This story originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Living Intown magazine.
When she recently turned 50, Theresa Davis took the stage at Java Monkey as the evening’s featured poet. “You know, shorty, what you need is a real man,” she said, speaking in the voice of the title character of her poem “Real Man.” Then, line-by-line, she tore down all the men who have promised they could “straighten her out,” all the men who insisted too much on their own “perfection, a fool’s dream chased by those afraid of their own reality.” The evening had significance in more than one way, as Davis’s journey as a professional poet began in 2003 at the Decatur coffee shop.
Like hundreds of others over the past 14 years, Davis first dared to read her verse for an audience at the weekly Java Monkey Speaks poetry open mic. An instant hit, she quit her day job as a schoolteacher, became a full-time performance poet, and went on to win several national and regional poetry slams. Though she later co-founded such younger poetry open mics as Art Amok, she remains a regular at Java Monkey Speaks. “Java Monkey’s my poetry patch,” she says, finding it to be a community of inspiration and rejuvenation, the family with which she wanted to celebrate her birthday.
Sunday night slams
Walk by Java Monkey any Sunday evening, and you’ll find a rowdy crowd filling up the patio. If the weather’s good, the overflow spills out onto the sidewalk. Stop to look, and you’ll see women and men of all colors to be found in metro Atlanta’s vibrant rainbow, people gay and straight and bi and queer, ranging in age from teens to senior citizens. Listen, and you’ll hear them yelling and cheering, clapping their hands with all their might.
Projecting out at you from the little back corner stage, you’ll hear poetry about love and loss, politics and pain, sex and death, joy and rage, loneliness and fame. And it’s no sober, academic event — no arch hipster, finger-snapping display. Java Monkey keeps the coffee and wine flowing for a boisterous poetry party.
The series was founded in 2001 and is still organized, promoted and emceed by Kodac Harrison, a singer-songwriter, poet and painter. “I didn’t know if the thing was going to last a year,” Harrison says. Most poetry open mics, then and now, might last a few months, perhaps a year or so, then fade away. But Harrison made one that stuck.
Atlanta’s poetry scene was — and to an extent remains — segregated: black poets reading to a mostly black audience, white poets to a mostly white audience, academic poets to academics, lesbian and gay poets to lesbian and gay audiences, and so on. Harrison was determined to make Java Monkey Speaks an integrated series.
“He came to a place called Fuel where he was the only white man in that room,” says Emmy nominee and HBO Def Jam poet Jon Goode. “And he said, ‘I’m starting this reading in Decatur, and I want you to come.’ And you’d see him at the gay readings, white readings, saying, ‘Come to Java Monkey.’ And a little bit of everyone came.”
Collections of poetry
Poet, novelist and Atlanta Intown editor Collin Kelley edits the Java Monkey Speaks anthologies of poems by the open mic’s featured poets, who perform each week by invitation. He remembers his first time reading at the open mic. “I was just blown away at the diversity of voices that were on that stage,” he says. “Not only did you have the local voices, but Kodac brings in these great featured poets from all over the country and other parts of the world.”
Java Monkey Speaks has spawned a National Poetry Slam team, published four anthologies, and launched or supported the careers of several nationally recognized poets, including Davis, Goode and four-time National Poetry Slam champion Patricia Smith, who won her first Pushcart Prize for a poem published in a Java Monkey Speaks anthology. The series has also featured Decatur-based National Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey and Guggenheim Fellow and Georgia Tech poetry department chair Thomas Lux.
“Kodac’s personality is a big part of it,” says Dan Veach, founder and editor of Atlanta Review and founder of Poetry Atlanta, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting Atlanta poetry and spoken word. “[He’s] down-to-earth and welcoming and inviting, and at the same time a really good artist, an inspiring force for poetry and music.”
Poetry for all
Harrison infuses the populist free-for-all of the open mic format with a warm, supportive, family-style spirit that keeps the sometimes competitive energy all in good fun. At Harrison’s behest, the audience gives a “double dose” of applause to poets taking the stage for the very first time.
Award-winning slam and performance poet M. Ayodele Heath credits this environment with creating “magical moments,” and he remembers fondly one in particular that Java Monkey Speaks made possible. “I had a period during my 20s when my father and I drifted apart,” he says. Wanting to reconnect with him, Heath wrote a poem, “Things My Father Gave Me (Which I Never Asked For).” One Father’s Day, he invited his father to Java Monkey Speaks and performed the poem for him. “It was an opportunity to say to him all the things I would have said at his eulogy, but he got to hear them. It was meaningful to say that in an environment as warm and supporting a community as Java Monkey.”
A couple of years ago, Harrison, who is 66, started saying he would retire in 2016, after the series’ 15th year. But with that date looming closer, he sounds less sure. “Sometimes it’s hard to get here,” he says, “but once I’m here, I always enjoy it. It keeps me in touch with what’s happening in the street with the poetry thing.”
In August 2016, the Decatur streets will be packed with poets when the city hosts the National Poetry Slam, cementing its stature as a national hot spot for slam and performance poetry. Through Java Monkey Speaks, Harrison and hundreds of poets performing on that little corner stage have built that reputation one verse at a time.
Java Monkey Speaks readings begin at 8 p.m. every Sunday, but sign-up for the open mic begins at 7:30 for people who want to test their poems before the crowd. Java Monkey Speaks anthologies are available for purchase through Poetry Atlanta Press at www.poetryatlanta.com.
Java Monkey, 425 Church St., Decatur. 404-377-9119. www.poetryatlanta.com
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