Five years ago I was in Albuquerque, NM, for the National Poetry Slam. I didn’t participate as a member of a poetry slam team but I did MC one bout, picked judges and handled scoring for another bout, and was on the Rules Committee which means I had a 360° view of what happens at poetry slam on the highest level. Stuff folks don’t normally see when attending a slam and shenanigans that surprised even some slam veterans and enough to confirm that I was ready to move away from slam. Not because I was sour on slam but because I saw what happened when writers decided to invest all of their creative energies towards the purpose of winning a slam (over and over again in some cases).
The good news is that despite the slam drama, I left Albuquerque in total love with poetry. I was surrounded by friends who came for poetic camaraderie and viewed the poetic competition as nothing more than diversion (which is what it really is). We saw some bouts, talked real talk, and shared on every open mic we could find. So that’s the picture you see here. Me going all out on the Latino Poets Showcase open mic, reciting poems from memory, and sending the signals out to the ether.
And here I am, back in ‘burque five years later gathering up those signals not for nostalgia’s sake but to take an honest inventory and see what I can keep from five years ago. It also means discarding the poetic baggage from five years ago: how I talked so much smack about getting published but had only sent out a few submissions; how I kept talking big about getting a book but not really working on a manuscript; how I thought poetry should bring all these things to my door solely because I wanted them. Yeah, to the curb with that.
On the good foot, I do remember a poet who thought a poem could make a change, who looked to gather like minded folks, who was real happy penning a successful line, a poet deeply in love with poetry itself. Five years later, I am still that same poet. Not perfect, still got a lot of work to do (notice the book thing still hasn’t jumped off) but more than anything, I’m more honest with myself about my process. I can identify my faults and am trying every day to be a better person and let the poetry follow.
It feels like I’m in some good company to do that with kind of reflection. CantoMundo, even in the few short hours we’ve been together, feels like it wants to keep an eye on Latin@ poetry’s past by honoring our pioneers and their work, celebrate our present accomplishments, and fuse both visions to create a better future for Latin@ poetics. I like it and feel incredibly blessed to be here at the forefront of necessary conversations with a focus on strong work.
Still, I can’t help but think of Oakland, the city that has taken care of me these last five years, and hope for the best. Right now, anarchists and vandals are tearing apart the Downtown region and moving steady north. Taking a justified anger and misdirecting it towards local merchants and residents. This is not Oakland. Those are not the residents. Not the Oakland I know. Not the one I live in everyday.
And can poetry do anything to stop this? I think not.
Can it change the future? Remind us we’ve fought this battle before and came out with not only our dignity but also a positive lasting change? Yes, poetry can do that.
Poetry can be the past, present and future of a beautiful struggle. At least I hope. That’s my reflection.