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Arts & Culture

Charged, audience-driven poetry leading some higher in educational pursuits

Photo: Josh Huskin, License: N/A

Josh Huskin

Rising young poets: Nathan Zertuche and Ariana Brown.

Photo: Photo by Modest, License: N/A

Photo by Modest

Shaggy slams some verses at Sam’s Burger Joint.

“A lot of people walk out of here in disgust — or it’s just too much for them to take.”

Anthony Flores is prepping me on the imminent verbal onslaught as we sit at the bar inside downtown slam-poetry hotspot On the Half Shell. The night is just getting started — “slammers” are signing up for their three-minute recitation round that will be judged by a selection of five members of the audience, who may or may not be familiar with the spoken word jousting that is the Puro Slam experience. I’ve come expecting a Tuesday night Salmagundi of outlandish spoken word, that can be at turns scarily erotic or scatologically intense; an inflamed rant about race relations may follow a comedic clash over which Adult Swim cartoon is superior: Futurama or Family Guy.

Flores, exuding youth betraying his gray goatee, has been active in the San Antonio slam scene for over a decade now. “I don’t like bosses and I never wanted to be a teacher,” he muses, sipping on a Lone Star and noting the irony that has led him to a life of reading poetry and organizing slam events for the under-21 crowd through the Fresh Ink program he co-founded with spoken word artist Andrea “Vocab” Sanderson. “We actually see a lot of teachers come in the summer. You know, a lot of teachers are closet writers; in the summer they don’t have to get up early.”

One gets the sense that Slam Poetry — which was initiated in Chicago in 1984 by a construction worker/poet named Marc Smith who was tired of going to readings where everyone got the same level of praise, where the poetry was affected and didn’t seem to connect with the working-class element — is somewhat similar to karaoke and amateur comedy nights in how each provides an opportunity for people who would like to pursue art, find community, and know that they are part of a scene.

Shaggy — who goes by Mr. Jason when he teaches kindergarten at SA’s Circle School — starts to unleash a sarcastic litany of complaints about June’s failed apocalypse and the obnoxiousness of LeBron James. His work demands audience participation, which is fine by him, because he writes poetry exclusively for slam and acknowledges that without events like this, he would never have become interested in poetry at all.

As the designated “Slam Master,” he reads a new poem every week setting the template for the scoring to come, and he is absolutely compelled to push the limits of what his beer-guzzling audience might accept, going so far as to fill his three minutes by playing a tape of Conway Twitty.

There is a kind of Fight Club feel to this particular event: so many people coming together to stand against one another. A young fellow named Travis, who Shaggy — alluding to the larger number of black and Chicano poets participating — jokingly describes as his “great white hope,” has a background in theater and is studying kinesiology. Travis likens his poetry reading to sports training; he is getting better and won’t give up. “I’m always practicing, always rewriting. I train all the time. But this is my life. These are my friends and the people I want to spend my time with.”

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