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):

ici, Paris

Paris, France I performed at the Paris Poetry Slam. The French are gracious and know more English than Americans know French. In other news, doesn't it seem like neanderthals really loved camping? We start moving west again soon. I'm performing in Phoenix on the 26th, info on the shows page. Here are some poems. In English.

Paris Gossip II

And you, Saint, came from whereever you came and slayed the dragon that grew each night from the prostitute's house.

For this, people were able to leave their houses at night. For this, you eventually were made into stone and placed next to Jesus.

Paris Gossip III

And you, Bishop, left, your head in your hands, after being beheaded by the dancing Pagans.

You, Bishop, holy, stood from the guillitine-- too holy to die there, picked up your tall hat with what it contained, and walked from this city,

to die where you chose, leaving the blade questioning itself and the people questioning their faith in the blade.

(Now, in the place you chose to lay your head for good, there is a fountain. Women who drink of it will always love their husbands.)

the trip told in matches

Barcelona, Catalunya From an email I just wrote to my wonderful friend Melinda:

The night of that game [Brasil v. France], the Catalans in here in Barcelona put up with more pro-France frollicking than I imagine they ever have. Throngs in the streets, bouncing and screaming France songs, climbing statues and monuments and draping them in the French flag (!), painted faces, the whole bit.

One could, if one wanted, tell the whole story of this trip in World Cup matches.

For instance, we were supposed to be in France for tomorrow night's semifinal. But apparently the French railworkers have gone on strike and no trains are running in that country right now. So we are effectively marooned here in Barcelonatown holding our Eurail passes in our sweaty, American fingers. Sure, we could take the bus, but we have these passes, bought & paid for already. We're entitled, damnit.

So likely we'll be here for France's semifinal victory and more rioting in the streets.... really, either way, since you figure Spain is the meat in the Portugal-France sandwhich. And what a delicious sandwhich, anyway.

We would've been in Paris for the final match. We still might be. Jesus. The pot is starting to boil.

(The pot being europe, the water being the europeans' tempers, the fire being el fut... and the sandwhich still being the sandwhich, which is to say, delicious.)

There's more where that came from... drunks in Ireland cheering for England until the crowd broke into 'god save the queen'... a drunk in Barcelona shouting '¡viva franco!' which was the name of Argentina's goalkeep during the penalty kicks in Germany v. Argentina, also the name of Spain's former dictator... etc...

Stranded in Barcelona, broke and taking notes. Never mind that the press mentions nothing about the strike, nor have we heard it from anyone else... could be a practicle joke on the part of the Barcelona train station... we weren't on that metro train in Valencia that took a dive at cost of 41 lives yesterday, at least theres that... the internet is too expensive here for me to be posting much... the fotos of the caos will have to wait to be posted until I'm stateside again maybe...

snowmen in cataluña

Barcelona, Cataluña, España

So these two snowmen are standing alone out in a field together, a little bored. Then, one turns to the other and says, "Hey, do you smell carrots?"

A John Kofonow joke via Nick Fox.

All the longing in the tourist ghettos, drinking and questioning, little worlds wrapped in a big one.

We can't afford anything and aren't worried.

la mezquita

Córdoba, Andalucia, España The doves & the sparrows dive, curve, sing over narrow puzzle streets.

To be born here is to understand the streets.

To have wings here is to make the streets your own.

españa venga

Madrid, España Spring Winders. Nick Fox. Logan Phillips. Between us, everything. Before us, even more. Spain spreads out as a twisting desert, yellow and orange after the green burning of Ireland and England. A twisting desert, a desert having a bad dream, tossing and turning all through the day, trying to sleep as the sun falls hard all over it.

We sleep with no air conditioning. The old streets hold no reason only rhyme. Romans, jews and moors. We wander and tear vivid fotos from our eyes. Below the city, sitting in tunnels, the women flick open their fans, rocking their wrists back and forth, sending a breeze across their glistening faces. The wind in the subway, trapped, searching. The men talk quickly.

Picasso's Guernica looms huge in my face while I try to fall to sleep, until my face rearranges, my nose falling backwards, my eyes sliding downward, searching for the sky.

Tears held by long strings a windchime in minor key. We surround ourselves in it.

Walk and write, walk and write. Blink too much, squint. Everywhere graffiti, the good kind, the street poems, the molotov portrait stencils. Still nothing like London's Banksy, a hero, but still. Lay some ink down.

North African gypsy music on the streets, the smirking streets.

Madrid is La Habana without the neglect. La Habana is Madrid, hot. This, América Latina turned inside out. Or vice versa. Vice on the streets, the vivid streets.

The cop cars speeding through pedestrian zones. Children fleeing.

These notes while running. Reading more Galeano. Sitting at Garcia Lorca's bronze feet. My tongue remembering how it loves to move.

Old. World.

London, England Kicking and alive. Ireland was good. Words to come in the July NOISE. Spain coming. A lot more soon, check back.

London Gossip II They say if the ravens die in the fortress, the kingdom will fall. If they leave the tower, the same. So first, modern paranoia-- they clipped their black wings. Then, a postmodern twist-- birdflu spread across the world. So now, to protect a legend, the birds are kept inside.