Hosting the First Mexican Poetry Slam

Sí, sí, voy a traducirlo al español, esperame tantito...Rabid and homegrown, the first regular, open, Chicago-style poetry slam lights fire in Mexico City, asking no permission and needing none.

The Red Fly Tavern is tucked into an old buiding on a quiet street in Colonia Roma, smack in the middle of Mexico City. Steps away is a plaza with soaring trees and fountains. I’m standing across the street from the Tavern, happy and a little amazed about what is about to happen. It hasn’t been especially easy getting here. Untangling the Mexico City subway on a Friday night after a 50 hour work week is recipe for delirium and loss of direction, but not impossible. I cross the street.

Dispite my plans and years of interest, I wasn’t the one to organize the first Mexican poetry slam. I heard about it from a friend who saw it announced on a website, and I immediately dropped all my weekend plans to go. The credit for bringing the first open, regular, Chicago-style poetry slam to Mexico City goes to two women, both of whom are standing at the top of the stairs in the Red Fly when I walk into the space.


Cara Cummings is a Washington State native who has traveled around the world for the last decade, finally landing in Mexico City four years ago. There she met up with Imuris del Valle, a Mexico City born-and-raised asskicker with a unique talent for making big plans and following up on them. Together, they founded Tochtli Productions, and have spent the last two years organizing mostly hip-hop events in the city.

Then, recently, they suddenly decided to go in another direction. Despite the fact that she hadn’t attended a poetry slam in eight years and had never organized or ran one, Cara presented the idea to her compañeros, and off they went. But really, Mexican poetry slam has been years in the process, and lately the signs have been everywhere that it was coming: more interest in performance, various spoken word festivals and an exploding hip-hop scene. That’s not to mention the long, rich history of national poetry, from bombas in Yucatan, to décimas in fandangos, topadas and more.

But tonight is the first that promised to be free and open to all, judged by the audience. Both Cara and Imuris are looking very stressed. A reporter for the national newspaper Reforma, Óscar Cid de León, caught wind of the event, and published a story on the first page of the Cultura section the day of the slam. The night has the potential to explode. The room above the bar is small but perfect. Strange lighting and interior design, a great sound system and a small stage.

I had already emailed Cara, and they both seem happy to see me. They write my name on the signup list, and get swept up again in the swirl of organizing. Cid de León strikes up a conversation with me, and a few minutes pass. Soon we’re ready to start. The judges have been picked, and they ask me to give the “MC speil” to the crowd in Spanish. I ask the judges if they have yet slept with any of the participating poets. They say no and giggle. That out of the way, I explain the other, lesser important things, such as grading scale and what to look for in a poet.

So we’re all set to start. I meet David, who is to host the event. He’s a nice guy, with a great voice for the job. Then it comes out: we have no calibration poet to kick off the evening. Cara, Imuris and I, with our heads in a circle, quickly give up on all other options: I’ll calibrate then help David host. And so it ends up that I co-host the first ever Mexican poetry slam.

I introduce myself and explain that my poem was originally written in English and is directed at my compatriots in the US. I perform “Sin Voz” in Spanish. It’s hard to tell how it goes over, since it’s a translation and also the first poem of the night. The judges give me something like 18 out of 30. No problem, we’re off and running.

Ten poets in the first round. Two women, eight men, a good mix of participants coming from poetry and hip-hop backgrounds. Some of the poems are very, very good, though it’s obvious everyone in the room is getting used to this new format. I have to repeatedly mention the importance of booing and cheering the judges’ scores. Then, sometime just before the second round, it hits me: we’re arrived. Looking around from near the stage, with Cara scribbling numbers, Imuris snapping fotos, the DJ playing music between poets, poets getting ready for the mic and a screaming audience––we’ve arrived. This is it. Poetry slam has arrived, rabid, in Mexico.

By the time we take a break between the second and third rounds, the room is packed, with people spilling out of the door and craning their necks to see the stage. The beer is too expensive, but people are thirsty, and things are getting wilder.

To start the last round, I ask the audience’s permission to do a poem in English. They agree, and I go into “The Boy’s Pockets,” a bit slower than usual. It goes over really well. The third round, “La ronda de la muerte,” we cut to four poets. In the end, a guy named Oscar de Pablo takes it, and later it comes out that he is a published poet. The general concensus is that a few of the MC-poets made better connections with the audience, but tonight it was the published poet that took it.

It turns out the Tochtli girls have big, big plans. The Roma Slam will be every first Friday, with winning poets collecting points that will go towards their participation in the first-ever Mexican Grand Slam in December. The plan is for me to co-host from here on out. Another group already is throwing another, one-off slam later this month in another part of the city. It’s obvious: this is the spark. Before 2007 ends, I could see there being at least five regular slams in the Mexico City area.

After the slam, DJ Aztek sets up, and there is a dance party / freesytle MC battle that lasts for hours. Many of the poets freestyle, and a few MC’s show up just for the battle. At 3am, we’re back at Cara’s apartment a few blocks away, with everyone laughing and reviewing and making plans for the next slam. So it goes.

So it’s official. The international poetry slam movement has arrived to the largest Spanish-speaking country on the planet. Next stop everywhere.