They Rant! They Slam!
They're Poets!

It may be a dog's life,
but the new poetry is hissing back

by Julie Reynolds
photos by Paul Myers and Eugenio Castro

"She rants! She raves! She crawls on the stage like
'The Sex Goddess of the Western Hemisphere'"

-- Description of slam champ poet Maggie Estep

For the poet, life has always been rough. Why should that be any different in hard times? But as television and video drive literary arts further from the public's interest, poets are ranting and slamming their way into national awareness. Poetry has survived by adapting, by making itself a means for us to comprehend and resist in a fearful era. The new 90s performance poetry is wild and nasty and fun. It has, as the New York Observer said about the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, "the vitality of vulgarity."

I knew that poetry had gotten bolder when, two years ago, my friend Claudia and I found ourselves under a spotlight, slathering red and black paint on poet Gerardo Navarro's body while he ripped off his clothes and shouted the crescendo lines of his Borders of the Mind spoken word performance. I don't know if it was a profound moment in the literary universe, but we remember it with a smile.

Groups such as the Nuyorican Poets, who inhabit a cafe in New York's Lower East Side, earn attention with their aggressive street style. They don't just read poems, they scream them on stage, in videos and CDs. They host national poetry slams-kind of poetic "Gong Shows"- where poets try to outdo each other before they get ushered off the stage. Meanwhile, the transnational Taco Shop Poets have declared they are "taking over taco shops" from Tijuana to San Francisco. "We didn't like the usual space for poetry, coffee shops," says founder Adolfo Guzmán, "so we combined the spaces where people go for a product, food, and the space where they go for another product, poetry. We advertised and the people came to places like Roberto's Taquería (in San Diego) to see us. So we started a traveling group of poets." Then there's intellectual sound byter Guillermo Gómez-Peña, who calls himself an "intercultural interpreter and reverse anthropologist." Nuyorican Maggie Estep, the "snarling tutu" and post-Madonna feminist who rants with a rock band, has been called the leader of the spoken word pack.

Across the US, the press hails the new performance poetry as "exuberantly alive," "immediate," and "unpretentious, articulate and tremendous fun." The media don't seem to care if the writing is any good or not; they're just enjoying the show. Bob Holman, a founder of the Nuyorican Poets, explained in a recent interview that the definition of poetry is "continually opening up Rap is poetry. Cowboy poets are poets. American Sign Language is just as much a poem as a Nobel poem," Holman says. "The business of poetry, my dear, is busting frames."

Holman is director of the PBS documentary on spoken word performance, "Words in Your Face," as well as last spring's popular five-part public TV series, "The United States of Poetry." "For poetry to survive," Holman told Associated Press, "it's got to kick itself into the next millennium-and television is the perfect medium for it."

"Written poetry is in crisis," claims Gómez-Peña. "People are not that excited about the written word. It no longer appeals to our perceptual challenges. So I do performance. Video, CD-ROMs, cable, the internet, 'zines-whatever it takes-that is the challenge."

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This is not the first time in the modern era that poetry has hissed back at its stodgy reputation. In the 1950s, San Francisco poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote, "The poetry which has been making itself heard here of late should be called street poetry It amounts to getting poetry back into the street where it once was, out of the classroom, out of speech departments, and off the printed page."

California poet Adrienne Rich explains that poetry "has long been a way for communities to come together. In the 60s, poetry played a very important role. The African-American community used poetry and jazz a great deal, and in the 70s, the women's movement was bursting forth with poetry. This kind of thing [the performance movement] has been around before. But now the media is engaged. The younger generation of performance poets who have been influenced by MTV and TV can be very good in dealing with that media." Most likely the media is engaged because television can admire its own reflection and see it validated as art.

Not everyone wants to get their words off the printed page. Poets like Rich who want their work read are still with us. "When I got into it," says San Francisco poet Victor Martínez, "it wasn't through performance, it was from reading, even poets who are dead. I never improvise, but I do like to get up and read. Some poets really like the performing. Juan Felipe [Herrera] is a master. Victor Hernández Cruz has the heavyweight title."

"When people read from pieces of paper, we tend to call them poets," says performer John S. Hall. "When some people memorize their stuff, we call them performance artists." (Hall's band, King Missile, is known for their hit spoken word recording, Detachable Penis.)

Because of their rap and punk origins, and an immediacy that writer Thomas Swiss sees in the "poetics of presence," the performance poets have a forcefulness and urgency that the printed page rarely conveys. The performers often use angry, violent imagery: Bob Holman talks about the "fist of poetry." "Words burning crisp with anger," reads the self-promotion for New York's Reg E. Gaines. Gómez-Peña is the "warrior for Gringostroika," Maggie Estep "throws it back in your face," and the Taco Shop Poets are "cultural guerrillas." The very nature of the poetry slam, where poets have to be fast and clever or face the taunts of the audience, has a gladiator end-of-the-millennium harshness. "To me, slams are grueling and frightening," says Martínez. A lot like life in the 90s, and a lot like the new poetry itself.

Even when their poems speak of forceful ideas, due to their method of delivery the paper poets will always appear quieter and gentler. This is not to say that poets who write are out of style. They're making a strong comeback, and plain old poetry readings are on the increase: a recent San Francisco Bay Guardian listed several dozen readings and open mic poetry events during one week. "This is an incredibly rich time for poetry in the US," says Adrienne Rich. "We are hearing so many rich, diverse voices. Anyone who cares about poetry should be elated." Maybe the revival of live poetry has come about because some people long to hear someone say something, out loud, with words; something that doesn't hide behind the jerky obscure video images of MTV and all its offspring. Of course, to others like Holman and Gómez-Peña, those video images often are the poetry.

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We're at a reading in San Francisco, part of a series called "Los Bohemios" at Cafe La Boheme, the soul of the Mission district. There's one of everything, or everybody, here: old grey poets, stylish young poets, and dried-up leftist kind of poets. There are a lot of black berets in this room. Nobody in the place ever shuts up. There is a clanking of wine glasses and coffee cups and conversation that never ceases, even as the featured poet, Neeli Cherkovsky, reads from his new book, Animal. And he's good. The ambient sound becomes a murmur beneath the poetry that makes it friendly: it's okay to be human in the presence of this art-drink, walk around, say hi to your friends.

Besides poets, there's Tony Santiago, sax player. Tony tells the audience that he's "happy to see the Bohemian intelligencia" and someone in the crowd yells out, "Three generations!" During a break, Tony tells me that he used to be a jazz musician, and he's out of work. He's "forced to play with poets. Someday the poets will catch on, some day," he complains, "They don't even give me bus fare." As Tony says this, someone offers to buy him a burrito. "Hey, I'm gettin' paid! Honey, this conversation is over!" he says, as he tears down the street.

Guitarist Ignacio Reyes plays and Lupe Román sings, along with a guy in the audience who drums. There is an altar for San Francisco sculptor/poet Manuel Martín, who died just days before. The whole evening is dedicated to him. The poet Carlos "Rumberos" Ramírez sings kids' songs in Spanish that have everybody cracking up.

Max Schwarz does a fast improv rap. It's about himself, a white guy, and a black poet friend, Bill Strond, asking the Newark, New Jersey Police for directions one night in the "wrong" part of town:


"Never ask a police officer for directions
especially if you're not like them
and we're not like them
what are you doing here? they ask
we say we're poets
and one of them says, well, then, where are you published?
a cop asking me where I'm published!
you have to feed the truth to them like food to a baby."

Max doesn't stop to breathe, it seems.
After going all over the place about
politics, life, and "lesbians and thespians,"
he gets back to the cops:

"They search the whole car
and they don't read our poems!
they tell us, this was the most interesting
episode in our police career."

Max ends with "It's a privilege to be alive."

There are, even with all the noise, moments in the evening when gusts of emotion blow through the crowd; for example, when Jorge Argueta passionately reads Martín's last poem. You hear it and feel it: Manuel Martín was loved.

Yet some people grumble when it's over. "Motherf----!" complains one who didn't get to read. A woman excuses herself, saying, "I guess poetry's just not my thing." Argueta, the poet who organized the series, tells me that he was once in the Midwest and was surprised to find one of his own books in a used bookstore-for 25¢. "I didn't know whether to laugh or cry," Jorge says."I bought it and I gave it to someone who would read it." "Why do poets do it? People really don't care about poetry," says journalist Beatriz Johnston-Hernández, who is married to Jorge.

There are statistics that show that writers have "significantly" shorter lives than other artists, and that they are more likely to commit suicide than other people. In a New York Times article from November 14, 1994, Johns Hopkins professor Kay Jamison claims that that writers are "10 to 20 times as likely as other people to suffer manic-depressive or depressive illnesses, which lead to suicide more than any other mental disorders do."

In the Journal of Economic Psychology, (Economic Psychology? Now that's poetry!), a report by David E. Kaun shows that the average writer lives to age 63.9, while other kinds of artists such as painters, dancers and musicians all live to at least age 69.1, (with a high of 72.6 for photographers). "In seeking an explanation for these vivid results," concludes Kaun, "I have argued that the peculiar nature of the writer's work provides little, if any, short term satisfaction, and to the contrary, some fair amount of pain."

"Awaiting the knife of truth," is how poet Ed Morales describes the life.


. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

When "Los Bohemios" is over, we step outside to six screaming sirens in the rain at 24th and Mission: there's been a shooting. We can't go further, because the cops haven't grabbed the guy yet. He's running up the street with a gun. So we huddle in front of the cafe and wait. A woman tells us she just left her friends at the corner of Capp St., where the shooting occured. She hopes they're all right. Another woman, María Rosa Galdamez, tells me that the week before, transportation Secretary Federico Peña was at that corner celebrating the installation of new street lights. They're supposed to prevent crime.

rappin' / a English we make up as we go along
turnin' nouns into verbs / braids into crowns
and always fetchin' dreams from a horizon
strewn with bones and flesh of those of us
who didn't make it / whose smiles and deep
dark eyes / help us to continue to see
there's so much life here.

-ntozake shange

Thank God poetry is kicking and screaming its way into our awareness. It makes this decade bearable. It reminds us: this corner, this night, this rain, these friends, our lives, have meaning. And it's a privilege to be alive.

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Excerpt from PEOPLE OF WATTS by ntozake shange, from Aloud! Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, published by Henry Holt

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