The woman was asking for five words, just five words, but she wasn’t liking the offerings. “If this is your first time at the Pow-Wow …” she was saying, instructing the neophytes.
The women in the audience at the Jeffrey Pub – old school butches and femmy femmes, hip hop bois and curvy belly dancers, young smartasses and stick-thin singles, cuddling couples and gangs of girlfriends – were eating it up: shouting back, heckling, jiving, laughing and applauding.
The Pow-Wow’s been around for more than a decade with a mission to support, develop and increase the visibility of women artists, particularly women of color. C.C. Carter, its founder and artistic director, performs here frequently, but Staceyann Chin, Tai Freedom Ford, Perre Shelton and E. Nina Jay and many others all drop in from time to time and rock the house. (In fact, E. Nina Jay laid down one long strong one Tuesday that got folks whooping.)
I was there because I’d been lucky enough to be invited to read and present my work.
Rain, shine or blizzard, the women of the Pow-Wow meet 52 Tuesdays a year at the Jeffrey Pub, which has been a queer beacon in South Shore for more than 40 years. It may, in fact, be Chicago’s oldest gay bar, with a feel much like a small town hideaway – drag queens and muscle men, lipstick lezzies and the aforementioned butches, hip hoppers and steppers, elders and youngsters and the inbetween, rich and poor, pretty and prettier all hang out here. The crowd is mostly black and always welcoming. Nobody comes through the door without a greeting, a smile and sometimes even a hug.
Long before I got on stage Tuesday, Lucy, the Pow-Wow’s MC for the last three years, was putting the full house through its paces.
Because the Pow-Wow, you see, has its traditions. One is hugging, and not just at the door. Lucy calls out a certain number of songs and then, like at a Catholic service but a lot more danceable and flirty, folks hug. And hug and hug some more. “Happy Tuesday!” subs “Peace be with you.”
Another Pow-Wow tradition is the Five Words poem. It’s pretty simple: The audience shouts out five words, whoever wants to tries to write a poem around them, and then the brave ones share their inspiration on the stage. A volunteer passes out pencils and special Pow-Wow Five Words sheets with slots for … six words.
“That’s for —,” Lucy explained, using what we shall refer as to as the P word. (It’s a lesbian gathering so I’m thinking this shouldn’t be terribly difficult to decipher.)
And the problem Lucy was having Tuesday was that, after harvesting “pride,” “liberation,” “evolution,” and “love” from the crowd, they kept giving her the P word back again.
“Oh no,” protested Lucy, “I’m not ready for a two (P word) night!”
The shouts continued until Lucy expertly plucked “lust” from the din and deemed it the fifth word. What followed was crazy and awful and marvelous and delicious fun.
Me, I didn’t write a five words poem. I tried but surrendered. When it came my turn, I read a short piece I’d written that afternoon and a few poems, most from my chapbook, This is What Happened in Our Other Life.
And I crossed my fingers hoping the women might enjoy my stuff at least half as much as I was loving being there with them.
Pride Week may seem over but Black Pride continues this weekend.
On Sunday, Ms. Carter hosts the official Chicago Black Pride Poetry Slam, featuring G. Winston James, Keith Green, and Raymond Berry. Admission is free; the slam goes from 6 to 9 p.m. at Jokes and Notes Comedy Club, 4641 South King Drive.
Later, that evening, from 10 p.m. to 3:30 a.m., Leather & Lace presents The 8th Annual Black Pride Weekend White Party at Moretti’s After Dark Lounge, 1645 W. Jackson. Tickets are $15 until 11:30, then $20 afterwards. More than 1,000 women are expected to attend.