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Posted at 12:00 AM ET, 02/ 9/2011

Poet says his heist of cardboard Langston Hughes was a literary protest of Busboys & Poets

By The Reliable Source

Andy Shallal, left (Lucian Perkins /The Washington Post); Thomas Sayers Ellis (Graywolf Press)

What looked like a literary prank -- a cardboard cutout of Langston Hughes snatched from Busboys & Poets last week -- has turned into full-blown debate about the D.C. poetry scene.

"I took it," Thomas Sayers Ellis told us Tuesday. The Washington native and assistant professor of creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College said he grabbed the lifesize photo of Hughes as a protest -- because he doesn't think the restaurant/performance space pays poets fairly for their public readings.

"You would think that an establishment that makes as much money as Busboys would have set in place a reading series with a respectful pay scale for writers," said Ellis. The restaurant gives poets a venue, but also profits from their talent. The literary community, he says, doesn't know if Busboys is the "good guys or the bad guys."

Could be that the restaurant is a victim of its own success: it's a commercial enterprise and hangout for writers. The rookies are happy to appear at all, while some of the bigger names (who command large appearance fees from libraries and universities) believe they should share in the wealth.


Poet Tim'm T. West recites his work at a Busboys & Poets reading in 2007. (Mark Finkenstaedt for The Washington Post)

Owner Andy Shallal told us he pays a monthly salary for three poets-in-residence (one at each of the restaurant's locations) as well as $50 each to a host and featured poet at three weekly readings. "We have regular gathering with poets and writers to discuss how we can become more supportive of their craft," he said. "I think we've done a lot to enhance the poetry community in this city."

"I have no issue with Andy making money," said poet Kyle Dargan, an assistant professor of literature at American University. There's been "some grumbling" among D.C. poets about the $50 payments: "peanuts," he said, compared to Shallal's revenue from the weekly readings. While he doesn't condone the theft of Flat Langston, Dargan said it sparked "the conversation that so many people wanted for so long."

As for the cutout itself? Ellis told us he knows its whereabouts -- but isn't telling. Some critics (including Ellis) weren't happy about the image of Hughes as busboy and thought Shallal should have picked a more distinguished photo.

Shallal disagrees: "We have exposed Langston's poetry to thousands of people -- his birthday is celebrated with the greatest of honor and fanfare." He said Ellis has never approached him with any complaints, and, in any event, it's a poor excuse to steal the cutout.

And yes -- if it doesn't find its way back home, Shallal said he'll replace it.

Read earlier: Annals of poetic justice: Busboys & Poets seeks missing Langston Hughes cardboard cutout, Feb. 8

It's not the first time Busboys has triggered controversy:
Restaurant criticized for Che Guevara, Lenin posters, Nov. 9, 2009

By The Reliable Source  | February 9, 2011; 12:00 AM ET
 
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Comments

I say B&P should release these poets from their onerous lifetime contracts to read for such measly pay. These writers, these paragons, should have the opportunity to go elsewhere to read. They shouldn't be forced to perform, to produce poetic works like tenant farmers raising hogs. Marx would have something to say about this craven exploitation of literary workers.

Posted by: oxhead1 | February 9, 2011 1:10 AM | Report abuse

if you want to make money as a poet, write a book.

Posted by: MarilynManson | February 9, 2011 9:03 AM | Report abuse

Shallal has found a cash cow,and apparently intends to keep as much of it as possible on the backs of those that actually draw the crowds. I agree with oxhead1.

Posted by: jckdoors | February 9, 2011 9:29 AM | Report abuse

poets will never be rich, especially not the mediocre poets that perform at busboys. tearing down a place like busboys isn't beneficial for the community. if it weren't for busboys there would be no hype around poetry and another loss of space for poets to perform. sounds like ellis just wanted to cover his ass, but stealing is stealing brother, and it's illegal either way. ellis should be embarrassed.

Posted by: montilego35 | February 9, 2011 10:15 AM | Report abuse

The Washington Post
Should be firm and terse.
All Comments to this entry
Must be written in verse.

(the best I could do in between the boss' trips into my office)

Posted by: I-270Exit1 | February 9, 2011 11:54 AM | Report abuse

If you can make more money reading your poetry elsewhere then go for it. This is not uncommon in the performance industry. If you haven't made it yet and don't have a large following then you often perform for free or for peanuts. "Providing the venue" for the artists is nothing to scoff at and theft is a pretty childish way of dealing with the issue.

Posted by: paperwc | February 9, 2011 12:04 PM | Report abuse

Can someone tell me why this wasn’t criminal behavior? Instead of replacing the cutout, I think the owner should contact the police.

Also, for the people who think the image of Langston Hughes as a busboy wasn’t distinguished, I grew up in an area that depended on tourism so I know a lot of people who were busboys on their first job. It was hard work but if the person was distinguished and dignified, the work didn’t take that away from them. On the other hand, I don’t see anything distinguished or dignified about being a snobbish thief.

Posted by: bhaines213 | February 9, 2011 12:14 PM | Report abuse

Judging by Andy's response and the comments to this article, I am like this ain't about Langston anymore, so it is a waste of time. people don't get the real point. The issue is the use of the cut-out (Ronald McDonald?) w/o community input or input from Langston's estate. Is that too much to ask?

and also, to suggest that busboys has anything to do with DC's rich poetry history and the advancement of poetry in the city, is a complete joke. busboys is a restaurant not a center for poetry, like say, Howard University. the place is a cool hang but for DC, busboys is not the Ascension Series or Miller Cabin or the Writer's Center, or a whole litany of institutions that do the heavy lifting daily. Poetry happens with the poets, in solitude, and with the teachers of poetry when no one is looking. Need a few more now and in the past? How about the Tidal Basin Review? Gut Punch Press? Need I go on? come on, now. i am shocked that people think there is poetry development going on at Busboys; it is a space, that is it and that is actually good. But if it closed, poetry in DC would not suffer. However, if the Writer's Center in Bethesda closed, it would be a big deal. If Miller Cabin Series ended, it was a big deal. When Ethelbert ended the Ascension, it is still a big deal, today.

Posted by: briangilmore-dc | February 9, 2011 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Last point is, and this is part of the craziness as well: Does Andy think Langston Hughes needs exposure? Come on, now; don't hide behind Langston. Hughes is gigantic; his books are required reading at this point, he is fine with the promotion thing. But would be approve of being Ronald McDonald of your cafe? The answer I think is NO.

Posted by: briangilmore-dc | February 9, 2011 12:51 PM | Report abuse

As sure as the winter breeze that serenades my hair,
these poets should be rewarded with an amount that's fair.
A mere pittance this $50 seems to me
and yet I would gladly perform for free.
The written word should be for all to hear
and for those of us who, to our hearts hold dear
the notion that our word may entertain
we look on those demanding money with disdain.
Just listen in the nightime crowd
all the words spoken aloud.
These voices are all poetry to me.
Open your ears and let the words sing out for free.

Posted by: whataboutfreedom | February 9, 2011 1:05 PM | Report abuse

As sure as the winter breeze that serenades my hair
the poets should be rewarded with an amount that's fair.
A mere pittance this $50 seems to me
and yet I would gladly perform for free.
The written word should be for all to hear
and yet for those of us who,
to our hearts hold dear
the notion that our words may entertain
we look on those demanding money with disdain.
Just listen in the nightime crowd
to all the words spoken aloud.
These voices are all poetry to me.
Open your ears and let the words sing out for free

Posted by: whataboutfreedom | February 9, 2011 1:12 PM | Report abuse

As sure as the winter breeze that serenades my hair
the poets should be rewarded with an amount that's fair.
A mere pittance this $50 seems to me
and yet I would gladly perform for free.
The written word should be for all to hear
and yet for those of us who,
to our hearts hold dear
the notion that our words may entertain
we look on those demanding money with disdain.
Just listen in the nightime crowd
to all the words spoken aloud.
These voices are all poetry to me.
Open your ears and let the words sing out for free

Posted by: whataboutfreedom | February 9, 2011 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Instead of paying the poets, they should give them a free meal.

Posted by: jimward21 | February 9, 2011 1:18 PM | Report abuse

MManson: "If you want to make money as a poet write a book."

You are showing your lack of knowledge regarding literary professionalism and publishing. Have you seen a standard book contract? A typical print run for a collection of poetry (on a good day) will be 1,000 copies and the author/poet might receive 10% of the revenue. Book sales do not pay poets' bills. Tenure track university jobs, grants, artist residencies and HONORARIUM from readings do!

Many of you also need to check the caliber of poets involved in this issue. These are not journal-writing-hobbyists, but highly educated, well-published crafts people who often donate their time and expertise to deserving literary and cultural causes.

Posted by: SPruitt1 | February 9, 2011 1:34 PM | Report abuse

As sure as the winter breeze that serenades my hair,
these poets should be rewarded with an amount that's fair.
A mere pittance this $50 seems to me
and yet I would gladly perform for free.
The written word should be for all to hear
and for those of us who, to our hearts hold dear
the notion that our word may entertain
we look on those demanding money with disdain.
Just listen in the nightime crowd
all the words spoken aloud.
These voices are all poetry to me.
Open your ears and let the words sing out for free.

Posted by: whataboutfreedom | February 9, 2011 1:53 PM | Report abuse

$50 - come one that's an insult. It's like me leavig a one cent tip. If I didn't leave anything they would wonder but one cent tells the tale.

Posted by: rlj611 | February 9, 2011 1:59 PM | Report abuse

Sorry for the tripleplay. This website stinks.

Posted by: whataboutfreedom | February 9, 2011 2:02 PM | Report abuse

Stealing is wrong, wrong, wrong - but I always resented the cardboard Langston Hughes as a busboy. It's insulting to who he was. I know I know busboys are/were hard workers but Langston was not a busboy.

Posted by: rlj611 | February 9, 2011 2:07 PM | Report abuse

So now theft is a form of protest. I am not buying it. Protest is only effective if the people know what you are protesting. If the Reliable Source doesn't give it a voice not a soul would have even known about this. This wasn't a protest, it was a thief being caught. He is trying to play it off as a protest to keep from being prosecuted. And please don't tell me that professors and literary type don't steal. I worked as a store detective for Barnes and Nobles on 12th street while working my way through college. I arrested quite a few local professors, poets and writers (in protest)with books they hadn't paid for!

Posted by: JAMNEW | February 9, 2011 2:14 PM | Report abuse

@whataboutfreedom No disagreement here about the technology, but in future, hit "refresh" an extra time before assuming a comment didn't go through. And thanks much for posting creatively.

Posted by: The Reliable Source | February 9, 2011 2:16 PM | Report abuse

While I understand the complexity and validity of the argument, I do not condone theft. This issue goes far beyond a cardboard cutout. I hope this situation is used as an opportunity to engage in productive dialog and even more productive actions. Protests are most effective when concerns are clearly communicated and amenable solutions are offered.

We pay for those things we value. Cardboard Hughes was valuable, so Shallal paid $150 for it. Why do we often devalue what appears to be intangible?

Studying literature is not free. Buying books is not free. Attending workshops is not free. Printing pages to submit to journals and publishers -- internet access for research and literary engagement -- subscriptions to magazines -- traveling to conferences -- affording the time to write, revise, study -- NOT FREE. So why should poets be expected to perform in commercial venues for free?

Posted by: SPruitt1 | February 9, 2011 2:36 PM | Report abuse

Busboys & Poets, Wouldn't Ya know It :

One day Thomas Sayers Ellis wanted to get literary
So he went someplace out of the ordinary.

He saw Cardboard Langston Hughes Tommin' it,
A sight which made T.S. abominate.

So he liberated Langston post-haste,
Finding in his likeness poor taste.

(Hey, not everyone can be a poet,
I'm lousy with words and I know it.)

Posted by: FedUpInMoCo | February 9, 2011 2:45 PM | Report abuse

Seems like our thief has some garden-variety bitterness about not being able to make a living with poetry. Lots of other equally noble vocations could say the same thing.

Mr. Shallal has created multiple venues and (admittedly small) income streams for poets. That kind of entrepreneurship requires a skill and energy that an average assistant professor of writing couldn't even conceive of, let alone summon into action.

Sure, we can have a conversation about art and commerce but don't tear down Andy: He's a civic treasure.

(As an aside, funny how this frat-boy stunt turned into a "protest" once it got out that the perp had been fingered.)

Posted by: BobonV | February 9, 2011 2:47 PM | Report abuse

Busboys & Poets, Poetics & Polemics

When I'm at Busboys & Poets,
I like what I like and I show it.

I'd much rather see Langston than Che,
Langston's much more dashing anyway.

But Lenin is the worst when you see him,
'Though better than the stiff in the mausoleum!

Posted by: FedUpInMoCo | February 9, 2011 2:59 PM | Report abuse

Busboys and Poets is not the be all and end all, of course. There are thriving poetry venues all over the city and the region (many of which don’t pay at all, by the way). Our community can and does sustain a rich variety of reading series and events. That’s what makes DC an incredible place to be as a poet.

But Busboys has provided a beautiful venue that attracts audiences that don’t come out anywhere else. Maybe poetry is selling catfish or maybe catfish is selling poetry… Busboys has built the audience for poetry steadily, so that the series I cohost there, Sunday Kind of Love, which began with a monthly audience of about 40 – considered a robust audience for poetry almost anywhere – now regularly attracts 100 each month.

Moreover, Busboys and Poets has been tremendously supportive of Split This Rock, donating financially, providing space and other in-kind support gratis, and promoting the festival widely. I can honestly say that I don’t think we would have gotten Split This Rock off the ground without the help and support of Busboys and Poets and Andy Shallal.

You may not like everything that Busboys does, but Andy Shallal is genuinely dedicated to poetry and the arts. He doesn’t just support Split This Rock financially, he comes to board meetings and wrestles with budgets and personnel issues and all the nitty gritty of running a non-profit.

I want to see poets paid wherever they present – and I hope compensation rates can continue to rise at Busboys and Poets (and at Split This Rock, by the way… Who wants to come over and help write grant proposals??) but it’s wrong to say that Busboys and Poets doesn’t give back. It does, every day.

Sarah Browning, Director
Split This Rock

Posted by: browning1 | February 9, 2011 4:17 PM | Report abuse

Ellis may not represent underpaid poets, but he parlays his academic stature and privilege to speak for them. I commend this. True to reputation, he has *uncaptured* this captured image of Black American thought. "Flat Langston" is effectively un-objectified by Ellis. The prank is brilliant in its connotations. If Shallal has the money to pay poets, he should do so. This is a kinder, gentler, kidnapping, and I trust Flat Langston is eating, sleeping and rhyming happily and well. No Stockholm Syndrome for Flat Langston. He may not *want* to come home. Pay poets. I am for hire for eleven cents.

Posted by: laurahartmark | February 10, 2011 8:58 PM | Report abuse

"if you want to make money as a poet, write a book:" if you want to get rich, be a poet.

Ellis is a great poet, and i read his "Dollar Signs of Autumn" at the White House, but if you have a problem with Shallal, talk to him. do you really think depicting Hughes as a busboy is demeaning, rather than true? isn't it a (perhaps clumsy) way of honoring the laborer?

B&P is a marked improvement from the average starbucks, or barnes & noble. they seem to be spending a lot of time and effort promoting local culture and organizations.

do you really want a percentage of the gross as an appearance fee?
i wonder what Sonia Sanchez would make of the this attitude: is she appalled?

Posted by: pohick2 | February 11, 2011 7:53 PM | Report abuse

The Langston Hughes cardboard theft debacle at Busboys & Poets did have one tangible result. It created a great dialogue about the DC arts scene and what role businesses that showcase artists should bear in creating revenue streams for them.

Having said that, I must weigh in on the criticism that Andy Shallal is taking advantage of the artists he markets in his restaurants.

Not long ago, I was helping a dear friend of mine Oggi Ogburn with a reception he held at Busboys commemorating his 40 year photography career.
The next day, Oggi’s manager called me letting me know that two of Oggi’s photos had been purchased by Mr. Shallal. I immediately called Oggi to congratulate him and found out that he knew nothing yet about the transaction. In other words, Andy Shallal’s support, a four-figure transaction, was done quietly and without a bunch of fanfare. This is the way Shallal works. He puts his money where his mouth is without feeling the need to publicize every good deed he does in Washington DC.

I think we should lay off Shallal and instead turn the debate back to purposeful discussion about how we as a community can better support our artists.

Posted by: hunt4pr | February 13, 2011 10:10 AM | Report abuse

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