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
Fall leaves--brown
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
Like pigs--overfed
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."

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Michael Kiefer