Like any good, emotionally repressed person, I believe that people should not get any more specific in public about their problems than the words on the side of a Xanax bottle. Take two for...insomnia. Depression. Daddy didn't love me. Whatever's ailin' you. I was shocked, therefore, when I sat down for a nice, cold whiskey and Coke at Club Dada one Wednesday night and heard people opining onstage about the state of racism in America, domestic violence and the many moods of one's vulva. Much like the hokey-pokey, in slam poetry, that's what it's all about. (Clap, clap! Or maybe, the clap, the clap.)
It was "Slam Dada" night, and a man in the room was wearing a beret, I believe, on purpose. Like the wearing of berets, there are many inexplicable things about slam poetry. Like someone using the phrase "America, I want to butt-fuck you with an AK-47!" in front of children. But that's for later.
There are two rounds in poetry slam. First round, everyone takes a turn and has three minutes to recite his or her best verse. Five judges score them on a scale of one to 10, presumably because it's hard to quantify the scale that should be used, which ranges from "Who taught you to read?" to "Must Go Change World Now, Kthx, BRB." In the second round, the same thing happens, except the poets go in reverse order. Judges need not be poetry experts, merely interested bystanders. Or people with strong stomaches. Or deaf. Like stand-up comedy or barbacoa, when slam poetry is bad, it is bad. There's really nothing like hearing someone shout the words "auto-erotic affixiation."
Who was I to judge someone just because they didn't leave their angsty verses where they belonged, in dusty notebooks crammed alongside high school yearbooks? The word that appears most often in my column is "I." I am a navel-gazing expert. I have a doctorate in "My shit is more important than yours." So I put my listening ears on.
The Dada host called a guy named "Militant X Amerikkkan" up to the microphone. Short, round and bespectacled, there was little that was militant about Militant X, other than his Dead Prez T-shirt honoring the anti-establishment hip-hop duo. But his poetry? Downright sweet.
"Last night, I watched the sun rise on freshly fallen tears," he said, reciting verses about helping someone in a time of need. There were the requisite references to domestic violence and abuse, of course, but really it was about supporting a friend. Later, when I found the Dallas Poetry Slam on MySpace, Militant X responded. We met for coffee at the Nodding Dog in Oak Cliff. Well, I had coffee. Militant X had a militant glass of orange juice.
"I'm trying to speak for the voiceless, the dead and the past," Militant X told me, "trying to give them justice." His quest is in its 13th year now, and the Terrell native has advanced from hearing "mental word phrases" as a 6-year-old to coaching a Dallas poetry slam team in national competitions as a 37-year-old.
He told me of his prestigious accolades: getting kicked off XM radio and a University of Texas at Dallas broadcast. He has been made infamous, in fact, by a poem he wrote called "Booty Juice," which he performed after getting a coveted reading position at the erotic poetry portion of a national competition. "If you do anything like it," he tells me, "they ring a gong, turn the mike off and escort the poet offstage." This guy, with his orange juice, is supposed to be dangerous?
"I do not try to satisfy everyone," Militant X said, sipping his juice while wearing a crisp, striped polo shirt. He says he'll e-mail me "Booty Juice."
Every year, local poets rack up points at different slams to see who earns a spot on competitive teams. Militant X runs an open mike and a slam at the Soda Gallery in the Bishop Arts district with a guy who goes by the name "Rockbaby." He said I could come by and read a poem if I liked.
I was torn, believing that if you can't keep your emotions to yourself, you don't deserve to have them. And nobody's giving out the big points for poems about stable, middle-class childhoods. Lucky for me, a speeding ticket obtained the previous week gave me plenty of fodder for an angry rhyme.
See, I'd received the worst customer service of my life at a Volkswagen dealership, one named after a tony area of Dallas that rhymes with "shark titties," trying to get my oil changed. What was supposed to be an hour-and-15-minute in-and-out turned into a three-hour ordeal in which I spent a lot of time sitting in a chair reading intellectually stimulating back issues of Modern Luxury.
This put me leaving Shark Titties Volkswagen at around 3 p.m., which put me in the worst kind of mood to be in when one is driving through a school zone: the mood in which you're too angry to notice that you're in a school zone. My (highly deserved) fine could pay for a pair of Manolo Blahniks. Or a few hundred cans of Lone Star at the Double Wide, which is, for me, a more likely purchase.
As a freezing rain fell outside, I stood at the Soda Gallery mike about to rhyme the words "tariff" and "sheriff." There were laugh breaks and sympathetic snaps. I may not have been, as Militant X calls it, "conscious," and the only serious issues in my poem were about my seriously bad driving, but it was as close as I was willing to come to sharing my soul with people who wear berets.
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The Soda Gallery slam had only three contestants, a guy named "Drama" whose verses were told from the perspective of a Southern slave, a woman reciting love poems to her girlfriend and Militant X. His first poem was the sweet one, about the sun rising on freshly fallen tears. His second one, he said, was "A love poem to America."
I poised my pen to take notes during his reading.
There are a couple of half-executed scribbles before I finally managed to get down the phrase, "America, I want to butt-fuck you with an AK-47." That was about the same time that one of the poets grabbed his school-aged daughter by the hand and led her outside to take a refreshing break in the icy rain. I was shocked. I wasn't sure if it was the content or hearing those words in a place that sells every kind of delicious soda pop one could hope to swallow. I had never felt so square, at least not until a couple of days later, when Militant X e-mailed me the words to "Booty Juice."
I feel comfortable saying only this: The title of "Booty Juice" is not a metaphor. The poem is about the consumption thereof, and it ends with the words "Bon appetit!" I never thought I would learn to appreciate sweet, innocent angst, but I have Militant X and poetry slam to thank for it. Is your soul so, like, totally dark and black like the night? Tell me all about it. So long as it's got nothing to do with juice.