“A lot of people walk out of here in disgust — or it’s just too much for them to take.”
Anthony Flores is prepping me on the imminent verbal onslaught as we sit at the bar inside downtown slam-poetry hotspot On the Half Shell. The night is just getting started — “slammers” are signing up for their three-minute recitation round that will be judged by a selection of five members of the audience, who may or may not be familiar with the spoken word jousting that is the Puro Slam experience. I’ve come expecting a Tuesday night Salmagundi of outlandish spoken word, that can be at turns scarily erotic or scatologically intense; an inflamed rant about race relations may follow a comedic clash over which Adult Swim cartoon is superior: Futurama or Family Guy.
Flores, exuding youth betraying his gray goatee, has been active in the San Antonio slam scene for over a decade now. “I don’t like bosses and I never wanted to be a teacher,” he muses, sipping on a Lone Star and noting the irony that has led him to a life of reading poetry and organizing slam events for the under-21 crowd through the Fresh Ink program he co-founded with spoken word artist Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson. “We actually see a lot of teachers come in the summer. You know, a lot of teachers are closet writers; in the summer they don’t have to get up early.”
One gets the sense that Slam Poetry — which was initiated in Chicago in 1984 by a construction worker/poet named Marc Smith who was tired of going to readings where everyone got the same level of praise, where the poetry was affected and didn’t seem to connect with the working-class element — is somewhat similar to karaoke and amateur comedy nights in how each provides an opportunity for people who would like to pursue art, find community, and know that they are part of a scene.
Shaggy — who goes by Mr. Jason when he teaches kindergarten at SA’s Circle School — starts to unleash a sarcastic litany of complaints about June’s failed apocalypse and the obnoxiousness of LeBron James. His work demands audience participation, which is fine by him, because he writes poetry exclusively for slam and acknowledges that without events like this, he would never have become interested in poetry at all.
As the designated “Slam Master,” he reads a new poem every week setting the template for the scoring to come, and he is absolutely compelled to push the limits of what his beer-guzzling audience might accept, going so far as to fill his three minutes by playing a tape of Conway Twitty.
There is a kind of Fight Club feel to this particular event: so many people coming together to stand against one another. A young fellow named Travis, who Shaggy — alluding to the larger number of black and Chicano poets participating — jokingly describes as his “great white hope,” has a background in theater and is studying kinesiology. Travis likens his poetry reading to sports training; he is getting better and won’t give up. “I’m always practicing, always rewriting. I train all the time. But this is my life. These are my friends and the people I want to spend my time with.”
Recently, two young poets, Ariana Brown and Nathan Zertuche, were chosen to join the Austin-based slam team, They Speak Youth Slam, in order to represent SA in the annual under-21 event Brave New Voices. The event pitted 49 teams from the U.S. and Canada against one another in San Francisco, and They Speak’s team made it all the way to third place in the semifinals.
Brown, who is about to begin her university career at UT Austin where she will focus on English and African-American studies, finds in her art “the connection and the catharsis” she can get nowhere else. “I am by nature a shy person,” says the young woman who initiated the Fresh Ink Slam Poetry Club at John Jay High School, which in turn led to the Fresh Ink Under 21 Youth Poetry Slam team. Brown’s poetry deals with dark topics like the substance abuse she has witnessed in friends, while grappling with the kind of panic and paralysis that keeps young people from speaking their minds, and even protecting themselves against dangerous individuals. From her new work “Roads,” which is addressed to her tongue, we get the caustic lines:
licking my lips, self-inflicting censorship
impersonating my sentences yet never owning up to your deeds
you weren’t there when I needed you
To be louder than the sound of my sincerest apologies
you made me sorry every time I spoke.
“Unfortunately,” says Brown of some of her newer work, “when I slam it, it’s not as showy as some of my other pieces, so the message tends to go over people’s heads.”
Rayner Shyne, a Green Lantern fanatic who adopted his stage name as a kind of superhero identity, knows that his presence is a shot in the arm to the movement: “The only way for slam poetry to keep going is to bring in the youth, which is exactly what we’re doing.”
Kellee Greenwood, a vibrant and enthusiastic performer who along with Rayner Shyne attended the San Francisco event as a “noncompetitive” slammer, feels her life has been absolutely altered by the Slam phenomena. “I used to write this seven-line poetry stuff about love or whatever and then I saw slam and said ‘What is this? I’ve never seen anything like this.’ It’s basically this giant theatrical monologue through a poem,” says Greenwood, who immediately sublimated her impulse to act and write Christian music for what she calls “this secular poetry that is amazing.”
Slam has always had its detractors, from Harold Bloom famously calling it the “death of art” in the Paris Review, to former poet laureate Robert Pinsky decrying the form on 60 Minutes as not on par with more traditional verse. But the most interesting complaints come from the slammers themselves, who often do not see what they do as literary at all, but instead as a form of populism. “If you’re no good you should know it,” said Shaggy. “I sucked for a long time but worked toward getting better.” Slamming for 15 years, Shaggy says he still finds inspiration in Frank Zappa records and old Andy Kaufman routines.
Amada Flores — a fiery reader who has represented SA at the National Poetry Slams (where teams from all over North America meet and compete for five days), coyly references Plato and incorporates a mean moonwalk into her routine. She’s diplomatic in her critique of the local Slam scene, respecting every style, but bluntly speaks with the generosity of a burgeoning master. “Sometimes you hear the same poem again and again and you want the guy to get over it.”
If Slam can be admittedly bad, it may only be because it is a vetting process that calls itself art. The editing that usually takes place in writers’ heads, then in notebooks, exists here largely in the audience response — which in SA tends to be unabashedly critical. “We’ve got that reputation,” says Shaggy. “We used to be called The Heckledome.” Poets who have a relatively easy time in nearby Austin — which Shaggy describes as the quintessential Slam scene — can have a miserable time here due to the quick jeers from an absolutely engaged crowd.
“SA poets warrant, and get, great respect all over the nation.” says Tammy Gomez, a Fort Worth poet who increasingly meets slammers “more interested in accessing a quick road to fame and fortune — such as might be available to competitive poets — than in coalescing with other poets and activists to bolster a specific campaign or issue in the larger community.”
Serving that “larger community” is what inspired Joshua “Lakey” Hinson to start a project called Puro Slam Working, encouraging Slam poets and fans to give back to the community that so often supports their art through donations and travel funding. “So far, Puro Slam Working has volunteered just under 600 hours since September of last year,” he said. Volunteer work is primarily done at either Inner City Development or Trey’s House, a Westside recreation club for people with brain injuries. Trey’s House hosts readings, too. Junior-high kids into Allen Ginsberg shared the stage with a retired school teacher who now sells newspapers on a street corner to get by. They are people who have come together for a family-style dinner, to engage in art, and to feel no judgment. “There is no competition here,” Hinson says before reciting a poem inspired by the Tom Waits album Rain Dogs. “Here it is all about support.”
What Slam does — beyond alienating some academics and encouraging some kids — is democratize poetry, inviting everyone in and excluding only those who get stage fright. A young woman named Val, who resembles Avril Lavigne and teaches junior high, is a total fan of Puro Slam, and judges the event often. But Val, who writes poetry herself and is accustomed to being in front of a class, finds the experience of reading before a Slam audience too nerve-wracking. This educated 24-year-old, who’s familiar and comfortable with Shakespeare and Dickinson, as well as the vampire books her students read, is here every Tuesday night because she loves the poetry.
“Is all of what you hear poetry?” I ask.
“I’m not sure if it’s all poetry,” she says, her face betraying critical thought and the forehead flickers of contextualizing, “but all of it is Slam poetry.” •
Where they slam
Continental Cafe & Event Center 6390 Fairdale Drive
Every second Friday 2ndVerse, an urban open mic event, gets grooving around 9 p.m. at the Continental Cafe & Event Center.
1035 S Presa (210) 224-0559
Every third Friday, the under-21 Fresh Ink crowd can meet for an evening of uncensored open mic at Bubblehead, where the slamming starts promptly at 7 p.m.
On the Half Shell
On Tuesday nights, the older kids can come out to enjoy two-buck beers and experience the priceless bravado of SA’s legendary Puro Slam.