February 10, 2011

When Busboys Become Poets (& When Poets Walk Off with Busboys)


I appreciate Busboys & Poets on many levels. They provide a lively stage for poetry in this town. They provide partnership and shelter to such groups as Teaching for Change (which is responsible for the bookstore) and Split This Rock. They employ awesome people like Derrick Weston Brown and Holly Bass as poets in residence. They have a menu that is sensitive to vegan and allergy needs. You can order a carrot juice instead of a cocktail and the waiters don't look down on you. 


But they're getting some things wrong as they grow bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger, and I think A Certain Poet was right to call them out on it by liberating their incredibly tone-deaf cut-out of Langston Hughes. I think the follow-up comments from Kyle Dargan, Dan Vera, Brian Gilmore, and Fred Joiner (in a separate forum) further underscore the importance of this moment as being an indicator of a larger tension. 


People are labeling the theft as amateurish. I don't think so. Defacing it would have been amateurish. "Liberating" it was ballsy. The loss of the cut-out is of little material damage to the venue (frankly, this kerfluffle will get more people in the door). Let's use this opportunity to articulate ways in which Busboys & Poets could even better serve the artistic community that it wishes to champion. Here is what I would like to see:


-A doubling of the honorarium for featured readers, from $50 to $100. Some have suggested per capita, but I think that is too difficult to calculate--overflow from the main dining room gets seated in the reading rooms, people who are just there to eat. But as any poet will tell you, $100 feels like real money. Revenues attached to poetry events would easily absorb the additional cost to the venue. 


-Meaningful wages for the Poets in Residence. When I was serving as the Literary Chair of the Arts Club of Washington, the number one misconception was that I was getting paid for my work--planning programs, publicizing, hosting. The truth was that I was not being properly compensated, and so I burned out. This is a very sad and common pattern in the arts world. I don't know what folks are being paid, but let me put it this way: unless it is $500 a month, it is not enough. 


Note that the Poets in Residence have not complained about their honoraria. That doesn't mean the amounts aren't paltry; it just means they are gracious and grateful for the opportunity. Still, if we don't advocate for our fellow poets, who will? 


-Adaptation of the BB&P venue spaces to allow ALL writers and performers to access the stage regardless of physical disability. This should be a no-brainer, right? An ADA issue? But ask yourself: has it been done?



The comment stream in today's Reliable Source chat tells me that people are looking on from a distance and dismissing this as a bunch of whiny poets. Apparently we should be grateful we even have "one" venue in town. What the hell? We've got The Writer's Center, among other places. The Center is *scraping* by to pay its Sunday series readers $50 each, even though we are a nonprofit with NO income tied to food or drink sales. But we're making it happen, because that's the very least we should do for artists.

Andy Shallal is not a bad guy. I am not interested in taking down an independent business owner. But I think this is a really valuable chance to gut-check and correct a few things that have been slowly, surely getting off track in the past few years and alienating the community. Please, don't let it all get swept away with yesterday's news.

Oh, and in case you're thinking "Flat Langston" is akin to a cut-out of Obama--or James Dean--here is why the particular image selection is offensive...


I'm all for playful photographic tributes to poets. Dan Vera and Michael Gushue organized an "Ednafication" a few years back that resulted in the following photomontage, based on an iconic shot of Edna St. Vincent Millay. The result is an apt tribute to a woman who loved dogwoods in life, and chose to use them as a recurring motif in her work.




Does Langston Hughes have some affectionate ode to his busboy days that I have missed? The man who in his autobiography, I Wonder and I Wander, spoke of the difficulty and loneliness of those years, the wretched segregation of this town? Who said "I did not want a job," who wanted to support himself with his writing, but was forced to take a gig bussing tables that paid only $55 a month? Hughes did not want to be known as "The Busboy Poet," any more than he wanted to be known by the jobs he worked before that one, in a local laundromat or as a research assistant at the Woodson Institute. Hughes absolutely celebrated the working class (as have other poets, such as in Philip Levine's tributes to his blue collar industry days), but I don't think he celebrated his days as a busboy, per se. 



Langston Hughes posed for the above photo (the one used for the cutout) because it was the only way he could capitalize on the momentum of a newspaper article that had announced "Russian Poet Discovers Negro Bus Boy Poet." It would have been nice if Hughes had been able to enjoy the actual moment of having his work shared with an audience at the Wardman Park Hotel, after slipping his poems under Vachel Lindsay's plate. But he couldn't--because the hotel that employed him kept their auditorium closed to African Americans. So he had to play into the cute story of being "discovered," the exoticizing of an accomplished poet whose first book, The Weary Blues, been already accepted by Knopf a few weeks earlier. 


The name of the restaurant honors the balancing act all working artists are trying to strike: the hustle. But this? If BB&P really needed a life-size image for a birthday celebration, then they could have shown Hughes in one of the countless suits he wore to readings later in life, after his star had rightfully risen. He was a dapper man.


Would you have a cardboard cutout of Tillie Olsen standing there, ironing?

5 comments:

Kristin said...

A great post, with a much more measured reflection than yesterday's story in "The Washington Post." Your writing left me with much to consider (the images that turn into icons, the ways we celebrate and marginalize), unlike the article in the newspaper. Thanks!

HEATHER LYNNE DAVIS said...

Sandra, I agree with all your points about how to better support and honor poets but...I actually really love the image of Langston as a busboy and would love a cut-out of Tillie at her ironing board. I find those kinds of images incredibly inspiring--we know what those writers accomplished so to see them at the kinds of tasks we all trudge through opens up possibilities for us. I need to be reminded of what can be accomplished despite the day job and the laundry. It is important to remember that kind of work and the role it plays in our lives as artists.

Sandra said...

Thanks for visiting!

Heather...I get the balancing act you're talking about, the need to tend to both the day job and the higher calling; that's why the name of the restaurant ("Busboys & Poets") has never bothered me.

But I think there's an important nuance embedded even in what you're saying: we succeed DESPITE those things. What I dislike about the LH photo is that it ties into a newspaper spin that suggested he succeeded BECAUSE he was a busboy and--right place, right time--got his poems into the hands of powerful (and white) poet Vachel Lindsay. Not true.

The Tillie Olsen story "As I Stand Here Ironing" refers to a woman whose life was derailed by her domestic responsibilities. In her mind, she gives up her own career aspirations for her kids. She'd like to be honored for this sacrifice, but the corrosiveness of her subsequent bad parenting moves causes her eldest daughter to give up on her and get into her own trouble. Can't say I think it would be a good image-symbol for the struggle of writer-moms everywhere.

Alan said...

Great post, Sandra! Thanks for this, and thanks for your explanation to Heather.

Public Confessions said...

i love this post

~ <3 Poems about life <3~