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"Swell Versed: Poetri Is The Funny Bard Of Def Jam"

He's Poetri in motion, especially when he's late. "I'm so sorry, 100 percent sorry, 400 percent sorry," says Poetri, running into the Krispy Kreme store in Chelsea. "Please, give me a hug," he insists, as he throws his arms, bear-like, around the writer and photographer he's kept waiting. Round and sweet, Poetri - one of the nine poet-stars of "Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam on Broadway" - is a bit like a Krispy Kreme himself. It may be just a doughnut to the rest of us, but it's a passion and a poem to him. One of his best lines - about a Krispy Kreme conspiracy "to keep the black man down and round" - has been cited by every critic in town.

In "Def Poetry Jam," the poets (all colors, sizes and sexual persuasions) strut their stuff - separately and together - talking the tough language of the streets, and bound together by the hip- hop rhythms of a DJ. Leave it to the other poets to take on justice, bias and President Bush. But it's Poetri ("If I told you my real name," he says sweetly, "I'd have to kill you.") who steals the show, waxing fast and funny about food, women, money and the man he idolizes: Michael Jackson. "I agree he's weird, but I love his talent," says Poetri, 28. "They teased me backstage the other day, asked what I thought of his nose . . . it actually inspires me to spread the word." And it's his word that makes the crowd laugh. "I have some angry poems, too, and they have their funny poems," he says of his co-stars. "That's why the show works - it just makes my funny stuff funnier, and their angry stuff more serious."

Growing up middle-class in Michigan, he started writing poems at 11 and rapping a few years later. There's a thin line between the two, he says: "Rap has a beat underneath it, so you're rapping to the beat. Do the same rap without music and it's basically a poem." He rapped until he was 21 when, newly arrived in Los Angeles, he saw what was grandly billed as a "spoken-word performance." "I said, 'Omigod! They're just doing a poem!' " he recalls. "I can do that!" So he wrote his own performance piece. Fittingly, it was about food: "Must Be the Chicken," a riff on how fowl hormones can make a 14-year-old girl look like 18. "I mean this girl would make a gay man go straight I wanted to yell, 'Wait!' " It's based, Poetri admits ruefully, on a girl he'd dated he'd mistakenly thought was 18. "When she had homework to do, I thought, 'Whoa!' Was she in college? No - junior high school. "R. Kelly will call me now [and] see the play."

These days, Poetri says, he's no longer "Dating Myself" - the title of one of his poems - but seeing "a lovely princess who loves me," and accepting himself for what he is: a big man (6-foot-2 and 250 pounds) who is absolutely thrilled to be making his Broadway debut. "I'm not a star-struck guy," he says, "but if Michael Jackson comes, we'll go to a Krispy Kreme, have a doughnut and talk."
- New York Post

"A Rainbow of Poets Who Rhyme From Life"

Getting In With Humor
It's not fair, I already have French fries I have to deal with, now this! I must forever fight the temptation, of the creation of the perfect fattening donut...Krispy Kreme!

More than anyone else in "Def Poetry Jam," the man who calls himself Poetri but is really Devin Smith is the comic relief. His poems talk about the ruinous temptation of doughnuts, aspiring to be Michael Jackson, feeling abandoned by money, wanting to date himself.

Poetri, a large man with an endearing playfulness, said he keeps it light for a reason. "I like to put it that way to ease into people's minds the message that I'm sending," he said. "Laughter makes everybody listen."

That is not to say that Poetri has not had his share of rough patches. Until 10th grade he was one of the few black children at his school in Muskegon, Mich. He didn't fit in with his white classmates or with his black peers who lived literally across the tracks. That's part of why he decided to attend largely black Knoxville College in Tennessee. "I felt I got a great education and wanted to get more black culture," he said. "This gave me the best of both."

A would-be actor and poet since he was 11, Poetri, now 28, started out trying to be a rap star but didn't get far. "I guess because I wasn't that good," he said. "Plus I wasn't willing to do, `I'll kill your mother and your sister and your turtle and then I'll kill your ant farm.' "

After Poetri stepped up to an open mike at a poetry reading, something clicked. Now he runs the Poetry Lounge -- the "it" place to go on Tuesday nights in Los Angeles to hear leading poets read their work. And he is still trying to get used to the degree to which being on Broadway has made him a bit of a celebrity. "The response we've been getting from the audience is just crazy," he said. "To be walking down the street and have people saying, `Aren't you that poet?' "

- New York Times

"Can Def Poetry Jam bring two audiences together?"

The rap world had better be careful. It is getting dangerously close to mainstream acceptance. Eminem's movie, 8 Mile, won raves from stuffy, middle-aged film critics and raced to the top of the box-office charts. Now Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam has barged its way onto Broadway. An evening of in-your-face street poetry by nine performers with noms de rap like Black Ice, Georgia Me and Poetri might seem to have an uphill battle in the land of Rodgers and Hammerstein. But the show, being marketed to urban audiences and sporting a relatively low $65 top ticket price, is attracting young, multicultural crowds that Broadway rarely sees. And most of the stuffy theater critics liked it too.

So did this one. Simmons and director Stan Lathan have assembled a fast-paced, highly charged evening that manages the rare feat of satisfying insiders while introducing outsiders to something revelatory. The first thing to notice about Def Poetry Jam is that the audience is engaged more directly and passionately (shouts of assent or murmurs of sympathy after each line that connects) than any other on Broadway. The second thing to notice, especially after the gangsta-posturing insult raps of 8 Mile, is how empowering, often funny and always life affirming the words are.

Aside from a couple of political rants, these two-and three-minute bursts of verse mostly look inward: at the pain of love, the poignance of failed dreams, the lure of Krispy Kreme doughnuts. An abused woman exhorts herself to "hit like a man." An Asian American celebrates his ethnic group: "We are programming your websites, making your executives look smart." There's the fable of Shine, a stoker on the Titanic who "jumped his black ass into the dark sea" and cheerfully swam home while the rich folks drowned. And a cry against the exploitative record industry: "F___ a record deal. God gives me what I'm worth." They might not approve of the words, but Rodgers and Hammerstein would recognize the sentiment.

- Time Magazine

"Wham, Jam, Knicks Poetry Slam!"

Excerpt from "We're In Common", a poem by Simon Brinkley

Poetry, not so long ago thought of as the most uncool of arts among young people, is suddenly red hot. Who knew? The Knicks, that's who.

If the above rhymes just a little bit.... well, that's how much inspirational fun the Knicks First Poetry Jam turned out to be. "We, at the Knicks, have focused our 'Reading Zone' events almost exclusively on younger students so far," Knicks Vice President of Community Relations and Fan Development Karin Buchholz said in her introductory remarks. "We didn't know if we had a proper forum to inspire high school students to read more. But now, with rap, hip hop and, in particular, the Def Poetry Jam on Broadway being so popular, we thought that poetry would be a great way to do that."

The approximately 20 students in attendance at the Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem -- owned by Celeste Johnson, Rita Ewing, and Ms. Villarosa -- enthusiastically agreed. "Poetry is the perfect way to express my emotions, to talk about the most personal events that happen in my life," said Jonathan Tirado, the co-coordinator of the Martin Luther King High School's Poetry Club. "It's a positive avenue for us to express our attitude about anything that's on our minds." "My poem is the basketball," added hoop-minded Simon Brinkley who has recently transferred to Chelsea High School but still attends every single meeting of the MLK Poetry Club. "And everyone else here is the court. I kind of bounce my poetry off of them." At Hue-Man, Brinkley had a chance to bounce his rhymes off of Def Poetry Jam stars Lemon, Mums, Beau Sia, and Poetri, as well as Knicks star Allan Houston and veteran Knicks Legend Earl (The Pearl) Monroe. "This event is all about you guys and the great poets and stars who came here to be with you, to encourage you to read and learn," Knicks Vice President of Marketing and Business Operations Anucha Browne-Sanders said.

"We opened this bookstore last August," added Ms. Villarosa. "And the reason we opened it is to show young people that you can read books that are about you and that have images that look just like you. When I was growing up, it wasn't like that -- I didn't see books that looked like me. So we felt that Harlem deserved the biggest and best bookstore in the U.S."

Master of Ceremonies Michael Ellison, a well-known actor and poet himself, went to great lengths to impress the impact of words, and the importance of articulation, to the students. "I would not have achieved any of the success that I've had if it wasn't for my ability to express myself in spoken word and writing," he said. p The Def Poetry Jam stars' performance then brought down the house. Poetri opened with "I Stepped On An Ant Last Night", a hilarious-yet-poignant ode to a now-deceased ant who "could have been a Malcolm X Ant, or a Martin Luther King Ant", crying out plaintively "why can't we ants and flies get along?" Mums, who plays a poet on the HBO drama "Oz", rhymed "Government Assistance on My Soul", while the sizzling Beau Sia -- after cooling himself down with a well-placed glass of water in the face -- practically exploded with an on-the-spot-improvisational piece based on three words culled from the audience. Which just happened to be "rap", "love" and the all-too-obvious, and much-overused, "zebra-cakes". "If I am love, and you are love, and zebra-cakes and giraffe-kisses, and hippopotamus-lies are love, then I love you, and you love me, and I will know how to love myself!" thundered the poet to mountainous applause.

A couple of student-poets performed next. Tirado touched minds with a poem comparing the war in Iraq with "the war at home" and Ms. Gibson touched hearts with "To Mom".

Ellison then introduced Allan Houston, whose softly nestling outside shot he compared to "A Swan". Houston, who attended the event in spite of nursing a strained hamstring, honored The Pearl -- "His game was poetry," Houston said -- then told the students something about his childhood. "I was extremely lucky to have parents -- they were both teachers -- who made me treat school as equally important to the way I would treat basketball," he said. "I had an uncle who would always greet me "Hey, Allan, how's your English?" It didn't really hit me until he passed that he wanted to make sure that I could express myself."

"Truth is, if you can express yourself well, there's no limit to what you can do."

Houston then read a poem by Tupac Shakur called "The Rose That Grew From Concrete."

The gathering then broke into four groups, each headed by a celebrity-coordinator, each writing a 10-to-20-line poem about the Knicks. While Mums' group came up large with the poem "If you miss, work harder, Keep on shooting until you make it", the house REALLY came down for Group Four's (Houston's) "Excuse me, I beg your pardon, I'm going to a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden."

"You are surrounded by people who are having fun doing whatever they are doing for a living," Ellison concluded the afternoon's festivities. "And that is the thing: to find your passion. Everything else -- money, position, whatever-- must be secondary to that."
- NBA.com

"Def poets flex verbal muscle for better or verse"

Hip-hop poetry may be considered "new" in both its meter and its raw energy, but in some sense it is an ancient art form that has simply been reinvigorated. After all, poetry was an oral art before it was a written one, and the great poets of early civilizations spun their verbal webs for listeners, as opposed to readers.

With "Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam," the Broadway hit that arrived Tuesday night at the Shubert Theatre (with seven of the eight members of its multicultural original cast), we get poetry as theater, and as a testament to the power of the individual voice and the virtuosic performer. We also get a surfeit of trendy confessional and self-tooled empowerment, a heap of the usual obscenities, a pile of cliches from the cesspool of pop politics and pop psychology and a whole lot of exceedingly shrill, old-fashioned demagoguery.

Intriguingly, some of the very best work on the program deals with that most dependable of themes -- love, in all its guises. And just as Shakespeare used the newly forming language of English to fuel his sonnets, the poet-performers of "Def Poetry Jam" explore love with a linguistic freedom and invention that is often dazzling.

Consider, for example, the love of neighborhood extolled by Lemon (who looks like a young Jack Nicholson), the white hip-hop boy from Brooklyn who pays homage to "the angry guys and crazy mamas" of Flatbush -- a place where you can dine on curried vegetable patties or chicken wings. Or listen to that "full-figured" black woman, Georgia Mae, decked out in pseudo-hooker wear (a Lycra dress and dominatrix-style boots), as she turns a fat girl's blues into the fleshy wings of an angel.

Even better, listen to Chicago-bred poet Mayda del Valle -- a charismatic firecracker of an actress who nevertheless can get gratingly screechy at times -- as she pays homage to her mother, Carmen, a "cuisine conquistador" whose fabulous "mambo kitchen" is a place where Goya canned goods are deemed unacceptable. (You can almost smell the food.)

You also can journey into the past as the quieter, luminous Bassey Ikpi, born in Nigeria and reared in Oklahoma, pays tribute to her grandmother and proclaims the importance of remembering her spirit and faraway world for future generations.

Beau Sia, a Chinese American who comes close to turning himself into an action comic, boasts of being the extreme sportsman. ("I take extreme bubble baths," he exclaims self-mockingly.) Obsessed with the size of his sexual organ, Sia also has a tendency to get annoyingly strident, but when he makes his heartfelt plea for love, the braggadocio gets perspective.

A slow-burn sort of anger tends to drive Black Ice, a Philadelphia homey, yet he softens when talking of his love for poetry. And his riff on a daughter suffering from the absence of her father is a powerful, beautifully written love song -- and song of mourning -- for a dysfunctional family.

For the elegantly beautiful Suheir Hammad, a Palestinian from Brooklyn with formidable lyrical gifts and a distaste for always being seen as "the exotic," lovemaking is continually disrupted by flashing thoughts of the traumatic events and brutality unfolding around the globe.

Finally, on a much lighter note, there is the disarming Poetri, a bearlike black man who playfully prods his self-image problems and his ongoing love-hate affair with Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Unsuccessful in love, Poetri decides to have an affair with the person he knows most intimately -- himself. And his depiction of the relationship, and its loony reasonableness, is absolutely hilarious. His monologue is destined to be a classic, even if his ownership of it may well be exclusive.

"Def Poetry Jam" arrives here as election-year campaign rhetoric is tuned to high, and the show's mostly predictable and pedestrian politics can often sound like just one more shrill horn in the over-amplified din. Sadly, it grows somewhat numbing well before its 90 minutes are up. The cast's palpable passion for language and self-expression is too often drowned out by diatribe.
- Chicago Sun-Times

"Untamed Poetry, Loose Onstage"

Does Con Edison know about the cast of ''Def Poetry Jam''? The performers on the stage of the Longacre Theater, where the show opened last night, are giving off enough electric current to keep Manhattan in air-conditioning for a century of summers. The hard-working choruses of musicals like ''Thoroughly Modern Millie'' and ''42nd Street'' can dance until their shoes lose their taps, but they still won't generate the energy found in this gathering of angry young poets.

''Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway,'' to use the production's full brand-name-wearing title, is the most singular offering in mainstream New York theater these days, even in a season that has seen such anomalies as ''Movin' Out,'' Twyla Tharp's all-dancing, no-talking pop musical, and the short-lived French bagatelle called ''Amour.''

Produced by the eponymous Mr. Simmons, the mighty rap recording emperor, ''Def Poetry'' is basically nothing more than nine people standing onstage reciting poems they have written. But this description, which summons clammy images of the classroom, fails to factor in the incandescent mix of exuberance, arrogance and exhibitionism with which each performer is invested.

The poets of ''Def Poetry'' flaunt their words the way Fosse dancers flaunt their bodies, in muscle-flexing struts, slides and sashays. Listen to the following declarations: ''I wanna hear a poem where ideas kiss similes so deeply that metaphors get jealous.'' ''I'm the mentally buff Chinese Hulk Hogan/ disciplined, determined and deadly.''

And, ''Spoken word is about to leave the ground like a plane, chain ganging, clanging like a school boy with a pan.''

These lines, like most in the show, sound better than they read. You need to experience firsthand the body language that makes the verbal language spin and the voices that seem to get high off their own inflections. This is poetry for the stage, not the page, and it exists completely only in the moment it is being performed.

People can complain that much of what is said in ''Def Poetry Jam'' is aggressively preachy, on the one hand, and narcissistically whiny, on the other. But don't let anyone tell you it's not theater.

Directed by Stan Lathan with a keen ear -- and, almost as important, eye -- for flow and variety, ''Def Poetry'' is descended from the HBO television specials of the same title. These in turn featured talent culled from the cafes, theaters and cultural centers that stage slams, competitive shows that turn the performance of poetry into an athletic event.

(Such places, which range from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York City to Da' Poetry Lounge in Los Angeles, are cited regularly in the performers' biographies, which are, it can safely be said, unlike any others found in a Playbill these days.)

You can put aside, however, any doubts that the particular skills on display in ''Def Poetry Jam'' require the intimacy of a club or the magnifying closeness of a television screen. All of the performers are radioactive with stage presence, conferred partly by the hormonal glow exclusive to the young and unwrinkled, partly by polemical righteousness and partly by the immortal showbiz urge to show off.

The production, which takes place against Bruce Ryan's abstract streetscape of a set, begins with the D.J. Tendaji Lathan spinning, scratching and mixing records from the 1960's to the 21st century. He finds the warmth in being cool, and he gets the audience's responsive juices flowing without seeming to push for it. He also sets up a throbbing pulse, a sort of freewheeling metronome for what will follow.

Yet while they trade freely on the rhythmic reflexes made popular by rap and hip-hop, the performers who slink and saunter into view don't just roll along in familiar grooves. Steve Colman, the show's token white-bread performer, may exclaim, ''Rock 'n' roll's O.K./but hip-hop is for the ages.'' But Black Ice, who dispenses evangelical admonitions with charismatic casualness, dares to suggest that the luxury-loving lyrics of some rap songs are more addictive and dangerous than crack.

The show also features spirited homages to singers and musicians, from Sam Cooke and Tito Puente (zestily performed by Mayda Del Valle and Lemon) to Jam Master Jay, the Run-DMC disc jockey who was shot to death last month. But while musical idols like Bob Marley and Prince (as well as poets like Langston Hughes and June Jordan) are invoked, the show has little of the studiously imitative gloss found among singers on talent shows like ''American Idol.''

The poets all, for good or ill, exude self-created styles, which are as distinctive as fingerprints. Rhyme and rhythm define character in ''Def Poetry Jam''; they are the tools for extracting a shape out of the muddle of social, ethnic and physical forces that make human identity. The form of poetry becomes a defense against formlessness.

To quote Staceyann Chin, a rail-thin Jamaican with a fat head of hair:

Imagination is the bridge between

the things we know for sure

and the things we need to believe when our world becomes unbearable.

It allows Ms. Chin, who says that believing ''in any God takes guts,'' to create a liturgical, magically intoned credo of ''the smaller things'' in which she can believe.

Poetry also becomes the vehicle that lets a bulky, light-footed man named (yes) Poetri, in times of stress, turn himself into Michael Jackson (whose last name conveniently rhymes with ''relaxin' '').

''My words,'' as described in a collaborative poem for three voices, are variously ''a reflection of possibility'' (for Georgia Me), ''the Chinese tornado'' (for Beau Sia) and ''a flag'' (for Suheir Hammad).

There is, you should know, a lot of flag waving in ''Def Poetry Jam.'' Diatribes against oppressors -- white running-dog capitalists in general and George W. Bush and his associates in particular -- figure prominently, and their content isn't much different from the grievance lists of outraged students of the late 1960's. An exception is Poetri, the show's droll natural comedian, who finds a Ku Klux Klan-like conspiracy against the black man among the makers of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

Over all, the quotient of earnestness is definitely higher than that of irony, which is kind of refreshing. For all the didacticism in ''Def Poetry,'' there's a thrill in seeing young people actually work up steam about the sorry state of the world, not just their sexual unattractiveness and weight problems, although there's a certain amount of that as well.

And if it's content that makes ''Def Poetry'' worthy, to use a cringe-making word, it's style that makes it entertainment. And it's the diversity of styles, in artful counterpoint, that keeps the production flying. Some of the poems, like Ms. Me's first-person narrative about a beaten wife, have the ripping and sentimental narrative verve of an old broadsheet ballad (the same style that is wittily rehashed by Lemon in an account of an unexpected survivor of the Titanic).

In literary terms, the statuesque Ms. Hammad, who describes herself as a black woman who has become a Palestinian, and the wiry Lemon are probably the most accomplished writers, with their gifts for slyly changing and mixing cadences and tones. But literary values are secondary here, and they don't account for the hypnotic, incantatory music that Ms. Chin brings to her description of lovemaking or the militant aestheticism that Mr. Sia transmits with his kung fu dandy poses.

Mr. Lathan, the director, has paced ''Def Poetry'' with thematic intelligence and old-fashioned showmanship, seasoning the evening with poetic duets and trios as well as the expected arialike solos. For the show's finale, all the performers are allowed to let rip at the same time, and the Babel of voices that emerges is eerily powerful.

What you're hearing is a noise that seldom echoes through the dusty corridors of Broadway anymore. It's the sound of youth expressing itself, at its most intense and anxious and self-conscious and self-delighted. Older folks may find it all a little intimidating and even irritating. But how nice to smell springtime in the land of mothballs.
- New York times


If Summer Never Came (featuring Malcolm Jamal Warner)



To regard Tony Award winner POETRI as just a poet would be underestimating his abilities. As a writer/producer, he has worked on “Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam” on HBO and Broadway, for which he was a featured player as a prominent Def Poet. POETRI has also written and appeared on over 150 commercials for clients like Nike, NFL Films, Lakers, Snickers, Reebok, BET and Arby’s. Today you can hear Poetri recite several of his poems on all KCAL 9 commercials for Laker Basketball. Poetri has worked with such legends as Curtis Mayfield, Bootsy Collins and Nona Hendrix, as well as some of today’s stars like LL Cool J, ?uestlove, John Sally and Malcolm-Jamal Warner. He is also the voice on Non-Stop-Pop on Delta Airlines. He is one of the first poets in this new generation to smash the theory that “poets don’t make any money”.

He has traveled all over the country as well as various parts of the world including Australia-Sydney Festival and New Zealand -Auckland Festival teaching and entertaining audiences ranging from forty to four thousand. His shows have been embraced by a plethora of stages including but not limited to The Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, the Apollo Theatre in New York City, the Clay Center in West Virginia, and the Fox Theatre in Atlanta.

Although Poetri exudes vastness in every aspect of his career, his true passion is acting. You may have already caught his charm and lovable personality on such shows as “The Today Show on NBC”, “Showtime at the Apollo” and VH-1 PSA’S for Black History Month. But POETRI has also had major appearances in “The Horse Whisperer” alongside Jennifer Love Hewitt, a reocurring role on the EMMY Award winning show, Starting Over, the Snickers digi-sodes “Instant Def” alongside the Black Eyed Peas, as well as being a major thread to the storyline of the ground-breaking reality documentary “Black.White”, which was executive produced by Ice Cube and R.J. Cutler.

But his work doesn’t stop there. Poetri hosts the largest weekly poetry venue in the nation, with an attendance of over 350 people every Tueasday. Da’ Poetry Lounge has not only broadened the appeal of spoken word in Los Angeles, but has become a haven for young people to come and express their emotions in a positive atmosphere. Poetri has now taken his popularity in the Spoken Word community, added some comedy, and founded Beverly Hills' Latest Phenomenon, Spoken Funk. With two of the HOTTEST Spoken Word venues in Southern California, it is a wonder that this gifted artist remains so humble and loveable.

Spoken word is in full stride and Poetri is leading the way.