Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Poetry in Motion

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Poetry in Motion

Article excerpt

Queer poetry slams break new artistic ground with a rowdy celebration of our lives.

When Alix Olson tours on America's thriving poetry slam circuit, she usually leaves "Vagina Poem" at home. The spoken-word paean, a gyrating rhyme in three minutes' time celebrating the luminosity of the labia blessed, can be a bit much for the average Joe.

"They wouldn't have gotten it," explains Olson, 23, current OutWrite national queer poetry slam champion and a major presence on the slam circuit. "At the national level my [references to] gender and queerness are much more basic because a lot of people aren't necessarily going to identify with me. I don't want to lose them just to make a point. In that case, I see it as an educational tool. But I'm much freer in a queer setting."

A cross between a religious revival and a soccer championship, slam competitions heat up fast: It's the ear-popping, pulse-propelling energy between the poet and audience (and between the audience and the judges) that makes the events so explosive. And it's one reason why queer slams are becoming white hot among lavender youth.

"Slamming was a way for me to come out," confesses Filipino-American slam sensation Regie Cabico, 28, a soft-spoken man with a likably loud presence and one of the slam scene's most celebrated veterans. "When I'm writing I can't really lie. I can't make he into she."

Not that Cabico encountered any homophobia by being straight-up and queering his pronouns. His first openly gay performance in a predominantly hetero crowd proved to be a cinch. "Nobody bashed me," he says. "They really liked it." So if there's such acceptance by straight audiences, why have gay slammers forged their own competitions, such as those held each year at the gay and lesbian writers' conferences OutWrite and Lambda Literary Foundation's Behind Our Masks?

"I was recently asked by a black woman, `Why have a queer slam? Why separate?'" Cabico recalls. He responds, "I need to come together and hear what other queer people are doing."

OutWrite slam founder Lisa King agrees: "There are all these outstanding queer poets who should be exposed to their own people, people who get the references."

To which Olson adds, "If you're just out there doing your thing but not involved with other people, then there's no way to build a political movement. Whereas if you go out to other states and then return to a home base, it's a reinforcement experience."

Originally a predominantly heterosexual pastime started in the mid 1980s by Chicago poet-construction worker Marc Smith, slamming was always intended as a forum for the masses.

Anyone with anything to say is given three minutes to wow a group of judges randomly picked from the audience. The competitors are then scored on a scale of zero to ten--up to five points for the poem and five for performance.

"The national scene is interesting because for a long time there weren't any queer people," says Olson at a Manhattan cafe, her brazen, combustible stage persona giving way to a self-effacing, awschucks charm. "It seemed very straight, very white, and very male-dominated because states like Texas were sending their poets, and their poets were straight white guys who'd just go to bars and read their poems. It wasn't this diverse thing, like in New York."

A member of Manhattan's Nuyorican Poets Cafe slam team since 1997, Olson has already seen the team take the 1998 national championship. …

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