Dr Mongo: LA’s Spoken Word Superstar
Dr Mongo Taribubu is drinking beer with a group of friends on the patio at Boyd’s, a bar on San Pedro St in downtown Los Angeles. They are joking about a Canadian videographer who was caught using a wireless microphone to eavesdrop on Dr Mongo’s private conversations between spoken word performances on Central Ave.
“He’s probably listening to us right now,” said Dr Mongo.
The sun is setting softly behind the corporate skyline on Bunker Hill. Along San Pedro St men are preparing for nightfall by setting up tents and cardboard box shelters on the sidewalk.
Silence graces the table. The urgent themes of homelessness and surveillance dissolve in the urban twilight as the friends share a quiet moment. Dr Mongo breaks the silence.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
The words are from Invictus, a Victorian poem by William Ernest Henley. Dr Mongo explains that Nelson Mandela, moved by the poem’s powerful themes of self mastery, used to recite the poem to fellow inmates imprisoned on Robbin Island.
Invictus, the Latin word for “undefeated”, is an apt metaphor for Dr Mongo’s literary achievement. A poet and spoken word performer, Dr Mongo has reported candidly for more than 50 years about prison, death, racism, spirituality and love.
“Dr Mongo deals with the underdog, people who are struggling psychologically or financially,” said Brooklyn-based poet Cynthia Toronto. “He understands these things because he has lived through them.”
Once a month after church people gather at the Watts Coffee House on 103rd Street in Los Angeles for informal R&B and spoken word performances. Dr Mongo is at Watts Coffee on a Sunday afternoon to perform Penitentiary, his signature poem.
“I wrote Penitentiary when I was doing time in penitentiary,” said Dr Mongo. “Oscar Wilde was one of my favorite poets at the time and the Ballad of Reading Jail had a great influence on me. I love the imagery.”
In the poem Dr Mongo personifies prison as a social institution devoid of justice and hungry for punishment. At Watts Coffee, he turns the performance of Penitentiary into a call and response with the audience.
I’m loathsome, ill-natured,
abuse is my style.
My name is Penitentiary,
I’m made of steel and stones,
and should you land in my domain,
I’ll crack your flesh and bones.
At the conclusion of the performance he receives a standing ovation from the after church crowd.
Penitentiary is a masterpiece,” said Los Angeles poet Christian Elder. “Knocks people out all the time and it will easily go down as the urban Song of Myself. The poem is extraordinary in its confrontation.”
“With performance poetry, you don’t just stand there and read, you perform from the heart,” said LA poet Mona Jean Calder. “Penitentiary is very shocking.”
“Penitentiary is a universal poem,” said Dr Mongo. “If you are in jail in Mexico or Argentina or China or Japan something is taking place that will knock you into another reality.”
“Jail is a strong, dynamic, horrific place to be. I’ve served time. I’ve been through penitentiary riots. People have been killed right beside me when I was sleeping. You have the same violence in a penitentiary that you do out here on the street, but it’s condensed. A penitentiary is a microcosm of society.”
“You don’t know if you will be released or if you will die there. You don’t speak to anyone else about their crime or how much time they’re doing. You could be a guy doin’ a year or two and brag to a lifer about when you’re gettin’ out and the lifer will kill you. You don’t know what is in store from day to day. You just do your time.“
“People love hearing me do Penitentiary because I enunciate it well, I put it across. Poems should be enunciated in such a manner that a person is right in on the scene. I feel that poetry should be expressed in a manner that would put chills on a person. Motherfucker don’t want to go to jail.”
Dr Mongo was born in Memphis on March 12, 1940 and moved to Cleveland as a boy.
“I was separated from my family due to a tragedy when I was 5 or 6,” he said. “I was placed with very old people in my formative years. I had a very bad outlook on life at a very early age.”
Dr Mongo discovered his literary talent in the wake of the family diaspora.
“I started writing when I was 10 years old. I was writing some weird stuff. Zombies, vampires, ghouls and mayhem.”
“I was introduced at a very early age to Justine by the Marquis de Sade and Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. I read Monsters, Scoundrels and Fiends avidly. I enjoyed reading that kind of stuff and I wrote in that vein. It was different from Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer and all that.”
Teachers at East High in Cleveland recognized Dr Mongo’s talent.
“They thought I had somethin’ a little bit different,” he said. “Mary Bell Hasken had me comin’ over to her place and we would sit back and discuss poetry and techniques.”
Dr Mongo went on to study literature and philosophy at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
After Case Western he explored educational alternatives.
“I hooked in with people who were creating their own schools,” he said. “In the early 60’s people were saying that Blacks could not be properly educated in a white system. We studied Black history. The history of Egypt, Timbuktu, Mali, Nubia. The true Egyptian history, intermingled with the lost civilization of Moo. These classes were mostly being taught in basements.”
“I was a disciple of Hatari Zawadi. He dealt with human nature. He changed my name. I was transformed from TM to MT. What was ironic about the name is that my birth name had 5 letters plus 8 letters. My new name has the same amount of letters in the first and last name. I studied with him for about 9 years. He had a place called the University of the Cosmic Mind.”
“I’m a master Master Technologist of Human Nature. I can get along with anyone. People feel the vibrations of what I am sayin’. They can tune into the expression of what I am sayin’ even if they don’t know the meaning. I’m about imparting vibrations through the spoken word.”
Dr Mongo’s poetry overflows with Americana. His poems contrast classic American imagery with social and historical reality.
In Mongorama Dagwood and Blondie appear beside Geronimo in the listeners imagination and the phantasmagoria of conflicting cultures, words and images is resolved in a harmonious vision of justice, peace and equality.
“I wrote Mongorama in Cleveland after going into deep introspection of myself trying to find out who I am, what do I represent, what do I stand for, what is my art, what is my sensibility, what are my emotions,” he said.
Dr Mongo contrasts images of Americana with historical truth throughout his work.
Katrina, Dr Mongo’s poem about New Orleans, invokes the TV show Gunsmoke, Kanye West, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, Muddy Waters, Simon & Garfunkel, Marvin Gaye, Mark Twain, Fats Domino, Emma Lazarus, Johnny Horton, George Bush, Martin Luther King, and traditional spirituals, as well as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Greek mythology and the corporate media.
In Tanabe, he refers to traffic lights as “old three eyes,” a riff on Frank Sinatra’s nick name, “old blue eyes.”
In Who Killed Michael Jackson? Dr Mongo mixes pop culture with the post-modern Americana of pharmaceutical branding.
Who or what killed Michael Jackson.
Was it Diprivan, Morphine and Oxycontin,
No way can we blame Osama Bin Laden.
Surely there’s an answer for Michael Jackson’s fall,
Will we ever know who knocked him Off The Wall.
“We live in a dual society,” said Dr Mongo. “Black. White. Just. Unjust. I’m aware of what America is. I’m an American. We live under the pretense that all men are born equal.”
Dr Mongo has been performing poetry live and organizing spoken word events for over fifty year in Los Angeles. In the early 60’s he introduced poetry readings at the Fifth Estate Coffee House at 8226 Sunset Blvd. The Los Angeles Free Press, the first underground newspaper in the United States, operated out of the basement at 8226 Sunset Blvd.
A few years later the Fifth Estate would gain notoriety as the epicenter of teenage rebellion in America.
Dr Mongo organized poetry events at many other Los Angeles venues over the years including The Whole, Little Tokyo Pizza Poets, To the Curb, Little Pedros, Pan Pacific Park, Black Writers and Artists Inc, and Project Politics.
He has recorded signature works such as Penitentiary and Mongorama with Drew Lesso, an algorithmic composer who studied in the 70’s with Karlheinz Stockhausen at the Music School in Cologne.
Dr Mongo has also recorded with Love Grenade, a heavy metal band.
In the 80’s Dr Mongo was the poet in residence at Al’s Bar in the American Hotel on South Hewitt Street.
“I used to sleep in the bartender’s car,” he said. “Not because I had to but because it was available. He called it the Hotel Nova Scotia.”
A few years ago Dr Mongo served as poet laureate at LA CAN on Main St.
“He’s respected and renown amongst the artists,” said Jamaal As-Salaam. “He’s helped many, many people out who were down.”
Dr Mongo lives in a Skid Row Housing Trust building on San Pedro St. At night the streets outside his building are populated with hundreds of mentally ill and homeless people silently moving in and out of the primeval urban shadows.
“Isn’t this something,” says Dr Mongo as we stroll quietly through the crowded Skid Row streets. “I live in a very criminal area, the epicenter of skid row. You never know when someone will come up behind you and assault you. You don’t know.”
“I recite the 23rd Psalm at least 20 to 35 times a day because I feel once I recite that I’m protected. The whole world is the valley of shadow of death.”
“Everywhere I go I recite the 23rd Psalm. I recite it when I’m riding public transportation. You never know who’s going to attack you. I feel that the 23rd Psalm protects me.”
“I recite the 23rd Psalm when I am in Beverly Hills. A lady was recently shot 5 times in Beverly Hills. I recite the 23rd Psalm on Skid Row. A few days ago a couple butchered a guy at the Continental Hotel. He invited them up to his room for Thanksgiving because they were from out of town. They chopped him up and stuffed him in a duffle bag.”
Inspired by the Old Testament psalmist, Doctor Dr Mongo wrote Variation on the 23 Psalm.
“It’s a modern day version of the 23rd Psalm,” he said. “The valley of shadow of death becomes the mean streets.”
The Lord is my provider,
He supplies all my needs,
He makes me to lie down
in sterile surroundings;
He guides me pass raging waters,
He restores my health when I am ill.
He leads me from paths of temptation
for His name’s sake.
Even though I walk
down the mean streets of uncertainty and death,
I will fear no evil. Your protective Hand
You prepare a table before me
in the company of my adversaries,
You anoint my head with oil,
My cornucopia runs over.
Surely, Your goodness and mercy
will be with me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the heart
of the Lord forever. Amen
In 1982 Dr Mongo witnessed the murder of an elderly Japanese man on the streets of Little Tokyo. To commemorate the victim, he wrote Tanabe.
Traditionally, an elegy is an expression of grief for the loss of a friend or important person. Tanabe, however, is an elegy for a complete stranger.
Dr Mongo responded to a senseless murder that would otherwise have been long forgotten by creating a profound meditation on the transitory nature of existence.
He mixes raw imagery with journalistic reportage and concludes with an affirmation of the victim’s immortality. The poem laments the uncertainty of life.
“Tanabe was written in the Digby Hotel on 1st and Alameda in LA,” said Dr Mongo. “I witnessed the murder from the third floor of the hotel. I happened to look out and see this guy pull out a lead pipe from beneath his shirt. He started swinging on him. I couldn’t believe he was beating this guy to death. I ran downstairs to hail the police. It became the subject matter for the poem Tanabe.”
Tetsuro Saki, a Japanese cinematography student at Los Angeles City College, filmed Dr Mongo performing the poem in his room at the Digby. Drew Lesso, a Los Angeles musician, composed a soundscape for the film. His arrangement was inspired by the symbolism of Japanese Noh theatre.
“The stomping sounds are notated as Noh theatre foot stomps,” said Lesso. “Against that meter I wrote the shakuhachi flute part. We recorded in one take. Noh theatre movement is about the realization that you are stomping against your own weight. Michael Rouse did the Noh foot stomping. I put these huge size 15 ½ shoes on him and taught him how to do the foot stomping.”
Saki’s film, directed by Rouse, was awarded first place in the San Francisco Poetry Film Festival in 1984.
“Anyone in the house from Missouri?” One person responds.
“Anyone in the house from Tennessee?” A few more people respond.
“Anyone in the house from Skid Row?” The room explodes.
Dr Mongo is warming everyone up before a poetry reading at the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) on Main Street.
LA CAN is a grassroots social service movement for people who live on the street and suffer from mental illness and poverty.
The activist arm of LA CAN provides educational and legal services to victims of police brutality and discrimination. The organization helps people living in silence develop a voice so they can exercise their civil rights.
“At LA CAN Dr Mongo brought together homeless poets and poets who have been doin’ poetry around in nightclubs, bars, art galleries and coffee shops since the 90’s,” said LA poet and performance artist Kennon Raines.
“Bringing people together from different poetry circles and venues over the years is no small task. It speaks well of Dr Mongo. He knows such a wide variety of people. You never knew who was going to wander in off the street.”
“I just got out of jail,” said Dr Mongo. “Anyone here ever been to jail?”
The room explodes again.
“Right on!,” yells Dr Mongo holding a fist in the air. Everyone follows Dr Mongo’s lead and raises a fist. Over the years the gesture has been used by the Black Panther Party, the Jewish Defense League, the American Indian Movement, Olympic athletes and the IRA.
Tonight folks on Skid Row have their fists in the air. Dr Mongo’s baritone fills the room. People are inspired by his leadership.
“Mongo is widely known as a generous spirit in the performance community and is regarded highly for his sense of activism in art,” said Christian Elder.
Dr Mongo delivers the first poem of the evening.
I was in jail with Paris Hilton,
but not in the same cell,
while she was receiving preferential treatment
I was catching hell!
The police arrested Dr Mongo on San Pedro St after a man claimed that he had threatened him. Unable to make bail, Dr Mongo languished in jail as his case made its way through the system.
“Paris Hilton and I were processed on the same day,” he said. “I was thinking about the preferential treatment she received. I wrote I Was in Jail With Paris Hilton because in jail you have to lie down on your face when they come in to feed you. They throw a bag of food at your feet. Apparently she was able to order food from the outside.”
“It’s not an angry poem, it’s really a humorous poem. I don’t begrudge her. I don’t begrudge the system. That’s the way society is. The haves and the have-nots. Those who can afford an attorney and those who can’t. Those who are celebrities and those who aren’t celebrities.”
The judge placed Dr Mongo on probation and ordered him to take an anger management class.
I Was In Jail With Paris Hilton was published in the October, 2007 edition of The Agitator, a Catholic Worker publication. The editors of The Agitator credited Dr Mongo as “a longtime friend of the Los Angeles Catholic Worker.”
Dr Mongo does not view himself as poet in the traditional sense. His affinities belong more to the theatre than the printed page. He has never published a collection of poems.
“Vincent Price was a master of dramatic reading. He has been a great influence on me,” said Dr Mongo. “I consider myself to be a dramatic enunciator rather than a poet. I get this from Edgar Allen Poe and Vachel Lindsay. You can emote their poetry. You don’t have to be all quiet about it. Poems got to be enunciated. That’s what I love about spoken word.”
The meter of Dr Mongo’s work is rooted in gospel and jazz.
“I was reciting poems at church when I was 7 or 8 years old,” he said. “I would do the different spirituals. I would recite them dramatically. On a hill far away, stands an old rugged cross.”
“His poems have a music that recalls the ferocity of bebop jazz,” said Christian Elder. “This is particularly evident in the way he plays between the spaces of words, his haphazard rhyme schemes, and his love affair with alliteration. The poems jump and jive, they jiggle and hustle and pop in your ears. They are entertaining and thought provoking pieces that challenge the listener or reader.”
Dr Mongo’s peers in the spoken word community speak highly of the power of his voice as an instrument.
“He has the most exquisite, low bass tone and sonorous voice,” said Cynthia Toronto. “A gorgeous vocal instrument. Easy to listen to and very powerful. His timbre is beautiful. His voice can be very soothing or, if he wants, a little scary. His voice has authority. An elegance and a sense of grace comes across in his poetry.”
Poets dread taking the stage after a command performance by Dr Mongo. A spoken word event was once cut short at Beyond Baroque in Venice after Dr Mongo performed Penitentiary. The other poets on the bill did not want to follow Dr Mongo’s devastating performance.
“Dr Mongo does not suffer the passive listener,” said Christian Elder. “He makes you embrace the narrative of his poems through the stage character he creates. The narrative paints a picture immersed in the natural selection of violence, drugs, and other abuses perpetuated in the urban terrain. And he will mercilessly pound you into submission with every syllable driving that point home. His performance delivery has a peculiar effect on most any room or venue because of its seemingly volatile unpredictability.”
Dr Mongo’s phenomenal memory is highly regarded on the spoken word scene and contributes to the authenticity of his work.
“Dr Mongo always performs his poetry from memory,” said Kennon Raines. “He uses very vivid images and very sharp, clear, accessible social commentary. His poetry is artful and creative, never obscure. He knows what he’s talkin’ about. The images are very powerful.”
Dr Mongo’s performances are very theatrical events that showcase his presentation skills. His peers admire his acting chops.
“Dr Mongo is very clear and focused on stage,” said Cynthia Toronto. “He integrates his voice, body emotions, and mind like a highly skilled actor. He is very entertaining and he means what he says. He’s the real deal. His performances are very spiritual and direct.”
Dr Mongo buys a small bottle of Gorki vodka for $2.99 at a liquor store on San Pedro St. He can drink this stuff straight from the bottle or mix it with cranberry juice.
Back on the street outside the store his cell phone rings. Feeling no pain, Dr Mongo, stands in the glow of a street light and delivers an obscure masterpiece – On the Eve of His Execution – from memory to a friend on the phone.
On the Eve of His Execution was written by Chidiock Tichborne, a 16th century poet, who was disemboweled in the Tower of London on September 20, 1586 for his role in a plot to murder the Queen of England and restore the kingdom to Rome.
The poem survived because Tichborne included the stanzas in a letter he wrote to his wife from prison the day before he was executed.
Dr Mongo’s recitation over the phone is flawless.
My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
At 70 years of age Dr Mongo is exploring new vistas in his work. He disciplines himself to write two lines a day and he is learning to play blues piano. He regularly publishes new work on his website and occasionally makes appearances in cafes and bars around LA.
“Dr Mongo doesn’t deny the hardship of life or the beauty of life,” said Drew Lesso. “He is whole in his poetic expression. That is his triumph.”
Read I was in Jail with Paris Hilton on page 5 of the October 2007 edition of The Agitator.
Read Dr Mongo’s poetry at Doctor Mongo at Large 1.
Read more poetry by Dr Mongo at Dr Mongo at Large 2.
Check out Dr Mongo’s visual art.
Watch Dr Mongo perform Penitentiary on the streets of San Francisco.
Watch Dr Mongo perform Jacks at the Ghost Busters Fire House 23 on Skid Row in Los Angeles.
Check out Christian Elder’s poetry, illustrations and films.
Listen to Nina Simone perform Mississippi Goddam.