Inside D.C. entertainment

Performance poet Pretty Face goes into semi-retirement

October 6, 2011 - 06:00 AM
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Pretty Face is unsentimental as he takes the stage at Busboys and Poets open mic poetry night on Tuesday, his last poetry performance for the foreseeable future.

“This shit is 10 percent show, 90 percent business,” he greets the audience, before informing them that his CDs are on sale.

After 25 years of writing poetry and 15 years of performing it in D.C., Pretty Face, occasionally called Jerome, is pausing poetry performance to spend more time with his rock band, Sexy People Club, "and I have to focus on my literary career," he says. With his hiatus, D.C. loses a veteran who, as the show’s host Derrick Watson Brown points out, represents a part of the city that’s “either ignored or slowly disappearing.”

In his drooping sweater and huge pants, Face, 45, bears little resemblance to his fellow poets Tuesday night, a stylish cohort of earnest folks who rhyme about assault and Wall Street. A Canadian transplant in plaid performs a piece about being a white Indian. A guy reads a love poem that turns out to be about his motorcycle. But Face’s outrageous, screaming, entertaining, and provocative story about the town drunk demanding a cocktail at a bar wins the night.

After thunderous applause, Pretty Face apologizes to the ladies in the audience. “I didn’t mean to turn you on,” he says. The crowd titters uncertainly.

Face’s voice mesmerizes both ladies and gentlemen. “He has an unmistakable voice,” writes local poet Joshua Weiner by email, “both in the language and in the power—timber, resonance, tone—of his physical voice.” Weiner describes Face as part of the performance poetry scene, but distinct from it. “He is totally resistant to the vocal clichés that one hears all too often projected from inside that scene.”

A Pretty Face performance from 2007:

Face, gesturing grandly with his hands, says his art tends to frighten “people who want to maintain the status quo.” He rhymes about capitalism, drugs, and women in an unpredictable mix of high-minded social commentary and borderline erotica: one poem is devoted to a woman’s exciting, inviting, appetizing lips, another to a woman who refuses to date drug dealers.

She don’t do jail
No lovemaking through the mail
Requesting permission from the devil to see her loved one in hell
No, she don’t do no ghetto stars
One whose destination be the prison bars
Fuck the temporary bankrolls, the ice, and the fancy cars

Holly Bass, a poet-in-residence with Busboys and Poets, calls Face "the Tricky of the D.C. poetry scene."

"There's something dark and disturbing, but highy compelling and memorable about what he does," she says. "He's a bit like HR from Bad Brains--talented and troubled and hard to pin down." Bass also praises his underrated singing voice.

Face fans can still enjoy his vocal stylings in Sexy People Club, a recently formed venture he describes as a “fusion of rock, funk, blues, theater, and acid jazz” as well as a “school of etiquette.” Face calls his musical lyrics "more blissful than destructive."

The band is currently "getting our minds set together" and spending time in the studio; performances are yet-to-be scheduled. Face, who has self-published six chapbooks, will also be doing some writing during his poetry performance hiatus.

“It’s not a ceasing of the art,” Pretty Face promises. “It’s a never-ending flow.”

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