brought by friends. And some are long-standing citizens of the Mind Gravy community.
“I’m a senior citizen, and generally there’s a lot of older people too,” says Fran Cardwell, a regular at Mind Gravy. “We used to meet in Five Points and we had all sorts of people wander in. Students, people off the streets, older folks. We went through a while where we didn’t have any real set place for long. This looks like this is going to be the place. And I love it. It’s in the middle of USC, and I have two degrees from here.”
The first time Cardwell read at Mind Gravy, she said that she felt more than a little intimidated. “Getting up in front of a mic, in front of other artists, some of which are way better than you, that can be kind of nerve-wracking,” she says. But the ability to share her work with others has meant more writing. “It’s a very nonjudgmental, accepting group. So I’ve been a regular ever since. It’s got me writing poetry like never before. Hundreds of poems. You get better. Practice makes perfect.”
Mind Gravy has also helped Cardwell connect to the community around Columbia and find a space for herself in the city. “I’ve made friends here and it spills over to all sorts of other Columbia things. Partly because of Mind Gravy, I’ve gotten very involved in the music community in Columbia. I mean I go to two or three things every day or night that I enjoy. It’s really enriched my life. Five years ago, I didn’t go out, hardly at all. Now, it’s like, all the time.”
John Soreno, another Mind Gravy regular, agrees that the community aspect is what makes the group work. He shared his iconic “beer poem” with me, a humorous piece involving the mentions of several different drafts and brands woven into a story. He told it from memory, his cadence and rhythm natural and song-like, as if he could recite this poem in his sleep.
The night I attended Mind Gravy, the featured poet was a spoken word artist from the upstate who goes by the name Moody Black. Moody blends poetry and hip hop for his performances and is known throughout the South for his enthusiastic presentation style and unique rhythms. I spoke with him about his past as a writer and what the community of slam poetry means to him.
“I’ve been writing since 11 years old. My mom made us read poetry books,” he says. “She’d be working second shift, night classes in junior college and she’d bring home poetry books. I found this book called ‘This Time Called Life’ by Walter Rinder. It was written in the mid-60s, and the images were so soft and beautiful, and he wrote about being young and free and it really spoke to me. That’s what really pushed me to write more.
“It became one of those situations where the poetry section in our English class came along and I got really excited for it. As I became a teenager, things would open up. Teachers would have little poetry contests or assignments I would enter in. Things at the church, or the community centers had little functions and I would always read.”
When I asked him about the performance aspect of his work, he laughed.
“I love performing. It was really attractive to me, when I realized — hey, wait, they’re performing. I do that. And I was already writing so I was like, hey, I can do that. Hey, why not? I was a big Roots fan. Their second album, “Do You Want More,” had this last track, which was called ‘The Unlocking.’ It was a spoken word poem, with a hip-hop beat. And every CD after that they had Ursula Rucker, who was a poet, do a spoken word poem. So hey, you know, you gotta thank the Roots.”
But besides the performance, poetry for Moody is a way of healing himself and putting his inner turmoil into words. “This is therapeutic for me,” he says. “I speak at schools, and I tell people, if I didn’t write I’d probably go crazy. In some cases, I tell other people a story, something that I’m witnessing. But a lot of my stuff is internal, just what I’m going through, taking what’s going on and trying to restructure it, and make it make sense.”
And this sense of healing is what Moody wants others to glean from his work as well. “I want people to say, ‘Wow, that made me think.’”
Poetry provides healing, and that thought isn’t new. Mind Gravy provides a sense of communal healing, beyond divisions of race, class or age. This small, rag-tag community exists within the larger tumble of Columbia’s city scape, and missing out on this group is to miss out on something visceral and real about our town. It isn’t about skill. It isn’t about craft. It’s about a group of people coming together to share what makes their hearts beat. As Soreno said right before I left: “There’s so many strong people in this town who share their energy, share their music and their passion and their poetry, and having the opportunity to do it is what makes all that magic.”