I’m a writer, the young woman asserts. Oh yeah? comes the wizened reply, which restaurant? This cynical old joke points up what most practitioners of poetry (and playwrights, actors, troubadors, et al) already know: life in the arts can mean a hard road, where compensation–if and when it comes–is too often paid in decidedly illiquid currency. A sigh, a word of praise, a kindly mention from a blogger at TheThePoetry.com–these are the hoped-for victuals of the versifier. Meanwhile, a poet’s got to eat. So he’s got to work. Back when the great Langston Hughes’s dream was still being deferred, the poet worked as a busboy in Washington DC’s Wardman Park Hotel, a posh palace where during the Roaring Twenties Hughes picked up plates while honing the jazz-infused rhythms that came to define the Harlem Renaissance. It’s from this old-fashioned work-study program that Busboys and Poets takes its felicitous, memorable name.
Busboys and Poets is a community dreamed up by the Iraqi-American restaurateur Andy Shallal, who–following in the grand tradition–also writes (and paints) close to his kitchens. A self-described tribe, the community comprises artists, writers and activists who were galvanized around opposition to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. But unlike communities you usually hear about–loosely affiliated groups of online avatars–Busboys and Poets is a bunch of real people who gather in a real place. (Actually now there are four places.) The original restaurant, at 14th and V Streets, NW, is also a bookstore and performance space–a place to feed your “mind, body and soul” as the website puts it. It’s the kind of place where Alice Walker might have a cup of (fair trade) coffee with Naomi Klein, and where Cornel West could find himself enjoying the music only to be interrupted by Howard Dean’s joyful screaming. But those are big names: the movement, the vibe, the essence is driven by smaller ones, like kitchen managers who can all name a favorite poem. And by busboys, one presumes. Busboys and Poets makes money and gives money away. It publishes books, hosts events. It influences, it provokes, it connects and it feeds. Like Hughes himself, it sings America.