By Gene Grant
So we now have what's billed as the world's first Slam Poet Laureate in Danny Solis, crowned this past Saturday night, June 13, at the KiMo. Good on Danny. As a slam elder statesman, so to speak, this choice is right in the sweet spot.
But, as these things go, there's regrettably a "but."
The organizer, New Mexico Poetry Tangents Executive Director Zachary Kluckman, designed this on the notion that the traditional way of selecting a laureate needed the slam touch. Meaning not just ignoring tradition but taunting it.
Tradition would have meant someone like a mayor or governor tapping his or her sword to the designee's shoulders and laying a virtual laurel on his or her head. Kluckman wanted it to be decided in a different tradition—slams being "judged" by people plucked from the audience.
Fair enough, but in the execution to that goal, he lit a fuse by conveniently ignoring the most important requirement for potential laureates: to write about their area. It is virtually their reason for being. I would hazard less than 10 percent of the slam poems Saturday night were about Albuquerque. Ridiculous.
In the competition, poets were required to perform three poems. At least one out of the three should have been about our city. Is it really asking too much of a potential laureate to come up with something about Albuquerque?
A poet must, must be able to speak about his or her city (or state) to earn laureate status. It's the bloody point.
By dismissing this aspect of a laureate's skills, Zack set up a bomb that exploded in spectacular fashion Saturday night. You could see—and hear—this coming.
There was only one poet who completed the task that Saturday night: the reigning two-time city champ Damien Flores, who broke off three stunning poems about Albuquerque. His night was an across-the-board bravura performance by a talent so boundless in his feel for this community it takes my breath away.
Damien is "of" Old Town, having been born and raised there. His "La Fiesta" sonnet was so spectacular, if it was carved on a granite obelisk next to the gazebo it would be relevant 200 years from now.
But what happened with his third poem was mind-blowing.
It was based on the true story of a 95-year-old Old Town resident. In protest of a (then) new city ordinance outlawing livestock in the city limits, he slit the throat of one of his prize cows in front of the police officers who were there to cite him. It will go down in Albuquerque slam lore.
This poem, "El Corrido de Arnold Sanchez," was about an act of cultural defiance that was in itself poetic. It was also startlingly emblematic of the tensions in this city, then and now.
It was Herculean. A tour de force that raised many patrons to their feet in an eruption of the most sustained and enthusiastic applause of the evening by far. Damien gave everyone in that room a gift, and we knew it.
Not so fast. The five judges sitting not 10 feet in front of him in the first row froze in panic, swamped and confused by the frenzied applause. An old man? A cow? What? In reaction, they gave crap scores that elicited a round of boos so loud and angry and volatile, their hair was practically blowing in front of them.
To literally not "hear" the theme of the poem in the context of being a potential laureate was to be culturally and artistically tone deaf.
It was also the moment the organizer realized that his premise of "the people" choosing a laureate was unraveling. He had to put a stop to the booing because the tone was getting ugly. The fuse had met the detonator.
I'm going to say it again. How do you pick a city poet laureate of any stripe, slam or otherwise, and not require him or her to speak to and about this city? It's outrageous.
But remember that Danny Solis is the winner of the laureate title. His last poem, "Song Of Solomon," his classic and much-loved go-to piece, was essentially about sentimentality. As was his first, a lovely ode to his newborn son, Teagen. Terrific poems both. Alas, of his three, only one could reasonably to be considered about Albuquerque.
By contrast, all of Flores' were very much about place. A place you could hear, smell, taste and touch.
That's the tie breaker to me.
As our best-known slam poet, Danny Solis will serve us well as laureate. I support him in that unreservedly. And when NPR calls, Danny will take care of our business because he's a seasoned, burnished pro, intimidated by nothing.
But, oh, how sweet would it have been for this city to hear one of the NPR folk finish the segment with, "To hear Damien Flores perform 'El Corrido de Arnold Sanchez,' go to npr.org and click on ... ”
If I was listening from another city and heard the word "laureate," I would expect the poem to be about Albuquerque, not someone's son.
Finally, in fairness to all, Damien Flores is not only a superb talent but Danny's slam poet laureate heir apparent.
So let's not even bother with another competition. No more messing with traditions that need not be messed with. No more taunting fates.
Give the next one to Damien Flores.
The people have spoken.
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