See, there is this place where people participate in a ritual derived from the verbal tradition of telling and retelling stories to a room of bodies, barstools and emptying bottles until the stage is a pulpit. Some call it prayer. These people keep calling it slam poetry.
Slam is conventionally defined as the art of competitive performance poetry. Invented in the 1980s by a Chicago construction worker named Marc Smith, slam is a competition in which poets have three minutes and 10 seconds to impress randomly selected judges. Scores for each participant range from 0.0 (never read that shit again) to 10.0 (come home with me).
For participants, slam becomes a church of sorts, complete with community, communion and confession. San Antonio’s slam bible is written on bathroom stalls, everyone speaks in tongues and the pastor’s name is Shaggy.
If you have ever stumbled into Southtown 101 late on a Tuesday evening, you know the heaven and hell of which I speak. It’s a scene straight out of the director’s cut of an ironic and fictional film titled Bukowski’s Leftovers. PuroSlam, the only nationally certified poetry slam in San Antonio, is hosted every Tuesday at 10:30 p.m. Poets slam, DJ Donnie Dee spins and spectators get drunk and yell things.
PuroSlam was started in 1999 by Benjamin Ortiz, but was quickly left in the hands of Jason “Shaggy” Gossard in 2000. The slam has gone through several moves, a handful of fights and even a few gunshots fired but has stayed unflinchingly true to its founding goal to be one of the toughest and rowdiest slams in the U.S.
“I come from a music background. There is a reason I hold [the] slam so late and at a bar–I want it to have that punk-rock atmosphere,” Shaggy told the Current. He admits the slam has pissed off a lot of national poets, but emphasizes the thick skin it builds. “I haven’t tried to dictate the rules. The heckling is sometimes rough, irreverent and can be disrespectful, but then again, not everyone is meant to do this.”
This black sheep mentality defined San Antonio’s presence at the National Poetry Slam, which took place earlier this month (August 5-9) in Oakland, Calif. PuroSlam sent a team of four poets (J. Alejandro, Christopher “Rooster” Martinez, Rayner Shyne and Diamond Mason) who competed throughout the year for their elusive spots.
NPS is an annual poetry slam championship tournament, where forsaken misfits of society (aka poets) from all over North America and Europe gather to compete against one another for the national team title. The weeklong festival is part championship tournament, part poetry summer camp and part traveling exhibition. Staged in a different city each year, NPS has emerged as slam’s highest-profile showcase.
For 2014, the San Antonio team took a decidedly less in-your-face approach after being booed, hissed and hostilely confronted last year for their “boundary-pushing” pieces. These included a persona poem from the perspective of two serial killer necrophiliacs and a piece between owner and dog in which one poet licked his own crotch on stage. I’m sure you guessed it—use of the word “bitch” was also a problem. (If you can’t beat ’em, offend ‘em.)
J. Alejandro has been competing since 2004 and made the team for the first time this year. He noted that prep-wise, the group had been meeting two to three times a week and practicing individual pieces, group pieces, writing, etc. “Its been a lot of work thus far and a lot of sacrifice,” he said. “This year, we didn’t play it safe but we weren’t stupid about it either.”
Unfortunately, PuroSlam was knocked out after its second bout and did not advance past the first round of eliminations this year. The title of NPS champion went to Beltway Poetry Slam out of Washington, DC. The highest title PuroSlam has earned was at NPS is 2000, coincidentally its first year at the competition. Since then, it hasn’t made it to the finals stage.
We are, as per usual, the ugly stepsister of Austin, who has both done historically well at NPS and is generally loved by the slam community. “Austin is the best example of what slam poetry should be—we have a good yin and yang,” said Shaggy with a sense of delinquent pride. “They provide a mainstream accessible slam and embody slam in all its healthiest ways. We are much ruder.”
To compensate, Saytown has oodles of open mics to choose from that promise a more mother hen and less ruthless pterodactyl-type approach to putting feelings down on paper. Among the most recognizable is 2nd Verse, which has earned the title of “Best Open Mic in the Nation” by the National Poetry Awards. Glo, F.Y.I. and local hip-hop artist and spoken-word veteran Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson play host to this prestigious venue.
Vocab is considered one of the central matriarchs in the community. She spoke of the importance of studying the scene before making hasty assumptions about poetry. “There is a need to be knowledgeable of what is already happening in town. So many people don’t even realize we have a nationally recognized open mic. Research and support what is already happening here.”
“If you’re not open to the experience, don’t come,” Vocab later added. “We all need to hear someone else, though. There are certain things I won’t understand about the world until someone explains it to me.”
Our arts community is small and well-knit to begin with. Now segment that further into the poetry community and even further into slam. What you now have is a tiny family with a superiority complex. One face you will see around any public display of words is Anthony “The Poet” Flores. Alongside his daughter Amanda, the pair creates a powerhouse dynamic known lovingly as The Flowers via their surname (see Shaggy’s most recent book, The Kill the Flowers Project). Anthony and Shaggy have a long history rooted in competition poetry. They are grandfather figures to anyone senseless enough to clutch a microphone on stage and yell about something.
Now in his 14th year of slam and boasting the title of three-time San Antonio Grand Slam Poetry Champion, Anthony says he still vomits about 50 percent of the time before he performs. “My stage fright keeps everything so fresh. It always feels like I’m reading for the first time.”
As we sit on a curb outside Luna during an open mic, clearly void of any formalities, Anthony grabs a young man walking out. “That was really good, sir. Very funny. You had ‘em going. Do you read poetry a lot? ... OK, you must add me on Facebook. I want to read more of your stuff and I want to see you out here again.” The gentle encouragement of the moment stands in stark contrast to the advice given like a warning label from the interviewees about slam. Flores, J. Alejandro and Shaggy all made sure to distinguish slam from poetry and PuroSlam from everything else. They sounded both intimidating and protective.
“Not everyone who writes is meant to be on a stage performing his or her work. It isn’t that it shouldn’t be heard, just not on stage competing,” said J. Alejandro.
Shaggy chuckled, “Poetry has never been accessible. Even at its peak it was limited to Saturdays on HBO.”
“Be prepared and realize what you are getting into. Don’t be surprised by anything,” added Flores.
Whether it’s an encouraging open mic or an obnoxious slam, what I’m trying to say dear reader is that you should go watch or participate in some damn poetry. For all its shortcomings, it isn’t nearly as lame as you might think and can even be described as entertaining and inspirational most days.
Prep yourself with some YouTubing (I’d recommend checking out Button Poetry) and go out and listen. If you’re ballsy, you can always try the speaking part, too.
Save the date: On October 3 at Limelight (2718 N St. Mary’s), PuroSlam will be celebrating 15 years of slamming, heckling and inspiring with a quinceañera featuring poets from across the years and venues as well as music by SA’s own Nada Más Basura, DJ Donnie Dee and lots of mariachis.