Blanchard's Restaurant on Carmel Road screams Old Charlotte, its walls adorned with photos of Hornets and NASCAR drivers. Down a short hall from the dining room is Woodie's Shell Station, where you can prepay for a tank of unleaded, or pick up a six-pack.
It's the last place in South Charlotte you'd expect to be hosting a gathering of poets.
The inaugural "Conscience Minds Poetry Reading" in February was done grassroots-style, with organizers attracting poets through Craigslist and word of mouth.
The event was in the style of similar readings held at wine bars, bookstores and coffeehouses around town - focused more on sharing and less on the showmanship used at poetry slams, which have surged in popularity.
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Except this was no wine bar, no bookstore, no coffeehouse.
The location certainly was a surprise for Lauren Taylor.
"I actually drove into the gas station parking lot and researched it on my phone, 'cause my phone was telling me, 'You're here!' And I'm looking, and I'm like 'I am not here!'" said Taylor, 27, who overlooked the homemade sign planted next to the gas prices. "But I've been reading since I was 16, so I've gone to some pretty random places.... Any place that will allow you to share your spirit and to hear other people's, I'm cool with."
Fueled by diversity
Sisters Tami Blanchard and Tracey Spires, who run the restaurant, agreed to let Blanchard's friend Weckenson "Sonny" Florestane use the space for his poetry reading every third Friday.
"Like everybody else suffering in the economy, we've tried to look for something to attract new customers," said Blanchard, who knew little about poetry before last month.
Neighbors passing by on this recent Friday must have thought it strange to see lights on at night inside Blanchard's, which serves only breakfast and lunch. (The Blanchard family has run a restaurant here since 1954. Jim Blanchard, Tracy and Tami's dad, bought it from his parents in 1985; he proudly reports that Panthers coach John Fox has eaten here, twice.)
The mix of poets at the first event was eclectic: Haiti-born Florestane, 32, a cook at Presbyterian Hospital in Matthews; Bob Perez, a security guard Florestane knows from work; the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Taylor, toting her 10-week-old baby; and 48-year-old Harrisburg resident Marina Thomas, a noted poet who focuses on African-American topics.
It was bizarre watching Thomas captivate the small crowd of about 15 people with her signature poem, "Hunk of Black Man," while basking in the blue glow of the restaurant's "DELI" sign.
"Girl look over there ain't he fine!
I saw him first so honey he's mine!
Look at those strong black hands,
girl ain't nothing on this earth
like a hunk of black man!"
As she belted out the verses, Pac-Man gobbled up ghosts on a screen behind her.
Power to the poets
"This is a dream come true," Florestane said while he stood shivering in the cold waiting for guests to arrive. This is a man who by his own admission is still naïve to "the real world" - he moved to North Carolina eight months ago, after spending 14 years in a New Jersey prison for aggravated manslaughter.
"My goal now is to prevent young men and young women from making the mistakes I made," said Florestane, who wrote poetry and earned his high school diploma in prison, and taught creative writing classes for other inmates. "My goal is to have (poets of all backgrounds) come and write their thoughts down and get positive feedback from it."
Thomas, who has opened for readings by author Cornel West and poet Nikki Giovanni, said she thrives on readings like this one.
"When people think about poetry now, they think more about the poetry slams...where there's a whole idea around it in terms of performance, in terms of delivery, in terms of the length of a poem," said Thomas, whose publicist learned about the reading from Craigslist. "I'm hoping that we're bringing that idea and that concept back. That it's not a competition, it's not a performance, it's just the ability to be able to share - really share - yourself."
Then she paused, before adding: "But it does take first place for the strangest place I've ever performed."