Atlanta — The psychotherapist used to tell him that he could write down his feelings into poetry. After living in an abusive and neglectful household for 18 years, Craig Hickerson had enough emotional ammunition to write Leaves of Grass, but it wasn’t until he met Nikki Giovanni and the impression she made on his poesy that warranted his poetry as less emotional doting and more of a high art.
That meeting occurred in a special assembly taken place at Friendly High School in Fort Washington, Maryland. Craig was the only Junior in the all Senior auditorium. He had been held back, but the Art Director ushered him in with a certain agency that only an Art Director could for a special poetry reading such as this. Unfortunately, Craig’s former class, the class of 1996, didn’t have the slightest idea who Giovanni was.
After several empty threats to hold back seniors another year had failed to hush the crowd, Craig volunteered to read his own poetry first; a sacrifice for the literary giant.
Expecting a barrage of heckles and cat calls, Craig crept toward the stage where Giovanni sat. To Craig’s surprise, shushes and elbow nudges infected the crowd as Craig stepped up to the microphone. He pulled out a folded up poem in his pocket he had written and delivered a performance that Giovanni would later rave about. His classmates were stunned and so was Giovanni. Craig wasn’t the martyr that evening, he was the maven.
It’s hard to believe that this part of Craig’s life didn’t influence who he is today, since he is still reciting poetry, but it isn’t necessarily for his peers or literary scholars like Giovanni. Today, Craig wakes up every morning underneath a bridge in the Little Five Points neighborhood of Atlanta, stands in front of the commercial shops and businesses and freestyles his poetry for tips.
Craig moved from Fort Washington, Maryland to Atlanta, Georgia and began printing and selling his poetry in 2002 for $3 in Woodruff Park until he was introduced to freestyle poetry. Business was slow one day, Craig said, when a woman approached Craig with a proposition. She was a fan of the movie, “Before Sunrise,” wherein a poet on the streets asks for a random word for which he develops a poem around, so she queried Craig whether he could do the same. She even stopped some passersby and introduced them to Craig.
Craig took the challenge and excelled.
That day Craig said he made over $250 dollars — $200 of which came from the woman that asked Craig to freestyle his poetry. She inspired Craig to scrap his written verse for oral presentation.
“I do poetry hopefully to touch other people as well as to share a talent,” said Craig, “you never know whose going to jump from that bridge who needs that little bit of inspiration to find a reason to continue to live.”
And Craig is talented.
His poems slide off the tongue with a lyrical quality that carries the tone and melody of song, but close enough in meter to resemble written verse. Craig’s unique bardic style paces along with the canter of each stressed and unstressed foot as he walks his listeners through each extemporaneous line. The gait of his delivery is only matched by his wit for puns and his wry social commentary. His topics often cover spirituality, poverty, the struggle, flowers, sex, politics, religion, and he has a strong penchant to use the phrase, “the heartbeats render,” which persists in all of his poetry, sometimes appearing twice or three times in one stanza. It’s his trademarked go-to line.
A quick Youtube search of “little five points poet” or any such version would lead you to find dozens of impromptu freestyles of Craig’s, some of which the videographers explicitly admit to paying nothing and explain Craig’s methods as a hustle. Some videos are shot by companies such as Honest Tea producing shoe-string budget local web videos or some even shot as entries in contests for big websites like Vimeo. A little bit of investigative reporting, though, exposed some mixed emotions involving Craig’s efforts on the streets.
Two employees in Criminal Records, a well respected business and record store in the community, had harsh words and criticisms for Craig, citing his poetry as paltry solicitations and even accused Craig of verbal harassment. On the other hand, I witnessed first-hand the respect and friendship Craig has gained with other businesses in the area like Arden’s Garden, another well respected business and smoothie shop. Employees at Arden’s Garden knew Craig by name and happily offered him left over smoothies on the house.
One would have no doubt of the impact Craig has had on the community if shown the special mural painted in the likes of Craig’s portrait with the words, “Little Five Points Poet” surrounding the piece. The mural is infused with streaks of purple and pink, blue and green, highlighting the deep dark cracks and folds in his skin. Craig said the mural was done by a Chicago artist who was looking for inspiration and the artists found it in Craig’s poems.
“I’m doing this to help other people, not just myself even though I do get tips for it. It’s not like I’m trying to get rich. I’m just trying to get to a place where I’m comfortable, but hopefully I can help other people get comfortable,” said Craig.
Possibly the most fascinating part of Craig Hickerson, the Little Five Poetry Guy, is the altruistic nature of Craig’s efforts as a poet. Craig said that he likes to help people. But, what does a man pushing poems on the street have to give? Well, Craig believes that his words can be transformative and enlightening. Craig believes that his gift of poetry must be shared with as many people as he can and this experience has lead him to believe that he has a higher calling. He has expressed an interest in building a non-for-profit to “just help people.” He doesn’t necessarily know how or when that will be, but right now his words are his mortar and the building blocks that he needs to reach out to people are his poems. He is building the foundation that will one day bring him closer to those in need and satisfy his need to help those.
Craig believes so highly in the power of words and storytelling that even after I couldn’t pay for his lunch, he said that I didn’t owe him anything; my words were more valuable than anything else.