San Antonio, Texas, EUAfirst printed in the Arizona Poetry Newsletter
The lightning is flashing so much it looks like some god is changing channels in the sky. The freeway between Austin and San Antonio is one long city, but the only people who live here are the billboards and the streetlights. They’re afraid of the lightning, and so am I. The show in San Antonio starts in half an hour and all the radio can talk about is the hurricane-force winds in the east that are moving toward I-35. The Puro Slam, though, is one of the few shows that’s worth risking electrocution to see.
Outside of Sam’s Burger Joint, the mood is right: sirens, those pre-storm winds, an orange sky, cars pulling up right and left. Anthony Flores and his lady Dee Dee are climbing out of a car and squinting in my direction. Anthony has become one of San Anto’s best poets, and it’s good to see him here. Shaggy, doorman / scorekeeper / announcer / brains-of-the-operation is already inside, his hand buried in some green alien’s head that they use as a tip jar at the door.
Eleven PM and the show finally begins. This is, without a doubt, one of the greatest poetry slams in the country, certainly one of the most unique. It’s a Tuesday, almost midnight, and there’s over a hundred people in the dark and swanky room, many huddled around the drink specials at the bar. It’s beer, it’s poetry, it’s cursing and it is good. Thanks to this being Texas, eighteen-year-olds are also allowed in, though the government says they must stay sober. But there is not a lot of sobriety at the Puro Slam.
Tonight’s host is Ria, who skips announcing the rules and gets straight to insulting the audience, which they love. The woman controls the room with a drink in one hand and her purse in the other. First on the mic is Anthony, as it should be. All you can really ask of poetry slams these days are just a few moments of startling originality, and Anthony brings the unique. “Playing with words is like playing with knives” he chants as he mimes knife juggling, keeping infectious rhythm with his hands clapping as he reads.
The room loves it, as they should. It’s a good crowd, but many of the well-known poets like Anthony are taking the night off from competing: San Anto just had their Grand Slam last week, so everyone is ready to relax. And something else unique has happened here in this city: both Anthony and his daughter, Amanda Flores, have made it on the team that will go to the National Poetry Slam in Austin this August, making them probably the first-ever father / daughter team on a Nationals-bound poetry slam team. It’s like I’m telling him during the first round: writing group pieces is going to be great for them. The second that the crowd realizes they’re seeing a family on stage together, I’m sayin the tens will be in the bag, which is the kind of thing you worry about when going to Nationals.
Ria is onstage making fun of a rookie poet who just performed in a muscle shirt. He deserves it. Puro Slam is not known for being kind: the crowd’s heckling is known throughout the nation. It’s a strange thing, to be in a room full of people watching a poet shaking and sputtering through a played-out rhyming poem, when someone suddenly begins The Carwash Clap. You know The Carwash Clap, if you know Carwash. It’s an unmentioned rule here in San Anto: at the first sign of the crowd starting The Carwash Clap, the poet had better get off stage quickly.
I have no sympathy. A good poetry slam is just a bit mean around the edges: like a carnival with rides, bad cotton candy and a certain menace in the colors of the merry-go-round. At a good poetry slam, anything can happen, which is why the crowd is here.
The first round ends. I’m called up to feature. People have been buying me Red Bull and Vodka for about the last hour and a half. I’m a livewire walking a tightrope in front of a crowd that will either riot or rejoice in a few minutes. I just rip through the poems, lots of yelling, insulting and laughing. I feel pretty well at home when being cut no slack. Cheering and clapping breaks out during my sestina about the border. No Carwash Clap in sight, they’re with me.
It’s 1:30 in the morning when I look around and wonder if anyone still remembers a poetry slam is going on. Ria is loaded, as is everyone else. It’s one of those rare moments when an entire group of people all devolve at once, leaving their normal selves at the door and basking in poetry, chaos and laughter. It’s the Puro Slam and we’re headed toward sunrise.