Jesus speaks to Geoffrey Watts. Watts speaks to Jesus, too.

Four and a half years ago he was pulling down 60 grand a year as a salesman with a Fortune 500 company. But though his wallet was fat, he says, “I had a pain in my heart.” Working the hours necessary to make that kind of money, the former rapper and DJ found he could no longer mentor younger hip-hop artists as he’d done before the corporate world had consumed him. “Plus it was an hour driving out to the suburbs at the end of the day and back again the next morning,” he says. “So I asked Jesus to release me. I said, ‘Will you give me the opportunity to serve you with the gift that I have?'”

He took what he calls a “faith walk,” stepping off into the unknown to try the unheard-of–making a living as a poet. But for Watts it’s just another phase in an entrepreneurial life. Under the name Dr. Groove, Watts spent years on the south-side hip-hop circuit–he claims to have been the first rapper in Chicago. He deejayed house parties, wrote a column for the Source, recorded a 1982 single, “Super Rock Body Shock,” and says he once mentored a young local rapper who scored a multimillion-dollar major label deal. He doesn’t want to talk about his protege, though, because “I didn’t like the direction rap was going….I had taught him better than that–I call it ‘slop-hop.'”

Retaining the Dr. Groove moniker, Watts quickly established himself as a presence at Loop subway stations, reciting his “gospel poetry” and selling copies of individual poems. From those single sheets have grown several self-published books, a CD of his recitations, and the Christian Poets Society, which he founded in 1998. A loose collective designed to train developing poets (currently there are about 30 members), it’s holding its second annual Gospel Poetry Conference this weekend.

The conference negotiates the concerns of both body and soul. Workshops on copyright and entertainment law, Web site development, and chapbook and newsletter publishing coexist with those on “praise, worship, and ministry of the arts.” It’s an integration that eludes Watts in other areas of his life, he says, noting “the cliques and the tics” in the predominately north-side spoken-word scene.

“There’s a lot of Jesus bashing in the poetry realm, people living capriciously, a lot of profanity”–in short, a lot of what repelled him from rap years earlier. He’s also not fond of the self-aggrandizing aspects of the slam format, and its lack of what he sees as any real social commitment.

“I can handle a Jesus bashing,” he says, citing the over 360 pieces he’s memorized during his years busking as proof that he can hold his own against the slammers. But he believes poetry should be used “medicinally” to combat social ills and spread the word of God. There’s an edge of frustration in his soft voice as he notes that no black-owned or south-side venues were included in last week’s National Poetry Slam.

“How you going to be a militant when you’re giving all your money to a white venue?” he says, laughing. He hopes the Gospel Poetry Conference will draw whites and Latinos to his neighborhood.

A south-side native, Watts says he had a transient childhood, moving from neighborhood to neighborhood during the area’s years of white flight. “I would always get me a white friend and they would move away,” he says, reciting a brief list of names he’s never forgotten. “And church is one of the most segregated places on the planet. But poetry is universal; every culture has it, not like hip-hop, and there are elders you have to answer to, which causes a certain reverence.”

Registration for the Gospel Poetry Conference is $75; the general public can sample “tag-team gospel poetry” and other verse forms at the conference’s Gospel Poetry Explosion, which will be held Friday and Saturday, August 15 and 16, from 8:30 PM to 1 AM at the South Shore performance space Luke 4:18, 1720 E. 75th. Admission is free but reservations are required; call 773-727-8800. “There’s no applause between poets because this isn’t about us,” Watts warns. When there’s not a conference going on, members of the Christian Poets Society perform at the Room at the Cross Church, 1432 W. 87th, on the first, third, and fifth Saturday of the month at 3 PM. It’s always free; call 773-684-8058.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.