If a little boy and a little girl dreamed of growing up to be poets, where could they find a hero? Aren’t poets dusty old men in bowties with Mayflower names and high-pitched, monotone reading voices? Not any more. Poetry Slam is as much a physical performance as a literary creation. For seven years, Joaquin Zihuatenejo, of Denton, taught poetry to 6th through 12th grades in the public schools of North Texas, and that experience prepared him to win, last December, the 2008 Individual World Poetry Slam Championship. I caught up with him at the Embargo in Fort Worth on their open mic night.
Who can make a living as a poet?
I have to fill out forms for my daughter to go to school, and I had to put an occupation. I put down the word “poet,” and the person who I handed the form to looked at me and said, “Are you serious?” And I said, “What?” And she goes, “Poet – that’s your job?” And I said, “Yes. That’s what I do for a living.” And she goes, “How Renaissance of you.” And I was like, “Good use of the word ‘Renaissance.'” She goes, “I thought that was a hobby, like sewing or something. I didn’t know you could make a living at it.” I told her people make livings at sewing.
I can probably count on both hands people I know who are doing what I do – touring the country, going to colleges and universities, conferences and corporate what-have-you’s, sharing their work, teaching their work. I feel lucky. People tell me all the time, “I wish I could do what you do.” I feel grateful to be an artist and to be making a living as an artist.
Had you been on a stage in any capacity before you started doing your own poetry on a stage?
In high school I was kind of a theater geek, but oddly enough, more behind the stage. I think I got bit parts. But I was always just entranced with it. I got into creative writing, and we would have open mic and I would share my work there. Then it got to a point where I just wrote for me.
I’ve been in love with words my whole life. I was a journalism major when I entered college. I had this really awesome professor at UNT. She got to know me early on, and she was like, “You have a wife and child already. You’re young to have all that stuff.” And I was like, “I know, but we’re making it work.” She was like, “You do realize how this works, don’t you? Honey, when you get a degree four years from now, you’re not going to go work for the Dallas Morning News. You’re going to have to take your family to, like, Waco, doing the obits and the [least important] sections of the newspaper. You make a name for yourself, and then you move up to Lubbock. Are you prepared to do that?” I immediately said, “Hell no. I want to have control over where I live.” If I was single, if I didn’t have a wife and kid, I’d be like, “I don’t care, I just want to write.” But the thought of not having total control over where I could be scared the hell out of me.
After that first semester, I changed my major to English – I knew I was going to be around words all day. I had to declare a minor, and I thought teaching wouldn’t be bad, so I declared Secondary as my minor. This is how stupid I was: I’m in the fourth year of my program and I’m under the impression Secondary Ed is ninth grade through 12th grade. Secondary is sixth grade through 12th grade. My first internship was 10 weeks in a sixth-grade class, and I’m like, “What?! Sixth-graders?! What are they, 12?” It was horrifying to think I was going to be with 30 12-year-olds for 10 weeks. It was a baptism by fire. It only took me a couple of days to get hooked and think, man, this is an incredible way to make a living.
What made you get up on that stage for the first time?
I didn’t know that Poetry Slam existed. I was grading research papers; I was in about the fourth year of my teaching. It was late at night, and the words were starting to blur. It was time to push the papers away and take a break. I did something I don’t do often – I turned on the TV. It happened to be on HBO, a show called Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry. I thought, what the hell is this? I write poetry. I teach poetry. One of the poets came on and did a poem I thought was pretty good. The next poet came up and I thought, eh, that was OK, maybe the next one will be better. The next poet comes up, and he’s this very unusual looking character, kind of short, kind of rotund, kind of bald, he’s got on a shell necklace that looks too tight for his rather big neck. It’s 2 in the morning, I’m in my living room, and by the time he gets to the end of this poem I’m laughing so hard I’m crying. My wife comes running in from the bedroom, “Oh my God, are you OK?” She looks at me, she looks at the TV, she goes, “You’re an idiot,” and she turns around and goes back to bed.
At the end of the poem, it says the guy’s name and where he’s from, and it says Rock Baby from Dallas, Texas. I freaked out, I’m 20 minutes north of Dallas, I’m in Denton. I googled Rock, and the first place it said was the Dallas Poetry Slam – I didn’t know what that meant – but it’s an open mic. When I get there, it’s not an open mic. It’s a competition where you pick five people in a bar, you give them Olympic score cards and ask them to judge the poets. Someone could go up there doing a poem about their dead grandmother and someone could be like, “You know, I give it a three point two. He stuttered.” It’s really harsh. I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. I was going to read that night, but I chickened out when I saw that it was a competition. The next week I was prepared to chicken out again, and that’s when Rock introduced himself and saw that I’d brought a couple poems, and he was like, “You should read.” And I did. And I won. I went back seven weeks in a row after that, and I won the first seven I entered. This is in a downtown bar on a Saturday night and everybody has some spirits in them. And I thought, I work every day, eight hours a day, with ninth-graders and 11th-graders, 33, 35, 36 at a time in a room that only seats 25, and I try and sell them poetry. That’s what I do for a living. That’s hard – this is easy.
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When did you first realize you had a gift for writing?
In eighth grade, I had this teacher who really gave us room to be creative. We had this big project that we were working our way towards all year; for that project, I rewrote the entire last act of Romeo and Juliet. I made it a happy ending – they didn’t die. The poison got somehow mixed up with something else, some other elixir. The knife was dull. I actually tried to mimic Shakespearean English. It was crazy and ridiculous and beautiful. I remember thinking, I love putting these words on the page and seeing how they fall into place.
On top of that, I was a voracious reader as a child. My grandfather, who raised me, was a yard man. He would mow yards in Far North Dallas neighborhoods and work long hours, coming back just before nightfall, sometimes after nightfall. Sometimes he would bring what I call treasures; these are things people would throw out on the front of their lawn. One of the things he particularly prized was books. He would tell me, “When you read these books, you’ve got to realize, you’re there, and you’re not here. This isn’t a pretty neighborhood, and there are some really bad things that go on in our neighborhood, but if you read, you’re there and not here. The safest place for you to be is inside a book.” I got hooked on reading at a very early age, and it has everything to do with my grandfather.
The Individual World Poetry Slam Championship, quite possibly the most intense competition of its kind, was held just two months ago. How did that go for you?
I was lucky enough to win it. I’ve been in a lot of poetry competitions here in Fort Worth, here in Dallas, and then traveling with a team, but there’s nothing like that one event, because it’s different. Traditionally, a Poetry Slam is a Poetry Slam is a Poetry Slam wherever you go. This one’s different – instead of an evening competition, it’s a four-day competition. We start with 78 poets. From 78 cities. They all descend on one city. This past year it was Charlotte, North Carolina. I don’t just write slam poetry, I write poetry that I submit to anthologies and literary magazines, I write sonnets and haikus because I teach these things and think that they’re exquisite. You have to challenge yourself as a writer and I do that constantly.
I got to Charlotte and I competed. I was so nervous, I went outside and hung out with the smoking poets. Everything that I used was odd, and different, and it paid off. It so paid off. I wrote a poem for the poets who think they’re supposed to be critics, and it’s harsh – it’s not kind. I got about 20 seconds into it, and I could see half the poets in the room staring me down, but then the other half were up on their feet, stomping and screaming and hitting the back of their chairs, and it caught like wildfire. What’s he doing up there saying there’s ugliness in poetry? By the time I got to the end of it, there was thunderous applause. The scores came back. I had a perfect score. It was a perfect night. What could ever be better than that?
The Art&Seek Q&A is a weekly discussion with a person involved in the arts in North Texas. Check back next Thursday for another installment.