Puro¡Slam! co-host Phil West heads back to Austin, but not without a parting word or two
Puro¡Slam! co-slammaster Phil West decamped for Austin this month. He and his wife sold their Mahnke Park home and headed up I-35 to the capital, where West will be co-directing the National Poetry Slam, taking place in Austin August 9-12. West moved to San Antonio from Austin in 2000 and became one of the most vocal advocates of Puro¡Slam! — founded by Ben Ortiz in ’98 — raising its profile in the local media, helping to introduce it in college curricula, and developing “a range of hosts,” he says, who will continue to “bring a range of energy to the show” in his absence.
|Phil West ‘Slams’ it home: Austin giveth, and Austin hath taken away.|
What was the impetus to go ahead and move back to Austin?
Things have calmed down there in part, and part of it was just that we missed it culturally. There’s definitely ground that’s been broken in San Antonio, but Austin is just so much further along in terms of the audience they’ve been able to cultivate for a range of art — stuff that San Antonio is still working on, but where there just needs to be more of a critical mass. It seems like it’s just on the verge, but it also seems like it was on the verge of it six years ago.
Slam really helped develop not just a style of poetry, but topics in poetry that before were not being broached in the same way, as openly.
All along, `Slam’s` number-one goal is to connect with the audience; you’re being judged by audience members. Those people who connect with the audience get to continue reading. It’s different from open mic, where you know you’re gonna have your time to do whatever you want to do.
In terms of style, how has Slam evolved in the past 20 years?
When Slam first started, because people really didn’t have any kind of genre rules or expectations around it, there was a pretty wide range of what fell into Slam. That’s still there, but genre rules have definitely come up: A lot of it is going to be first-person; a lot of it is going to be based on creating persona and making sure that that’s brought out to the audience.
Group work, especially the national ensemble pieces, that’s one thing that’s really happened — Slam has in a way revived or kicked off ensemble work. Of course, you have ensembles dating back to Greek choruses and all that, but in terms of seeing that in contemporary culture, I think Slam is where you can really point to that happening. And that is a complete function of the National Poetry Slam, that being a strategic move, and that strategic move in turn has created this whole art form.
It’s pretty fascinating when it happens, too, because Slam teams get formed through competition, in April, May, and June, and they compete in August. So the teams come together for just those few months and create those pieces out of existing work or new work. With the San Antonio team last year, for example, you saw really amazing group work. They did a lot of risk-taking — things that I haven’t even seen before in 12 years. Anthony Flores and Justin Smith, for example, have a piece about a relationship with a mentor. Justin, who is physically small, did the entire poem perched on Anthony’s shoulders. And they did a lot of real creative things with choreography. At one point Justin pretends to blank on a poem, because sometimes he struggles with that in his actual work, and Anthony catches the poem, and says, “Did you just drop your poem?” and brings it up like you would a bird. Then Justin catches it and continues on. So just amazing things can happen within the confines of three minutes and within the confines of the rules.
You can find the Puro¡Slam! schedule and info on the National Poetry Slam at puroslam.com.