The mic is on

Vallejo cafe offers poetry, performance and more

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

On a street where rows of antiquated two-story buildings house a barrage of artists, a dimly lit cafe feeds the souls of those willing to bare their core.

It is a place named Listen & Be Heard Poetry Cafe, offering a plethora of espresso drinks, tea and an assortment of pastries, and is planted in the heart of Vallejo's downtown area. Writers from all walks of life gather before moderate-sized crowds as they hunger for words that bode deep meaning.

It is a place where age, gender, ego and race fail to exist. A place where blacks, whites, Filipinos and Hispanics effortlessly peel off their skin while the young and old collaborate to become one age. The cafe percolates with myriad poets and avid listeners who find their utterances are respected and understood. It is a forum for naked expression.

"We have a need to express ourselves not only in ordinary languages, but to rise to a transcendental form, to bring us to that state where we understand things not on such a literal level but more in the realm of dreams and metaphysical realities," says Martha Mims of Vallejo, co-founder of the cafe who refers to it as the "Temple of Love."

Mims and her husband, Tony Mims, opened the cafe on Marin Street less than a year ago to an audience who once recited their words in Vallejo's popular-but-now-closed Rafael's Cafe.
Since then, however, the community Mecca has grown in reputation and now attracts crowds throughout the Bay Area. Apart from its "Open Mic on Fridays," the cafe has expanded to offer Jazz jams, comedy shows and an open mic for teens because, frankly, they, too, have a voice in the community.

But the heart of the cafe rests in poetry, the rhythm of the soul, as Martha Mims puts it, the synergy of the spirits and the here and now. It is a place to listen and be heard.

The raw word

Droplets of rain whisper against the large window pane on a Friday night as people meander through the cafe's double glass doors, which incidentally are shrouded with hanging beads.

Tables, chairs and a couch speckle the modest space, as newspapers, books, magazines and art pepper the walls and empty spaces. A sense of comfort and an air of confidence blanket the growing crowd. Perhaps, in a poetic way, it's an effect of the hanging dream catchers, capturing negative vibes that could exist in this room.

The lights are low when Martha Mims steps on stage to begin reciting her poetic craft.

"I took off my clothes and I found skin, I peeled off my skin and found bone structure. I plucked out my eyes and I saw memories, I plucked out my

ears and heard my heart beat. I flung my limbs across the continents and commanded them to

return to me, but they did not

return," she voices in a groove that keeps in beat with the drummer and guitarist playing in the background, Randy and Joel Delgado, respectively.

She looks around the room, arms spread open, and gives a soft and comforting smile. More seats will be filled, more voices will be heard, more writers will bear their souls.

Martha Mims has been creating the "raw word," or poetry, for 30 years, since the days of finding solace from teenage tribulations meant inking passionately in a notebook. Her roots are planted in New York, East Village in particular, where inspiration from jazz, art, literature and Puerto Rican poet Pedro Pietri, who founded Nuyorican Poet's Cafe, inspired her spirit to laugh and cry simultaneously.

She worked for radio station WBAI in New York for 10 years and published a book before moving California. With time, she began writing a one-page newsletter called Listen & Be Heard, which eventually became an arts, culture and entertainment weekly.

And it's here, in Vallejo, where she met her husband, Tony Mims.

He sits on a stool by the door of this temple with a look reminiscent of Cool Cat, unapologetically a product of his time as a poet. He sports a stylish fedora and sleek glasses and speaks with a voice as deep as the faults on the West Coast. He looks at his wife on stage, the mother of his two children, and devours her words instantly.

"We just hit it off," Martha said of when she and Tony met. "Once we put our energies together, everything changed. We became a force to be reckoned."

Where are the third world poets?

"I want to reach my brothers and sisters through the word. The truth should be heard . . . I remember when the brother discovered his true identity back into the south land, when they said he couldn't speak, but he spoke anyway," vocalizes Tony Mims as he recites his lyrics into a mic at Listen & Be Heard.

And for a while, the vibrations of his voice drift through the cafe while varied eyes fixate to his every word.

The 51-year-old Greenville, S.C., native, who never wants

to be classified as a black

man but rather as a man with the same opportunities as any other man, knows he's different from others.

"I'm not a normal person. I was always different and by being different and sensitive to things around me I do poetry," he says, then goes on to explain. "I want to create something smooth and meaningful and capture a memory. That's what poetry is for me, capturing thoughts, laying them down and expressing them."

But listening to his words, specifically that of "Where are the Third World Poets," one can't help but inquire about his past.

"I'm just a country boy," he says, then gives off one of many deep laughs. "But there are certain elements of the road that you have to learn."

He remembers the "colored" bathrooms in the south, the ones where the tissue felt like sandpaper, and the movie theaters that catered to "whites" only. But that didn't stop him, he says proudly, his "Big Mama" told him to be strong and do what he wanted.

"There was a lot going on during that time and poetry was a way to express these frustrations and not get confrontational," he admits. "And yes, that's why I started writing. You get things locked in because there are no other means to work it out."

Poetry is a way to find mental balance, he adds. If not, one harbors the negative and not the positive.

"My poems are healing, you know, because it brings about balance and understanding. You have to expose the extremes. Once you do, you gravitate to an understanding," he says.

"You have to root yourself

in the identity of who you

are and that's what makes diversity so powerful," he continues. "Unless you be who you are, the group won't prosper from the individual. And that's why diversity is the theme

of tomorrow."

Diverse groups

"Listen & Be Heard, a place

to be naked and just be."

- Tony Mims

Eleven-year-old Isis Price is visiting the cafe for the first time with her two older friends. In a voice and attitude that surpasses her age, Price begins to recite the lyrics from rapper Mac Dre, or Andre Hicks, the Vallejo native who was gunned-down in Kansas City, Mo., in November 2004.

"Listen up, I'm about to get dope, it ain't nothin' but some s--- I wrote about a young brotha deep in the game, they call me Mac Dre and I'm keepin the name . . . " she says into the mic.

She is Mac Dre's second cousin, her mother, Tameeka Kilson of Vallejo explains, and feels his spirit is inside of her daughter.

"I don't have a problem if she expresses herself," she says. "She knows all the songs and he is a big influence in her life. Even though I know he does cuss work, it's 2006. If they don't hear it at home they're gonna hear it somewhere."

"When he died it was hard," Price adds. "He'd come to family reunions and we would listen to his tapes. Now we go to Oakland every few months to visit his grave site."

Jo Ann Kinney Lopez, a 59-year-old Vallejo resident who works as a project manager for AT&T, is standing on the platform with two bells before her.

"These poems are best if you close your eyes, listen with

your heart and let our souls align with the harmonics of the overtones of the ringing of these bells," she says before gently colliding the bells. " . . . Let go of the fears, let go of the past. All that is, is now, the present . . . "

For Lopez, who also draws poetic images with the help of Vallejo artist Cleven Goodeau, poetry is a way to exert compounded energy, even if that means howling.

Yes, she's a howler, she admits proudly, and will do so when reciting her poem, "Full Moon a 'Comin," written during the December 2005 full moon. A poem about her father's death 40 years ago was also written during that time, one that opened up a world of memories.

"I used to dance professionally during high school, but when I saw him die of a heart attack I shut down," she says sadly. "I have never been able to go back to do any sort of dance or movement until now."

It became clear, after writing her poem, that she was angered by her father's death and refused to dance again.

"I wrote this poem and now, well, I want to sing and dance again!" Lopez asserts.

Jerry Benson of Martinez uses props. It could be a guitar, a kid's phone or even a toy horse. It doesn't matter, he will always take a prop on stage.

"I've been doing this for years, writing comedy songs that are either political or satire, the kinds of songs that have a shock value to it," he says of his poetry.

For instance, he explains in a poem, questioning the difference between killing animals or having sex with them.

"It's not me who kills them and devours their flesh or stuffs them or hangs them on walls when they're dead, or makes coats with them after filling them with lead . . . wouldn't it be better to just take them to bed?" the 61-year-old sings to his poem, "Sex with Animals" while playing a guitar.