Dominic Traverzo stands alone in front of a microphone in the dimly lit lounge of Krystals restaurant in Plantation. A multiethnic audience of young men and women sits quietly awaiting the first words of the 22-year-old college student.
"The past tense mini-star -- not minister, mini-star -- wears his fur in the summertime and shows his pity by putting the air in the Caddy on low so he can break a sweat and be with his people," Traverzo says. "Got the flock fleeced, all the congregation standing buck naked... because here, to know God is to know where your wallet is...."
Religion, politics, sex, and racism are the most popular topics among the young poets who passionately preach their inner thoughts each Wednesday night. The Love Jones poetry series is the pet project of Haitian-born entrepreneur Daphney Antoine of Fort Lauderdale, who runs the promotions company EPOCH Entertainment Group. Love Jones, she says, is about "providing a positive form of entertainment for young people."
Poetry forums in the vein of the popular '60s coffeehouse variety (you know, lots of berets, sunglasses, and finger-snapping) are all the rage again. But according to Antoine, Love Jones stands apart because the cultural bonds and energy of the regular poets and hosts feed the room.
Like its bill of performers, the Love Jones audience is made up predominantly of blacks and Caribbeans, primarily young college students and twentysomething professionals. The theme changes every week, covering broad topical ground, as did the comical "Men Are From Home Depot, Women Are From Victoria's Secret," a spin on John Gray's book about the differences between men and women. A three-piece jazz band sets the tone by playing softly to the pace of each poet's reading, and the crowd is supportive; even poets who stumble or appear nervous get applause.
The congenial yet emotionally charged atmosphere has no doubt been a factor in Love Jones' growth. Antoine says an underground network of devotees continues to spread the word, helping to raise attendance from fewer than 30 people the first night (at the Bumble Bee Club in June 1997) to more than 100 on good nights.
In order to celebrate Love Jones' two-year anniversary, the first annual Love Jones Poetry SLAM is being held June 12 at ArtServe in Fort Lauderdale. Antoine has recruited six poets from Manhattan's Nuyorican Cafe, which she calls the "mecca of poetry," to do verbal battle with six local poets, winners of semifinal slams. The wordsmiths will try to impress the crowd and judges by dramatically speaking and/or acting out an original piece. An individual champion will be crowned, and poets' scores will be combined to determine the winning team.
Traverzo, one of the six local competitors, says he started writing poetry after an English teacher encouraged him to take his passion and flair for hip-hop lyric-writing one step further. He's been "slamming" since 1995, when he won a poetry competition in Miami. Now a Love Jones regular, he says the first time a poet reads in front of an audience, there is always "nervous energy."
Another Love Jones regular, poet and struggling actor Keith C. Wade, may have felt nervous at one time, but you wouldn't know it now. On a recent Wednesday, he has a scarf wrapped around his head like a turban while reciting a satirical poem about how blacks are often treated when they enter a convenience store. His words come complete with contorted facial expressions and stereotyped character voices that draw robust laughter from the crowd.
"For two or three minutes, [the poets] can express themselves in a way they wanted to but normally could not," Wade says later, referring to the no-holds-barred, politically incorrect attitude toward content and vulgarity. "There's a certain amount of adrenaline and stress that you vent without feeling regret."