Bienvenue au Café Cheri(e): An American Poet Performing in Paris

A packed house at Café Cheri(e) on this lucid and hot Paris summer night. All up and down Boulevard du Belleville most is quiet: cargo trucks covered in graffiti, the Vietnamese, the Thai district. It’s a Tuesday, and like everywhere, slam makes for a packed house even on a weeknight. The place is bathed in a sweaty red light coming from a chandelier of red bulbs hanging over the heads of the crowd. Spring and I have to squeeze our way in. Smoking is still legal here, and it’s in full effect, the red light falling through it. 9:30pm and the sun hasn’t begun to set outside. Though we arrive after the thing has started, anyone who has been to a few hundred slams over the years (or even a few, I guess) would know exactly what was happening without speaking a word of French.

The infamous Pilote le Hot is a the helm, he’s screaming for scores from the three judges. Maybe 60 people inside, another 30 sitting at tables outside. Pilote and K’trin-D remember me after I introduce myself. We competed against each other in the same bout in Albuquerque at the National Poetry Slam last August. Pilote is in a state I recognize right away: Host Mode. The scattered brain, the running, the yelling, the grinning, all conclusive symptoms. In the midst of it though, he asks me if I would like to read a sacrifice poem before the second round, no matter the language.

“Do you think it would go over well?” I ask, unsure. So far, the widely-held belief that the French are assholes has proved false, but I can imagine that a gringo shouting at them in English from a stage could possibly push them to blows.

“Oh yes, man,” Pilote says in his trademark accent and crooked grin. “Do it.”

It doesn’t take much convincing. After being in a country whose language I don’t speak, where most things seem strange to me, being at a slam is somehow calming, a spot of familiar in a sea of crazy Europe. I drink a beer, talk to a few of the poets around, most of whom speak a little English. “All us poets speak the same language,” one of them tells me.

My heart is beating like it hasn’t before a performance in a long time. The poets have assured me that the crowd will be into it—or at least they probably won’t boo me off the stage, even if they understand very little. I think of the first time I saw Pilote perform, back at the 2003 National Poetry Slam in Chicago. Obviously a lot less people spoke French in that room that speak some English here.

Pilote is back on stage. By way of my introduction, he says “it’s not his fault that he is American,” both in English and French so that we’re all on the same page. The crowd is welcoming and claps even louder as I get on stage, rather than starting to die off, which seems to be the American way of doing things.

“Bonsoir, ça va?” I say into the cordless mic, “Bueno, hablo mucho español and I speak English but je ne parle pas français, but I’m going to learn. Thank you for having me.” I do “The Boy’s Pockets,” maybe over exaggerating the movements a little, as Pilote has told me to perform my ass off, or something like that. I forget the poem about halfway through, as I sometimes do when I’m unpracticed. I freestyle it, weaving back into the poem.

The crowd is generous. Several people approach me later to ask questions about me—and even better—about the poem. The meaning of the word matches for instance: “Lashes?”

“No, matches. To light your cigarette.” A free beer for le artiste, good cheer. They started with around eighteen poets at the beginning of the night, and the cuts are fierce in the second and third rounds. Ángel Pastor is in the house and performing tonight, which is a definite treat. The Spanish-born poet also journeyed to Albuquerque last summer and Danny Solis reportedly called him “a national treasure” after Solis featured here in Paris. And at around 80 years old, Pastor definitely is a treasure.

Standing no more than 5’5”, with long white hair and a long white beard, the man rarely uses a microphone, as he sings cante jondo at the top of his lungs. Old, revolutionary songs modified from time to time to fit modern day. The crowd always loves him and has a chant that they sing every time he comes off stage. After eleven years, the original Paris Poetry Slam (now one of many) is as developed as any slam I’ve seen. While K’trin-D is onstage, some of the other poets are mouthing her poem along with her.

France has had its own National Poetry Slam for the last four years, the 2006 event hosted sixteen adult teams from all over the country and ten adolescent teams. And unlike their American counterparts, these poets are all paid by the state to compete. Everything from rail tickets to lodging and food are covered, which is why the tournament most grow slowly—it requires a massive amount of financial support.

The French National team will be competing at the United States National Poetry Slam for the second time this August in Austin, Texas. Lead by K’trin-D and Pilote, the team will perform in French while their poems are projected in English behind them. If you’re in Austin, they’re worth checking out.

Learn more: La Fédération Française de Slam Poésie: The United States National Poetry slam: Slam Productions (France):