Value in Their Voice
Exploring Pensacola’s Poetry Scene with Some of Its Major Figures
By C. Scott Satterwhite
In her bestselling novel “The Poet X,” Elizabeth Acevedo wrote “Every now and then, I dress my thoughts in the clothing of a poem. Try to figure out if my world changes once I set down these words.”
The main character in the book is a young poet named Xiomara who described the day her brother gave her a journal. “This was the first time someone gave me a place to collect my thoughts. In some ways, it seemed like he was saying that my thoughts were important. From that day forward, I’ve written every single day. Sometimes it seems like writing is the only way I keep from hurting.”
Xiomara is not alone. On nearly any given night in Pensacola, poets break out their own journals and step up to the microphone. They shake off their anxiety and lay their hearts bare. Whether it be the long-standing open mic scene, numerous curated events, various slams, interesting language poets, punk troubadours, hip hop MCs, traditionalists and the ones who simply have to scream to be heard, they’re all here in the city practicing the radical inclusivity of the poet.
A ‘Constant’ Scene
For the past three years, Constant Coffee & Tea has hosted the weekly open mic group known as Pensacola Poetry. Longtime emcee Quincy “Q” Hull moved to Pensacola a decade ago. A native of Gary, Ind., Hull’s first local reading was at the Pensacola Poetry open mic. At the time, he wasn’t certain he wanted to move here but was invited to read at an event hosted by Movement for Change marking the death of Oscar Grant.
Local poets invited Hull to stay in Pensacola, going so far as to offer him a room in their house. Hull soon became a fixture at the Pensacola Poetry open mic.
“I thought the writers were amazing,” said Hull. “I knew then I needed to be around inspiration, and I was truly inspired.” After a year in the poetry scene, Hull took over after the previous hosts left for college.
Dissatisfied with the lack of diversity, Hull quickly made it his mission to grow Pensacola Poetry by actively recruiting people of color to become active in the open mic. Hull courted several African American poets. One of those poets was Charles McCaskill.
McCaskill first found Pensacola Poetry after seeing an events listing, “ironically enough, in Inweekly.”
McCaskill first found poetry during an elective class while attending West Florida High School. He read classic poets, such as Langston Hughes and Charles Bukowski, and he watched HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. Though he read and wrote poetry, he was new to the open mic scene.
Pensacola Poetry’s first home was End of the Line Café. Later, to accommodate the larger crowds, they moved to Sluggo’s Vegetarian Restaurant. As Pensacola Poetry established itself at Sluggo’s, McCaskill went from audience member to reader and eventually to occasional host.
Pensacola Poetry stayed at Sluggo’s until the longtime venue shuttered in 2016, leaving the group searching for a new venue.
McCaskill, now taking an active leadership role in the open mic, “called around to some spots, and then I was able to talk to the owners of Constant Coffee. They were gracious enough to let us do it here.”
At first, the Constant Coffee readings were twice a month. A year after moving into the new location, the demand was strong enough to encourage the poets and coffee shop to move to weekly readings.
Although Hull was now the public face of Pensacola Poetry, he insisted that the readings were “never a ‘my’ thing. Whoever we thought could host and keep the crowd up, we shared” the leadership, he told Inweekly.
The Constant Coffee readings are popular. Nearly every Tuesday, the room is packed, sometimes with veteran poet but also often with first-time readers.
No Censorship Here
As the readings begin, the emcee welcomes the crowd, thanks the café and warns the audience that Pensacola Poetry is a free speech zone. Hull and McCaskill both let everyone know that readers may say anything they want, and the audience might hear poems that offend their sensibilities.
“There is no censorship here,” said Hull. “No censorship.” The only rule is that “if you have a problem with what somebody says, write a poem about it.”
When asked if anyone has taken them up on this challenge, both poets laugh. “Yes,” said Hull, “on a few occasions.”
“That’s the great thing about free speech,” said McCaskill. “Free speech really means free speech. We’re not saying who is right and who is wrong. We’re not saying, ‘This person should be respected, and this person should not.’ Everyone, by the inherent value in their voice, has value here. They all get applause. They all get attention. They all get their time. There’s a freedom there that, even if you disagree, you can still say what you want to say.”
Hull interjects, “If you don’t like what you hear, if you can’t take it, leave. It’s a free venue. It was free for you to come in, and it’s free for you to leave. You don’t have to like everything we’re saying, but if you’re uncomfortable with anything, it’s OK to leave.”
While he asks that those leaving don’t disrupt the readings, Hull is clear who he wants to stay. “We just want the ones who are openminded enough to understand that I don’t have to agree, but I appreciate the fact that you said it. That’s what we’re looking for.”
Influenced by the poetic figures from the Black Arts Movement, Hull sees the weekly readings as more than an artistic venture but as a responsibility to his poetic lineage.
“I always tell people, this is my only freedom. As a black man in America, I don’t think I’ve ever been free. My freedom comes from my pen,” said Hull. “I write for my freedom, and I know the people who came before me, the ones I looked up to, also did the same thing. I’m always trying to keep that spirit alive.”
When Hull speaks of the writers who’ve influenced him, he instantly starts smiling.
“The spirit of Gil Scott-Heron, the spirt of The Last Poets, Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni. When I write, I only want to help add and further this movement that they’ve started before I got here.” Through his own recorded works, Hull hopes to inspire future poets to “pick up the pen” and continue the tradition. “That’s what I’m here for.”
McCaskill sees his work in the tradition of James Baldwin, writing as “the witness,” as he states.
“I want to speak my truth but also enjoy the fact that just by being here, just by speaking the way I speak, I get to share the stage with Q,” said McCaskill. “I get to share the stage with Asia Samson, with these powerful performers. I can be among them, writing what I want to write, being my true self and still admiring what they have to say.”
“Embracing my truth as a black man in this country, expressing what that means to me, while really admiring the fact that I’m surrounded by so many powerful voices,” said McCaskill.
Neither Hull nor McCaskill shy away from controversial subjects, especially in their writing. For literary guidance, McCaskill again drew on Baldwin’s experience.
“A lot of his words were really critical of the world that he found himself in,” said McCaskill. “A lot of his words were really critical of America and politics, especially the liberal-minded politics that try to dress up how nice they can be, how nice it feels to be to be a liberal-minded person in this country. I feel that it’s my purpose to be critical too.”
“By being critical of your environment,” said McCaskill, “you can embrace your environment in a different way. I feel in a more truthful way.”
“My activism [and] my critique, specifically of my city, comes from an appreciation of my city and a want for my city, and my country, to be better.”
Referring to the cases of Victor Steen and Tymar Crawford—both African American men killed by Pensacola police officers—Hull said, “there’s too many things going on right now that we can’t be ignoring. We have to use our space and time and venues to give honor and homage to these people who once walked the streets where we walk today.”
While both poets write a great number of political poems, they both also write about the standard fare of most poets—love and loss.
For example, one of Hull’s most popular poems, “Catch 22,” is a poem about the grief he suffered with the loss of his mother to breast cancer. In McCaskill’s most recent book, he has an entire section of love poems devoted to his wife, Marissa.
The chasm between personal and political poetry often looks vast, but both Hull and McCaskill move into this space easily during each and every reading. “We all, as writers, need to find a way to bridge,” said McCaskill. “It’s necessary that we do it.”
This metaphorical bridge is built every Tuesday night, with the passion in the reader’s voices as well as their words. For the readers, the space where these words exist is critical.
“If this space didn’t exist, it would be really hard for me,” said McCaskill. “So much of what I hear and see is being told that I’m wrong. I’m bad for thinking the things that I do, or saying the things that I do, or speaking the way that I do. I’m wrong. I’m the problem. I need to change my outlook. In places like this, I see that there’s value in what I say. There’s value in how I speak.”
“Whether I agree or disagree with the people around me, there’s energy there that allows people to say what’s in their heart, to speak their truth. The energy is sustained in a way that I can’t describe,” McCaskill continued.
“To be able to fall back on [Pensacola Poetry] when things are bad at work, or when things are bad in my personal life, or I’m stressed and afraid, that personal energy that I get from people coming around, despite their personal differences, despite their disagreements,” said McCaskil, “it’s worth more than I could ever say.”
Hull said that if it weren’t for Pensacola Poetry and the community he finds in this group, he would’ve left the city by now. “If this group didn’t exist, I would’ve moved a long time ago. This group is my therapy. I have to come here.”
The Group that Gathers
Describing the attendees, McCaskill said they are as diverse as the city. “Staunch conservative Christians. Middle-aged white people. Younger black people. We have all kinds come under the same roof,” he said. “I want to sit back and take pictures and look at this diverse group of people under one roof, all staring at this one person in the middle of the room baring their heart out … that inspires me.”
Though Hull and McCaskill plan to continue their roles as emcees, Pensacola Poetry recently brought a young poet into their fold who is starting to take a leadership role on her own—Mia Angeles, age 12.
“She started off reading poems at Sluggo’s,” said Hull. “Now she’s hosting. She’s making fun, she’s calling up names, and she’s laughing and joking. That’s what does it for me,” said Hull. “Knowing that we have a 12-year-old girl who knows how to host and can handle a big room … inspires me every week to know that poetry is going to be OK. The inspiration to me is knowing that we’re passing the baton on to the next generation.”
Some hosts bring their own crowds, but there’s always a crowd. Jason Monds, who performs under the name Patriot X, is a constant presence at Pensacola Poetry open mic.
Monds said that he returns weekly for “the community, the diversity of the ideas of the people at large. It’s refreshing. To me, it’s like my church.”
Drawn to poetry by the spoken word scene in Atlanta, Monds said he started writing poetry seriously in the late 1990s and never stopped. Monds has a self-published book of poetry and publishes broadsides of his work. Outside of his artistic abilities, Monds is also known within the Pensacola Poetry community for the “Poetry Potlucks” on his land in Cantonment.
“The Poetry Potlucks were developed as a way to have that interaction with the poetic community on the north end of the county,” said Monds. “I wanted the opportunity to bring people together outside of a funeral or a wedding,” he said, “to be proactive and talk about things going on in the community.”
The large outdoor readings are an open forum lasting late into the night. Monds described the space—“Imagine a circle, a diverse circle. We all get together and circle up, and the power that people bring is needed [in this] arena for people to have a voice so that they can express themselves.”
“I think that’s lost on society,” said Monds. “We just wanted to give people that opportunity.”
The Poetry Potlucks happen periodically but are usually announced at Pensacola Poetry.
“I enjoy having people come out,” said Monds. “It gives me a lot of hope, a lot of positive outlook towards the future. A lot of times, this world seems kind of bleak. We need to come together for something positive and uplifting.”
As with the Poetry Potlucks and Pensacola Poetry, the scenes often come together. If one travels to the various open mic events, familiar faces emerge. One group inspires another group, and a new reading takes off in another venue. Periodic readings happen all over the city, from the large institutional space to the small clubs, but they all connect.
Expanding the Scene
For years, Pensacola State College brought several notable writers to the area. Prominent figures in the famed New York School of poets—including Bernadette Mayer, Anne Waldman and Alice Notley, as well as Eileen Myles—have graced the college campus.
PSC also has its own in-house talent, including English professor Sara Smith, who recently released her first collection of poetry, “Queen and Stranger.” A celebration of her work, published by Uspoco Books, filled every space in Open Books with fans of poetry and the poet.
Over the past few decades, University of West Florida also hosted renowned poets such as Bob Dylan and Nikki Giovanni. Faculty at UWF also contribute to the poetic atmosphere of Pensacola.
Recently, English professor Jonathan Fink released two critically-acclaimed collections of poetry, including one based on the historic Siege of Leningrad during World War II. A reading last January in Old Christ Church brought hundreds to see Fink—accompanied by music professor Leonid Yanovskiy—read from his work.
As the academy’s talent shines at both institutions, including the commendable work bringing national poets to Pensacola, slam poet Asia Samson recently worked in the opposite direction to bring several Pensacola poets into the national spotlight.
Samson, the organizer behind the Burn Beautiful Slam Poetry team, said his first introduction to the power of poetry was as a young kid in school. “In sixth grade, there was a girl I liked,” said Samson. “I wrote her a poem, and she kissed me on the cheek as a response. Who wouldn’t want to keep writing poetry after that?”
Despite the kiss, several years passed before Samson became serious about the art. For Samson, his discovery of slam poetry changed the course of his life.
Slam poetry rose out of hip-hop culture and came to national prominence in the late 1990s with the indie film “Slam” and HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. The attraction for many is that slam tends to break rigid poetic forms with a heavy concentration on storytelling.
Slam poetry events tend to be very diverse and feed upon that diversity often lacking in many traditional poetry settings. In most instances, slams are competitive, which is very different than the traditional open mic readings. HBO’s Def Poetry Jam helped spread a fascination with poetry to thousands, including Samson.
“I watched [Def Poetry] and fell in love with the art form immediately, and I started to seek it out around my city. Three years after performing my first poem in front of people, I was called by HBO and was now filming an episode on that same stage I watched for years on TV,” said Samson. “I won’t lie … I had to hold back tears just to get the poem out. Standing on that HBO stage was telling me that my life had found its purpose and work.”
Attracted to the competitive nature of slam poetry, Samson moved to Pensacola and wanted to start a team to compete on a national level. Since a team from Pensacola hadn’t competed since 2005, Samson thought the time was right.
Within a few months, Samson assembled his crew. Burn Beautiful, a team of several local talents, honed their skills at the now-closed Live Juice Bar during the open mics. The goal was to compete in the 2019 Southern Fried Regional Poetry Slam in North Carolina.
Out of 27 other teams, Pensacola’s Burn Beautiful won third place.
“To bring poets from a city that weren’t even familiar with slam a few months prior and then to bring back a third-place championship at the Southern Fried Regional Poetry Slam is probably one of my biggest career highlights,” said Samson. “Despite all the success I’ve had making a living at poetry on my own, nothing was more fulfilling than to see ‘newbie’ Pensacola slam poets bring to the country the talent that we, the locals, already knew we had.”
“Southern Fried is a big deal,” said Samson. “It represents the best poets of the Southern region. And for Pensacola to now be a huge part of that conversation, it was the fuel we needed to continue growing our slam scene and return to the competition even harder next year.”
Though Samson said that he’s “extremely sad” to see Live close, “I always tell people that the venue is more than the four walls that holds it. The venue is always the people.” For now, the slam poetry scene cultivated by Samson has a few venue options and promises to bounce back.
After performing on a national stage and seeing the ups and downs of several scenes, Samson said that Pensacola’s poetry scene is unique.
Recalling a conversation he had with Hull, Samson said that they both agreed how important the actual words were, much more important than the “flashy” performances or becoming “some sort of poetry superstar,” said Samson. “That really stuck with me about the vibe of our community.”
“Our poets are so pure in their intentions,” said Samson. “They write from the heart without trying to be the next big thing in poetry. And it’s that kind of humility that makes our scene stand out from so many others,” he said. “Then it becomes poetry for poetry sake. Our scene has a clear understanding of exactly why we do what we do.”
“More is More”
Jamey Jones, professor of English at PSC and the current Poet Laureate of Northwest Florida, is a pioneer of Pensacola’s open mic scene and has been writing poetry for decades. He first came to poetry by way of his sister, Llisa Jones, whom he described as “always a poet.” Like other poets, he also read the writers of the Beat Generation, especially Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
For Jones, what drew him to poetry was “the immediacy of it, the availability of it. Poetry is available in a way that prose is not. It can help us get past our language barriers.”
“Sometimes we may not know how to say something,” said Jones. “If you’re reasonably flexible with words and use them in ways that aren’t conventional or necessarily linear, that can really help you learn a lot about yourself and the world that you wouldn’t know about otherwise.”
Jones went to his first readings in the late 1980s, ones that he had to help start so he could attend. He said that he’d only read about open mic readings before but didn’t know of any in Pensacola. There was a music-based open mic at a gallery named Art on the Tracks every third Friday but not one for poetry. After learning of the music open mic, he and his sister talked to the owner and asked if they could organize a poetry open mic on the third Saturday of each month. The owners agreed, and that began the longest-running open mic series in Pensacola, known as the Back Door Poets.
The Back Door Poets got its name from the entranceway they used to get into the gallery. The poets brought a veggie tray, a keg of beer and a lot of poetry. Soon, the group’s popularity grew and was taken under the wings of the West Florida Literary Federation in the days before the Pensacola Cultural Center’s reconstruction was complete.
“We were the first in that building,” said Jones. Reminiscing about the early days of the group, Jones described the first readings in the Pensacola Cultural Center. “It was a shell of a building,” he said. “The readings there were incredible. We had drop lights. We had a 50-gallon drum, and we had a fire in there. It was a construction site. Now, it would be completely illegal, but … we had fires in there!”
He described readings on the roof, with an “incredible view of the city,” but also a few dangerous moments. “One night, we snuck up on the roof. We went up there and drank some beer,” said Jones. “I remember walking back and looking, and there was a hole in the roof.” Reflecting on how close he and the other poets came to death, Jones said the hole was big enough for several people. “It was a big hole that went down three stories or four stories. The whole roof could’ve collapsed.” All poets survived.
“It was an interesting group.”
Jones said that he made fliers with the image of his greatest poetic inspiration at the time, Allen Ginsberg, and plastered the city with these fliers. After Ginsberg and Kerouac, Jones said he drew the most inspiration from Amiri Baraka.
The future Poet Laureate of Northwest Florida said that he first met Baraka, the future Poet Laureate of New Jersey, at the famed Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo. Baraka was selling his homemade photocopied chapbooks out of his backpack. At the time, Jones didn’t know who Baraka was but was impressed that someone could make a book and sell it. Thinking Baraka was an interesting person, Jones bought one of his chapbooks on the spot.
Later, he went to a bookstore in Boulder and saw the “Amiri Baraka Reader” and realized that the person on the book cover was the same person he just bought a book from on the streets.
At first, Jones said he was puzzled why a famous poet would go to such lengths to sell cheap handmade books, until he understood the reason—“He’s selling it to get poetry to the people. I was so inspired by that.” Jones said he came back and made his own photocopied chapbook and did like Baraka. Jones put his little books in his bag and would walk up to everyone he saw and try to sell his poetry.
“Hey, do you want to buy my new poetry book? It’s really good. Only $2.” Jones laughed but returned to his original thoughts on why he loved poetry.
“That’s what I mean by immediacy, the availability.”
“I have something to say, and it’s of value,” said Jones. “That’s profound. It was profound for me. When I see it in younger poets, it’s profound, and we all share the wealth. Poetry can do that.”
While Jones says he doesn’t go to as many open mics as he would like, he still thinks they’re important. “They’re necessary. All of these things are necessary because they show possibilities and the different ways you can engage with life. As the [Pensacola] poet Allan Peterson once told me, ‘More is more.’ I love the diversity, and I love that they happen.”
Each week, the initiation ceremony continues. A new poet steps up to the microphone, breaks open her journal, looks out to the audience and pours her heart out. Each one anxiously awaits the validation that comes from that moment. People of all races, genders, religions and politics carry on the tradition. Writing to keep away the demons. Writing to keep from hurting. Writing to express the joy in being in love. Writing to express the joy of being alive.
Then, in front of an audience, they read and read again, because, as Peterson said, “More is more.”
Pensacola Poetry’s Regular Open Mic Night
WHEN: 6 p.m. Tuesdays
WHERE: Constant Coffee and Tea, 615 Scenic Highway