By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
On slam nights, or any other night, even when he doesn't have an invitation, he gets up onstage to flaunt his poetic-savant talents, cocking his head and pointing his finger like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. Then he composes a poem of the moment, jabberwocky sometimes, but the performance is so stirring that it actually sounds as if he is saying something meaningful. Like those painters at outdoor art shows who can rip out a seascape in 30 seconds using only an index finger for a brush, it's not always something you want to keep for posterity, but you have to marvel at the talent nonetheless.
The first slammer is a handsome, clean-cut young man who looks out at the audience and forthrightly says, "I tend to write my poems in the bathroom, so they tend to be as long as the meal I ate the day before."
What follows is workmanlike, if not memorable, with fits of interior rhyme. A young woman reads a gushy ode to her new lover, then runs from the stage squealing with lust. A young woman who looks 17 reads from a fan-shaped scrap of stiff paper. It's covered with her cramped handwriting, lines going off in all directions, as if she scrawled them on the paper tablecloth of a pizza joint, then ripped a corner away for a manuscript.
Affect is everything.
Enter the star of the evening, David LaSpaluto, an ASU grad student with a big enough ego to write a poem titled "Michelangelo is dead (long live me)." And if that poem was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, tonight's reading is bulge-in-pants. "A tribute to Love and Sex Poetry," he says in a New York-flavored voice.
"My Penis. First of all, I have to say that this is a work in progress. It just keeps getting longer and longer."
There are yelps from the whelps in the audience, not all of them adoring. LaSpaluto drinks them in.
I am feeling hungry today
I need something to fill my dirty mouth with
With something sweet like you . . .
On and on he bumps and grinds for the audience, building to an aural climax, an orgasmic rebel without a clause. Earlier in the week, he read a poem in which nouns and verbs copulate, and if it made no sense, the audience got the message from his smug and panting delivery. Sex sells.
Some women swagger right along with the men. "There's an innate peacockery built into the form itself," says Bridget Carroll. "I am as bad as all of them; plus, I've probably had more life experiences and great comfort in my own sexuality. I would hate to be 19 and doing this. Most of us slammers have some mileage on us."
Carroll knows how to shock. When the going gets gritty, she dusts off her lustiest poems:
I want to be a call girl,
A pay ME for a ball girl.
I don't want to start a riot,
I just want to work the Hyatt. She's come a long way, baby, from the first time she read, so nervous that she used the pseudonym Barb Wire. "I got up onstage and sat because I couldn't stand," she remembers. "If I could have laid down, I would have laid down." As soon as she finished, she bolted from the room.
Other women cast a more chaste eye on the poetic rut. "They're definitely undersexed, wouldn't you say?" asks Tammy Peplinski. "Most of them think they're really macho. It's comical to me, because they can't understand why they can't get laid. They can't figure it out."
Even at Beulah's, which attracts a more literate crowd than the Congo club, sex is drawn to the microphone like a beagle to a pants leg. On a recent evening, a broad-chested, gray-haired man with a good-natured smile and an easy manner prefaced a poem by noting that he had taught history for 30 years; then he launched into a grab-the-gusto rendering. The audience lurched awake when he got to "thinking about all the intelligent 17-year-olds I'd like to fuck, or what would happen if I pissed in the wastebasket." The week before, at Changing Hands, his poem featured "balloon tits exploding from bras." When the reader finished the teaching poem, Beulah's emcee had to note that said poet could be "in the middle of the equatorian rain forest or on a sand bar in the Colorado River watching his raft float away, but somehow when he gets home and writes it down, breasts come into it. It's the damnedest thing."
Poets of the 90s want to be sex symbols, strutting and rutting and swelling with testosterone. These are not the fey, consumptive fellows who wrote poetry a decade ago, not die-of-embarrassment Rod McKuen types. Nineties poets screw as much as, as . . . Jack Kerouac.
"We are very influenced by Jack Kerouac and [Kerouac's book] On the Road," says David LaSpaluto. "Get in my car and go."
Last summer, LaSpaluto and Brian Flatgard and another poet piled into LaSpaluto's 89 Dodge for their own road trip. And they ingeniously packaged the trip. Since it was to be a literary event, they first put together a collection of their work that Flatgard printed and bound. They called the book Three Poets, One Car, and they sold it wherever they stopped to give a reading.