Brian Flatgard is loose and goofy, wearing an earnest grin and a backward baseball cap over hair that free falls to his shoulders. He lifts a hand-bound book of poems as he steps to the microphone and lets fly:
"Thanksgiving yum yum," he reads in an accent as flat as the Minnesota prairie he grew up on:
A table of food and relatives
A table of brown--turkey, stuffing, bread
Remains of harvest on the field--brown
Grass in the ditches--brown
This is the Thursday-night poetry slam at Beulah's Deli and Market Place on Seventh Street. The restaurant resembles a time and a place we haven't seen since the early 1970s--colored lights, vaguely psychedelic (at least uneasy) whorls of color and memorabilia on the walls, on the ceilings.
Flatgard reads on, and his poem describes how his uncle holds forth on politics while his cousin Joseph complains that he's hot:
Til finally poor Joseph plumb overheats
And makes himself a family legend
In one bold act of creation
The poet pauses for a dramatic beat: At the Thanksgiving table,
Joseph vomits. An incredible puke!
Joseph's ripe stomach, a wee bucket,
Spouts from his wide mouth
A flying tube o' food back on his plate
In reverse film slo-moed for all to savor
Flatgard pitches and yaws while he reads, his voice hitting as many crescendos as an evangelical preacher, until he brings home the family's awe and uneasiness when it realizes the chunky glob of vomit is:
Brown--like fall, brown
Like Thanksgiving, Joseph's plate is brown--and no different from the plates
Set before us.
The audience groans and hoots, whistles and stomps, all of which is acceptable behavior at the slam, a tongue-in-cheek contest in which spur-of-the-moment judges hold up scores as at an ice-skating competition: 9.5, 9.7, 9.6 out of a possible 10. Flatgard has done quite well.
Poetry is hot in 1994. Poetry is sexy. Janet Jackson and Mike Myers both played poets in recent films; MTV features poets on video with the respect it affords rappers and rockers; the Gap clothing-store chain displays poets in its advertising campaigns. Record companies issue CDs of "The Spoken Word," as the genre has become known to its enthusiastic apostles.
Coffee houses in New York and Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles are lousy with the stuff. Neobeatniks fixated on Jack Kerouac strut across college campuses like leather-jacketed roosters. Even in Phoenix, Arizona, where Suns games and Hooters restaurants are considered high culture, there are two slams weekly and a poetry event nearly every night of the year in bars and coffee houses, bookstores, alternative performance spaces and city parks. Poetry has radio and cable-access TV shows, and no fewer than three basement-based literary publications have sprung up.
Flatgard, 25, is a young up-and-comer, a self-published author and a frequenter of the slam scene. He came to Phoenix after he graduated from college in Minnesota, and took a job with a law firm. One day, however, his creative sensitivities plumb overheated, too, and so he stepped out for lunch, forever.
"I went to a reading at Changing Hands Bookstore that night and declared in front of all these people--and this was only the second time I'd read in the Valley--I just quit my job today. I'm stating this to the public. I'm dedicating my life to poetry.'"
The staid and contained listeners at the reading burst into wild applause.
Flatgard rented a basement gallery, moved in his personal computer and went into the poetry business, forming a small press (It's getting bigger," he crows) that publishes mostly his own work. He then sells his books at readings, sometimes for as much as $100 per book, after which he issues a certificate that names the buyer as a patron of the arts. Or he hand-binds single books and displays them in art shows. For his most recent effort, he shaved his head so he could bind the book with his own hair.
Tammy Peplinski, the next poet to take the stage, is as polished in her appearance as the rest of the slammers are wantonly disheveled. She's 25, too, and although she's published as much or more than the rest of the erstwhile poets, though she edits a monthly fine-arts broadsheet in her spare time, she keeps a day job selling cosmetics at an upscale Scottsdale department store. Her poem, fittingly, is called "Retail Hell," a litany for a working girl: Birkenstocks and jeans with heels
Spoiled babies squirm and squeal
Spandex queens in young girl dreams . . .
As we wither sheltered by fluorescent skies
A woman spends an hour of her life
To pick a goddamned 12-dollar lipstick . . .
She squints with mock annoyance, brown hair bounding, tightly held fists peeking out of her suede blazer. She wrote the poem for the women she works with. They'd asked her to write about them, perhaps as a challenge to prove that she really was a poet. And then, with the finished work tickling their job dissatisfaction, they'd drag every new saleswoman to the cosmetics counter and beg, "Tammy, come here and do 'Retail Hell' for her."
Her second poem is about her mother. She closes her eyes, rocking between pain and bliss as she delivers a near-perfect turn of phrase:
"Sometimes," she says, "I catch myself tasting her intonations on my tongue."
Performance is almost everything. One no longer writes poetry, one "does" poetry.
"Some poems read well on the page, but the person who wrote it can't bring it off onstage," Flatgard says. Conversely, the poem might be a rhetorical flurry that, put down on paper, is like a snowstorm in Cave Creek: It fills the air with furious flakes for a few moments, but every one melts before it reaches the ground.
And sometimes, more often than might be expected, a poem turns out to be well-written and well-performed.
@body:The poetry slam was invented in Chicago in the mid-1980s by a former construction worker named Marc Smith. He named it "slam" to try to balance out the innate wussiness that the term "poetry" has held for at least the last 25 years. Smith still stages them at the Green Mill, a gritty tavern in a grittier Chicago neighborhood called Uptown. The Chicago slams are far more brutal affairs than the Phoenix variety. Smith encourages the booing of bad poets off the stage. He exhorts the audience not to clap unless the poet has earned it. The lowest slam score ever given at a slam occurred at the Green Mill; it was a legendary negative infinity.
Mary McCann, the KZON-FM morning jock, brought the slam to Phoenix. She'd seen the New York version in 1990 and was so impressed that the next spring, she rode her Harley-Davidson cross-country to Chicago to see the first national slam championships.
"I loved the idea of hearing these voices that were undiluted and had a real regional ring to them," says McCann. "Ann Arbor poets did not sound like Asheville, North Carolina, poets in the words they used and the scenes they chose to describe. All the New York poems had a gun or a rape in them. The San Francisco poets were a little bit flaky and a little bit pissed off about little-bitty things. There was a poet from Ann Arbor who did historic epics about battles--which would never be something I was interested in. But he was there in his subject."
Besides, the slam felt so close to the nightclub act she'd been developing: part comedy, part send-up of Beat poetry. She'd dress up as a beatnik chick and spout comical existentialism while accompanied by a drummer. Eventually, she dropped the costume, because the poetry stopped being a joke, became more lyrical--even if it stayed humorous.
God must love it when I pray, one poem starts.
I bet he puts me on the speaker phone and
Calls any angels passing by into his office so's
They can all laugh and snort and rock back on their heels
McCann talked the owner of a Tempe club into letting her stage a slam there. "Sometimes it was just me and the bartender's kid," she says of the early shows. But quickly, it took hold. She moved it to the Willow House, a Phoenix coffee house, when the Tempe club closed down. And when the Willow House was sold, she reconvened at Beulah's.
"Most people think that poetry is the last thing that has anything to do with their lives," she says. "They had to read it in school. And the only time they ever came close to poetry was the first time somebody broke their heart, and they wrote something real sappy about it. With all that hurt shit on it and all that school shit on it, it's pretty stinky, and who wants to go near that? The slam is an event. The subversive part of it is that people hear poetry. I love that part."
McCann took a pair of friends to compete in the second national slam competition in Boston in 1992. In 1993, there were two Phoenix teams, one sponsored by McCann's fund-raising and promotional efforts and another from Tempe.
"We did pretty well, actually," says David LaSpaluto, who was on the Tempe team. "We beat Finland."
Then, when asked if the Finns were reading in English, he concedes that they were mostly reading in Finnish. @rule:
@body:The formal poetry readings at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe hum on the same angst-ridden frequency as the average 12-Step meeting. Thirty or more followers of the muse sit in a circle of folding chairs, bald guys with college-town ponytails (mere buns, really) that rise and fall with their breathing as they doze off. High school girls with faces frozen sour by makeup and hormonal overload hang their legs from the balcony above.
Silence fills the room. Squirm, squirm. Finally, a young man stands nervously and walks to the center of the circle.
"My name is James," he says--one expects him to add, "and I'm a poet"--leading the other participants to shout out in unison, "Hi, James!"
Pinna Joseph, a co-owner of Changing Hands, started the readings back in 1976, and though the venue changed a time or two over the years, it settled into a back room at the store, where a handful of dedicated poets came to share their work.
"That room back there felt like this point of generation for people who were already poets," Joseph says with a touch of nostalgia in her voice.
But that was before poetry became a participatory sport. Now the great unlettered come, too, those people who never actually read anything. They hear a poem, note that it's meaningful and, even more noteworthy, that it's short, and they think, "How hard can that be?" Before you know it, they're poets.
"It's a double-edged sword," says Jack Evans, who has been part of the poetry scene in Phoenix since before it was a scene. "I think it's great that it's opened up for the people to have access to it. But unfortunately, it creates a group of people who think they're poets."
Indeed, one predominant theme of the new scene is the glorious Spoken Word itself, and the poets recite odes to the ecstasy of being a poet writing poems about being a poet writing poems. As long as there has been history, there has been poetry. The novel is a relatively new genre, first taking form in 1605 with the publication of Don Quixote. But poetry dates back beyond memory.
The great Greek epics go back at least to the ninth century B.C.; they purported to be history, cast in verse as a mnemonic device, with rhyme and meter that helped the teller remember the sequence. The medieval Spanish troubadour, reciting "The Song of the Cid," might have repeated refrains such as "may his beard grow ever longer" as a stalling device while he struggled to recall what came next. He shortened or lengthened his performance depending on how well it was received by his audience. It was an oral form, not the least because very few people knew how to read, anyway.
Over the centuries, literature evolved beyond the spoken word--and on to an age of information overload, too many books and magazines, too many words flashing on the screen, too many pictures transmitted from one eye to the next faster than the speed of thought. How does one communicate through all that noise?
"I think we're going into a postliterature age," says Mary McCann. "With computers and TV, reading has just fallen by the wayside. Maybe we're beyond the written word."
The spoken word, on the other hand, takes a step backward to find a way for people to connect. Like music, poetry hits a more visceral part of the cerebral cortex than prose, as if the rhythm hot-wires the message into the brain circuits. Poetry is not only oral, but it is compressed thought--to borrow a phrase from digital technology. It is not just any group of words, but the concise words that carry an emotion, a transcendental image. And ideally, when read or heard aloud, it touches the mind of the listener and expands to the size of the original emotion.
Enraptured graduate students in creative-writing programs warble mystically about finding a voice in their writing, but they seem to miss the obvious: that the term "voice" refers to more than an abstract stylistic identity, but also to the very sound of the words. They forget that reading and writing are merely extensions of speech, and speech is a way of expressing all the notions rolling around inside our brains, and then, more important, getting those thoughts out and forcing them on someone else. "Ego," after all, means "I, me," the voice inside one's head. And that inner speech closely resembles the voice the writer carries in his or her style.
Some of the new poets, however, speak a bit too loudly. They are poetry sluts who go from poetry reading to poetry reading, not so much to hear someone else's poetry as to hear their own precious and mellifluous utterances. In Phoenix, they've got plenty of rooms where people at least pretend to listen.
@body:Ego and ennui reign over the Monday-night slam at the Congo club in Scottsdale, where the poetry, as emcee Ted Christ calls out like a barker, jumps "off the page and on the stage and in your face tonight."
The walls are festooned with primitive paintings that look like updated rip-offs of the turn-of-the-century French painter Henri Rousseau. The overstuffed chairs and couches around the stage are deliberately mismatched. Smoke hangs in the air as thick as in 19th-century Pittsburgh.
"This is poetry," exclaims one reveler, "dark and mysterious and smoky."
The crowd favors the six-rings-through-the-ear-and-one-through-the-nose look, the women decked out in black, right down to their lipstick, the guys with ponytails let down for the evening and carefully laid across their leather- or flannel-covered shoulders.
"We had a girl," Christ recites, "who made the statement, 'All the problems of the world, all the crime and all the pollution is the fault of every baby boomer.' And when she got off the stage, I said, 'You know, I heard that poem in 1966.'"
When he's not master of ceremonies at poetry events, Christ (rhymes with "cyst") makes his living by hustling poems and Polaroids in pickup bars. With black curls hanging from a Mad Hatter's top hat, he offers to take couples' photos while they are carousing, then improvises a poem for them to fill up the minute or so the photo takes to develop.
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.
First stop: the Bisbee Poetry Festival. LaSpaluto took third in the slam. The crowd loved him, he says. Next stop, Orange County, California, where they talked their way into a gig at a local bar. The crowd didn't love them; in fact, they were ignored.
"Eventually, the sound guy turned down the microphone on us because we were interrupting conversations and interrupting the Ping-Pong game," he recalls. "This was a downer evening, that's for sure."
They had better luck in San Francisco, where the coffee-house crowd was "very much into the journey thing which we were doing." By the time they reached Seattle, they were trading books for beers. The slam there had been canceled, so they turned toward home.
The Dodge broke down in Oregon, and they were stranded for days. Cash was running as low as their poetic spirits. Regardless of what Kerouac might have done, they took their Visa cards and checked into a hotel.
@body:Clearly, this is a cycle. Though the slam-era poets look to Kerouac and other 1950s reprobates--Allen Ginsberg, Dylan Thomas--for their literary and lifestyle inspiration, the new scene seems to be an end-of-the-century phenomenon, young "artists" acting out under the unbearable weight of boredom and alienation, real or imagined, like the French poets Verlaine and Rimbaud did while the 19th century rotted to an end. Instead of shooting lovers in the throes of passion or running off to Tahiti like Gauguin to paint pictures of dusky native beauties, they're sketching word pictures (sometimes painted by number) to read aloud to like-minded artists in coffee houses and clubs.
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No one thinks the scene will last. Jack Evans is almost old enough to remember the last Beat era, and he carbon-dates himself with a TV analogy. "Once Maynard G. Krebs came along, then it became a joke," he says, speaking of a beatnik character created by Bob Denver (in his pre-Gilligan days) for The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis TV series of the late 1950s and early 60s.
With the same poets reading the same stuff two or three nights per week, Phoenix fans may reach a poetic saturation point. One weekly slam event has already fallen by the wayside.
As for the poseurs, those playing the role of the poet in the eternal quest to find an identity and hopefully to get laid, as well, as Pauline Muncie of the Divergent Art Series says, "After a few months, you'll go back and see that they've played and enjoyed and then gone on to something else." The serious poets will continue to write poetry seriously. Meanwhile, "I'm having a good time," says Jack Evans.
His artist friend Jeff Falk chimes in: "Yeah, we'll be dead the next time it comes around.