There are no clergymen in Jesse Carter's family. His nickname, The Reverend, started as a friend's joke. He professes no particular love of organized religion.
Nor does he look like a preacher. As he takes the stage of Stardust Video & Coffee to host a recent edition of the Wednesday "Discontinuum" open-mike night, Carter wears a striped sweatshirt and displays an upper-lip growth that almost qualifies as a mustache.
After a year that's seen him graduate from a Stardust patron to an occasional participant in the poetry-and-music night to its emcee, the orator is on a clear trajectory to become the most trusted pastor on the spoken-word scene.
Carter's theatrical drawl carries across the room with the power of a radio evangelist; it's the perfect conduit for his odes to spiritual awakening. Words like "sublimination" and "unrelenting" buttress his grand, mystical references to the natural world and Florida society. Though his meaning is often elusive, his fervency is never in doubt. His shoulders rise and fall as a current of emotion races through his body.
"That feeling comes out from trying to move people," the 23-year-old Carter says of his passion plays. "So many people are just doing therapy for themselves when they write, and getting up and forcing people to share it. Focusing on your own troubles just doesn't seem wholesome or kosher."
Raised in North Dakota and North Carolina, Carter moved to Orlando in 1999. He had never entertained fantasies of poetic stardom; instead, he was inspired to pick up the mike by his immersion in a new community -- "being impressed by people and seeing the potential in them," as he puts it.
There's no mistaking his beneficence when he welcomes newcomers to Stardust with the promise of "snacks for your belly and comfy seating." He refers to the venue's P.A. system as "the apparatus," knowing that exaggerated techno-fear begets instant confidence.
In between poems and mock sermons, Carter offers up impromptu Negro spirituals (humorous, not insulting), sometimes accompanying himself on guitar. There's less time for such indulgences now, with a dependable Wednesday turnout of participants leaving room only for "little doses" of his own medicine show. (For more information, call Stardust at 407-623-3393.)
As a supplement, he'll appear at Performance Space Orlando Thursday and Friday in a showcase that will augment his readings with music, film and digital video. It's a thrilling but slightly scary step for a born performer who is nonetheless wary of idolization. He recently took a job as a burrito maker to "humble himself," Carter says.
"Dear God," one of his meekest, most revelatory pieces inquires, "I like you. Do you like me? Yes/No? Check one." Even the faithless can tell which answer would be just.