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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 02/ 8/2011

Annals of poetic justice: Busboys & Poets seeks missing Langston Hughes cardboard cutout

By The Reliable Source

Busboys & Poets. (Susan Biddle/TWP)

[Update, 2/9: Poet says he took cardboard Hughes as protest]

Today's literary mystery: the case of the purloined Langston Hughes.

To celebrate the American poet's Feb. 1 birthday, Busboys & Poets on 14th Street NW ordered a $150 life-size cardboard photo of Hughes -- just like the presidential ones tourists pose with near the White House. The restaurant was named after Hughes, who worked as a busboy at D.C.'s Wardman Park Hotel in the 1920s, so the cutout was a big hit with the artists and writers who frequent the place.

On Thursday night, Busboys was packed with customers, including a group from the annual Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference, meeting in D.C. over the weekend. Shortly before 9 p.m., one of the managers noticed that the cutout had disappeared.

"Who would steal Langston?" said owner Andy Shallal. "That's sacrilegious, like stealing Jesus."

Shallal speculated that some college student had swiped it for his dorm room, and put out an APB: A "Missing" notice on Facebook and flyers all over the neighborhood. No luck.

Langston Hughes, still MIA. (Courtesy Busboys and Poets)

On Monday, Shallal and poet E. Ethelbert Miller had their weekly breakfast. Miller confided that he saw another respected poet walking around the writers conference Friday with the cutout under his arm. Miller assumed Shallal had loaned Flat Langston and was surprised to see all the flyers asking for its return.

Shallal said he scrolled through Thursday night's security camera tapes and recognized the culprit: "He walks out the door, walks right back in, and snatches it." Another poet, Holly Bass, told us that the man had mentioned to her that "I ought to take that." "I thought it was just an offhand remark," she said.

Miller told us he sent a couple of e-mails to the poet urging him to return Langston. On Monday afternoon, a restaurant manager received a cellphone photo of the folded cardboard poet, purportedly somewhere at the Wardman. But as of Monday night, Langston had not been located.

The alleged sticky-fingered poet did not respond to us by press time.

Update, 2/9: Poet says his heist of cardboard Langston Hughes was a literary protest of Busboys & Poets

By The Reliable Source  | February 8, 2011; 9:00 AM ET
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Theft is, of course, condemnable, but I honestly have a hard time seeing Andy Shalal as a victim here. He is a successful restauranteur, but the success of this particular franchise (which Busboys is becoming) is, to a degree, owed to the local D.C. poets (known regionally, nationally and internationally) who lent their energy to Busboys and validated the during those early years. And the thanks, and it isn't even about thanks, the respect that these poets who fill the Langston room with listeners and who develop popular reading series does not match their efforts and significance.

Please ask Andy Shalal to explain how much money he takes in on a "9 on the 9th" reading (in food/drinks and door fees) and then ask him how much of that money goes back to A) the poet-in-residence who developed and hosts the reading series and B) the feature poet who actually reads and is the crowd draw.

The arts community and (not to sound like a former Vice Presidential candidate who shall not be named) the media have embraced Shalal and embraced his restaurant to such an almost sycophantic degree that they have forgotten that it is their events, their participation, their work that makes Busboys such an interesting place, not the inverse.

So what does this have to do with the Langston cutout. Poets are tired of feeling like garnish, like, fittingly, "props" at Busboys and Poets (especially given that the restaurant's name and history belie such treatment). The Langston Hughes cutout, the Langston Hughes prop, needed to be removed, and the poets around here have lost faith in the Busboys and Poets' ownership team's ability to recognize their increasingly alienating relationship with the poets who made the place great to begin with. And so it is known that this isn't just one or two rouge poets tossing stones at the false poetry throne that Busboys and Poets has become, I ask other local writers to add their piece in this comments section in the hope that we can have an actual conversation about what can be done to heal this rift rather than this silly "Who done it?" over a photo-board idol.

Kyle Dargan
Editor, POST NO ILLS Magazine
Asst. Prof., American University

Posted by: southeastreader | February 8, 2011 1:25 PM | Report abuse

There once was a card board cut-out
That got took from a pub by a lout
they posted flyers around town
but the cut out nought found
and it's owner was left just to pout.

Posted by: MarilynManson | February 8, 2011 2:16 PM | Report abuse

I'm sure that for Reliable Sources this may count as no more than a curiosity, but you need to understand that many poets in this city feel a little used by Busboys & Poets when their work is a draw to bring in crowds and they are not compensated, when city arts grants have been used to pay for "meeting space" for reading series and none of that goes to support poets who read there.

It presents a serious ethical problem for a restaurant that claims the ethical/moral high ground. It's a situation that is exacerbated by the dismissive nature of posting a cutout of one of America's greatest poets in this restaurant, whatever his guise. A poet who struggled mightily to receive compensation and a livelihood as a writer.

Dargan is correct in stating the real need for Busboys & Poets to do right by their namesake poets who have brought audiences in that were hungry for poetry and for the food and drinks that Busboys has built a business on. We expect better from a business like Busboys that wears its social justice bonafides on its shirt sleeve.

Dan Vera
Washington, DC

Posted by: wondermachine | February 8, 2011 2:41 PM | Report abuse

For me, this could be about poets not getting paid but it is really about Langston Hughes. That is what should guide those who don't like this and those who have no issue with it. I am no Langston scholar, so I do not profess to know his political beliefs but I cannot imagine that he would think it is fine for his image (him) to be used in this manner. A simple call or inquiry to the executor of the estate of Mr. Hughes would fix this and would end this debate at least as it has played out so far. Ask for an opinion, at least. I have read as a poet at Busboys and Poets and been compensated (mostly by the person sponsoring the event) and not been compensated but that is not my comment here. I do think poets should be paid who read there and paid well, for their art.

I got a qualified respect for the purported original idea of the space and get the whole bottom line got to pay your bill in a business deal as well, but Langston as "jesus?" Don't do it. Is that what this is being reduced to? I am sure he (Langston) would be offended by that statement which is why he would not want to be a cut-out, of any type. However, if the estate of Langston Hughes says, it does not damage the legacy of Mr. Hughes, or reduce him to just a commodity (or part of one) then those who oppose it should simply express their opposition, and those who are in favor of it, should celebrate it.

However, I suspect there were other ways to celebrate the poet's life without the cut-out (why not ask local poets for some ideas next time on this one?). And the irony of all of this is the man didn't even like his famous stay in DC back in the day, and yet, here he is.

Brian Gilmore, poet, lawyer
Washington DC

Posted by: briangilmore-dc | February 8, 2011 2:48 PM | Report abuse

You Poets crying about not getting money for performing at Busboys and Poets don't understand how it works.
Most performers start out performing anywhere and everywhere for free.
Bands in LA even have to pay to perform (by buying up a certain number of tickets to resell on their own).
If you want to make money, sell T shirts, or copies of your own book/pamphlet etc.
It's up to you to generate your own revenue stream.
If Busboys & Poets was raking in huge mountains of cash, there would be hundreds of them all over.
Real poets get published and get paid that way and then do readings to promote their books.
Busboys & Poets is doing you a service by giving you a venue to promote yourself and your craft.

Posted by: MarilynManson | February 8, 2011 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Nice try, Marilyn Manson. That is an old argument. Like I wrote, I actually been paid pretty good to read there, and on other occasions, not been paid which was cool. I have sold books, and all kinds of poems, many places, and have been there done that, so I get all of that. But that line about poets should be grateful for the space is not ever the point of this. But my overall point is the use of the guy's image in this way, that is all I am saying. Andy is a principled guy, because I have met him, and I got respect for him, and what he says he is doing. I just think this time, this move, no matter how well reasoned or thoughtful, is one that I don't think Langston would approve of, considering his views, that are well documented in his writings. In fact, the poets who have a problem with the cut-out who I have spoken to, don't even need to read at Busboys and Poets; they are well established literary figures, and sell books well. But this is about a respect for art and person, and this misses the mark this time, I think most will agree. Your line is the line I was given in 1988 when I began as a writer - something like, you can come down and read your poems. As long as art is treated in such a cavalier manner, our society will reflect a deficiency of humanity, which is does daily but I get that and I am way beyond that now. But if Hughes is allowed to be presented in this manner, without at least some discussion from the community and some input from his estate, I think Busboys and Poets is missing the point this time. But it happens; I assure you, it does happen and we will learn from this.

Brian Gilmore

Posted by: briangilmore-dc | February 8, 2011 6:33 PM | Report abuse

Busboys and Poets honors the literary legacy of Langston Hughes everyday--in many different ways. The cardboard cut-out was, we hoped, a fun way to remind the community of Hughes’ humble beginnings and a way to pay tribute to the restaurant’s namesake on his birthday (February 1st). Another component of our birthday tribute to Langston Hughes included public readings of his poetry at each of the open mic events during the first week of February.

At Busboys and Poets we welcome, respect and appreciate the feedback we receive from members of the community.

Posted by: pypinnock | February 8, 2011 10:37 PM | Report abuse

As someone who has been a part of the DC community for a long time, I can honestly say that Busboys has a salty taste i a lot of well respected poets' mouth. If you are going to use the Hughes image and them, as is done with Zora then you got to give back, because what happens is you become no better than the slave owner on the plantation who exploited slave labor. Busboys is all smoke screen. But I get it, it is a business and business is capitalistic machine that rest its laurels on how this country was built, through exploitation. Busboys pimps the arts, the poet and the community. You can say what you want to say, I know too many poets who ain't feeling Busboys. And the people who talking all that rhetoric ain't from DC...they are transplants who will never understand the City in a million years.

Posted by: Hook101661 | February 8, 2011 11:06 PM | Report abuse

In case you are wondering who Hook is:

Randall Horton
Assistant Professor of English
University New Haven
Senior Editor Willow Books
(30 year DC Resident)

Posted by: Hook101661 | February 9, 2011 12:08 PM | Report abuse

When my good friend, Peter Noble, first introduced me to Busboys & Poets in 2007, I absolutely LOVED the place! I was greeted by Brian Evans, host of the 14th street location at the time, and quickly felt right at home. Beautiful black people on sofas. Art on the walls. Ideas in the air. Poems on the menu. The Emotions in my ear. Great. I leaned over and smiled at my friend, "Black-owned, right?"

And here we are today. Cut-out vs. No cut-out. Yet how ever this ends, I can't help but agree with a fellow poet and friend who said: "It is frustrating knowing that much of what should have been built [by us ] by now has not been built-especially in regards to social activism; but it's the truth.")

And for what it's worth, I think what Ellis did took real guts. Principled men and women with guts. I like that.

Linette Marie Allen
Author, Poet, Activist, Inspired-Entrepreneur

Posted by: linette_allen | February 9, 2011 3:01 PM | Report abuse

Many poets, including the ones who took the cut-out or defended these actions make money by teaching young people, which is an extreme honor and privilege. One would hope that those of us who are teachers continue learning what it means to be human, and how to cultivate our own depth and wisdom.

In a capitalist economy, it is unfortunate that artists aren't paid exclusively for their works of creative love and truth-telling, but here we are, and this is how it is. Busboys & Poets is not the only game in town, and if you don't want to read there, or patronize the place, don't.

Since I met him, Andy has been extremely generous financially, as well as with his time and expertise. Busboys & Poets brings in amazingly diverse poets as poets-in-residence and readers, and I am proud to have appeared on its stage and in the audience.

And yes, he's running a business. Poets too can learn how to have income-generating ventures, if that's their goal.

To pretend that this was a political act of resistance is to desecrate the names of those who have come before us and have engaged in political, cultural, economic and poetic resistance, sometimes with their last breaths.

Silver lining: this act of stealing has inspired some community poets to discuss ways of increasing the biodiversity of the DC poetry scene. More power to all those who will be involved in the discussions; I hope to be.

There's also plenty of room to discuss how our individual actions reflect who we are and what we speak to, because we're always representing a community wider than one. My strong belief is that we have to walk the path -- even when there's conflict -- with the highest level of integrity and sense of personal power, which is to be exercised with wisdom, love and great restraint. It pains me to think there are now a bunch of folks who think poets have the maturity level of fraternity brothers engaged in hazing week. I was so proud of us this past weekend hearing my fellow writers speak about ideas and the creative force that shapes the universe. I am frankly ashamed after reading the pieces in the Post today.

Yael Flusberg

Posted by: yaelindc | February 9, 2011 4:51 PM | Report abuse

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