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At this poetry night, poems are just the start

June 19, 2003|Jessica Hundley | Special to The Times

It's Saturday night at the base of the Altadena hills, and inside the Coffee Gallery everything you thought you knew about poetry is being turned inside out and upside-down. In a dimly lighted back room, about 80 people of all ages, creeds and colors are sitting rapt, spellbound by an eloquent barrage of words coming from the lips of a young and animated man named Ja'Mean Beckum.

There are no flowery odes here, no cosmic psychedelic journeys set to a bongo beat. Instead there is raw honesty, sly humor and a steady stream of self-revelation. Beckum's words rise and lope, coming fast and furious yet always maintaining a steady beat and infectious melody. Two men playing bass and drums to the side of the stage paint the shades of Beckum's verse a deeper color, and the result is a spoken-word rap-a-tat-tat, which utterly enthralls.

Planet Poetry, a monthly gathering helmed by poet and singer Nichelle Holliday, meets here every second Saturday to showcase talent from the area's rich spoken-word scene, which emerged in the early 1990s and has been gaining slow and steady steam ever since.

"I started writing just for myself," Beckum says after his performance, "and then I found out there were a lot of other people doing the same thing. It's not poetry the way you think of it, it's alive -- a way of expression which has real life to it. There's a lot of talent out there, people who can express themselves in a way that other people can relate to."

On Saturday, this talent included Beckum and the evening's host, Holliday, as well as several other wonderfully varied performances. Planet Poetry's lineups, according to Holliday, are rarely limited to "poetry" in the strict sense of the word.

"We try to create a night that is focused on words, that's literary and informative," she says, "but also entertaining."

The entertainment last weekend ranged from a heated trivia contest to a sweet-voiced soul singer whose R&B and gospel-tinged numbers elicited a soft murmur of approval from several members of the audience. Holliday's point, it seems, is to embrace the spoken word in all of its manifestations: song, story and verse. For Planet Poetry's participants, emotion and eloquence take precedence over form.

"People are drawn to this because I'm talking about things they can understand," Beckum says. "I think that there are things I express in my work that everyone experiences, and they come here because they want to hear those experiences expressed in a powerful way."

A young woman sitting behind Beckum overhears him and nods enthusiastically: "That man," she says, pointing at Beckum, "has a way with words."


Planet Poetry

Where: Coffee Gallery, 2020 Lake, Altadena

When: 8 p.m., second Saturday of the month

Info: (626) 398-7917 or

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