The Sphinx Cafe hosts poetry readings

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Imagine sitting and hearing Henry David Thoreau read a poem about “light-winged smoke … melting thy pinions in thy upward flight.”

Such is the dusky atmosphere you might find at Slam Night at the Hungry Sphinx, a weekly gathering of people who share poetry and hookahs in Oakland. The literary event — at the Sphinx Cafe on Atwood Street — is presented by students from Carlow University and the Pittsburgh Poetry Club.

Jude Waldo, a Carlow junior majoring in creative writing, serves as host Tuesday night.

“The Reading Series dates back to 2007,” said Mr. Waldo, who has been involved for three years. “It’s run by Carlow students, but it’s not necessarily a Carlow event. It’s open to the public. Basically, we sit down and listen to poetry. There’s also an open-mike portion, so the audience gets an opportunity to present some readings.”

The goal, he said, is to breathe more poetry into Pittsburgh.

“In Pittsburgh, there’s so much culture and so much community, and we want to present poetry as part of it,” Mr. Waldo said. “We usually get anywhere between 10 to 28 people and it’s very supportive.”

Yeah, but what about those hookahs?

Well, that’s part of the attraction of the Sphinx Cafe, owned and operated by local residents Ramy Andrawes from Egypt and his wife, Amera, from Syria. They have two locations — the Oakland one and the original one on the South Side.

“That’s how they got the whole idea of bringing their culture to Pittsburgh,” said Mike Derrick, general manager of the Oakland venue.

“You walk in and you see a whole bunch of huge tapestries on the walls. It’s actually an old church, so it has a huge opening with high ceilings. All of our seating is on the floor. We have cushions, so it’s very relaxed, and then we have little tables around them.

We have three display cases where we sell hookahs, tobaccos and accessories. Upstairs we have a VIP room in the balcony, which used to be for the church choir. We have private parties and sometimes a DJ booth. But it’s the stained glass windows and the tapestries that really make it unique.”

Well, that and hookahs.

“A hookah is a device with which you can smoke different flavored tobaccos,” Mr. Derrick said. “We have more than 150 flavors, from mango to strawberry daiquiri. We also have a full menu, drinks like milk shakes, some Middle Eastern food.

“We’re right on Pitt’s campus, so we’re very popular among the under-21 crowd, because they can’t really go to the bars. So they can come hang out with their friends, get some homework done.”

Mr. Derrick is a former accountant who stopped into Sphinx Cafe a couple years ago to see what the business was all about.

“ I never knew what a hookah was,” he said. “But I tried it, and it was really interesting. You don’t have to be a smoker to enjoy it. In fact, a lot of people don’t smoke cigarettes but love hookah and will smoke hookah every day. Because it’s not nicotine, it’s not menthol, it’s just flavored tobacco. And you can put ice or juice in it to make the smoke a little bit more potent.”

The cafe also hosts group meetings, where people can share their thoughts — and their hookah, which can accommodate four at a time.

“You’d be surprised,” Mr. Derrick said. “We get people from all over. We have a very big Middle Eastern presence, and of course a lot of University of Pittsburgh and Carlow students.”

The poetry readings, he said, have been a boost in building return customers. And Mr. Waldo said each Tuesday night brings a new, vibrant audience.

“It’s a great sampling of the Pittsburgh slam community, and for anyone who has been curious about it, this is a good way to get involved and check it out,” he said.

Tonight’s scheduled readers include E.J. Griffin Jr., Torrey Shineman, Lauren Finkel, Lexi Tess and Benjamin Barker.

You should arrive at 7:30 for the 8 p.m. start at 401 Atwood St. in Oakland. There is no cover, though you are encouraged to support the business.

Dan Majors:

First Published November 19, 2013 4:28 PM

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