What Turning 21 Means in Poetryland, plus Matthew John Conley on Trinidad Sanchez Jr.

Trino Mural AustinAlbuquerque’s long-standing monthly Poetry & Beer series is finally old enough to drink–LEGALLY. What does it mean when a poetry series has been around 21 years? Is that even comprehensible? Month after month, decade after decade, feature after feature, with a century-spanning open-mic list, and the slam slam victorious slam slam, shifting from venue to venue (even one that burned down), and all the while poets keep coming back with new poems, audiences show up, hosts cheer the poet, organizers make next month’s flyers…

I asked Matthew John Conley, poet and former ABQ slam team member (first team), to respond to the upcoming birthday bash for ABQ Poetry & Beer and write about a connection formed at the event and slam. He wrote about Trinidad Sanchez Jr.

“Trino! We’ve already got a great idea for a group piece! We’ll take your poem ‘Let Us Stop This Madness’ and while you speak the poem, we’ll read off the accompanying list of names of children killed by handguns in Detroit in 1987!”
“I don’t know.”
“Why not? We’ll memorize the list of names, it will be powerful and great!”
“Regina and I are moving back to San Antonio in two weeks.”

We were stunned. The first Albuquerque national slam team, maybe our second practice, and already we were encountering a major trial. Trinidad wondered if he should quit the team, and we wondered how we could pull off a group piece written by someone soon-to-be living a thousand miles away. But in the end, we decided we would try. It is an important poem and we wanted to give those dead children a voice that had been taken away from them.

And when we picked him up at the airport in Ann Arbor, and flawlessly recited from memory the list of names in the car, we all knew it would work. It would ROCK. In an extreme instance of gumption, we agreed to save the poem for semifinals. I don’t know why we thought we would make it that far in our first year, but we all had confidence. It almost didn’t happen. We lost our first two bouts pretty badly, but due to the small number of teams back in 1995 we just barely squeaked into the next round. We spent the entire next day practicing the poem, balancing our voicing of the names to be softer when Trino was speaking, louder when not. I would say the last name (“Morgue No. 918”; they never identified that young person) and then after the shortest pause we’d burst into a repetition of “LET US STOP THIS MADNESS,” all our voices ringing out in cacophony as we exited the stage.

It completely devastated the crowd in the Michigan Theater that night; they gave us a lengthy standing ovation and from the poets, a lot of serious admiration. Albuquerque had made a major impact in its first year at the Nationals; we didn’t advance to the finals, but the organizers asked us to christen the Finals Night stage with our group poem. It was a major victory, and maybe something that a lot of people have forgotten: Trinidad and his powerful piece were instrumental in putting the Duke City on the national slam map. No one took us for granted after that. . .even more importantly, it is a poem that still has relevance. Trino’s passion and spirit were monumental in fueling the Albuquerque slam tradition of excellence that continues to this day.

-Matthew John Conley

(formerly ABQ/ now Tucscon)

Matthew John Conley at the Dingo by Noel Franklin from Last CallHere  Matthew is shown performing at Poetry & Beer at the Dingo by Noel Franklin for part of her comic series Last Call #1: America’s Great Gone Music Venues.

The history of slam in Albuquerque is strong and compelling, even deserving  an allusion to the movie Jaws in the title of the book documenting the movement here, A Bigger Boat: The Unlikely Success of the Albuquerque Poetry Slam Scene. The slam arrived in January 1995 at Jacks (the slam Trino won), but Poetry & Beer actually first launched in Oct 1992 by Jim Riley at Beyond Ordinary and was quickly joined by Juliette Torrez. The series swiftly moved to the Dingo Bar, soon enough embracing the slam, for a good ole long run.

Now Eric Bodwell and Don McIver are working on organizing a 21st birthday bash for Poetry & Beer on Oct 4th, 2013 at Low Spirits. (The regular series takes place first Wednesday of the month at Blackbird Buvette downtown). For this special anniversary celebration, they hope to bring back some of the people who were formative in creating the series, as well as people whose performances in the early years tore the house down and established the foundation for this ever-growing ‘burque legacy. As with all events, this takes effort behind the scenes, and it takes funding. In this case, there’s a need for some plane tickets. So Don and Eric set up an indiegogo fundraising campaign and I encourage you make a contribution if you can. Anything. Ten bucks or twenty or fifty, whatever is in your coin jar. Good things that happen in our city shouldn’t be taken for granted. We are lucky. We can’t let anniversaries like this pass without giving them due celebration, without saying thanks.

Poetry & Beer, like most literary events, is a lot bigger than any particular show. It’s people. The way we come together and fall apart and rejoin. We impact each other’s lives. And this is powerful and lasts.

The same day Eric Bodwell asked if I could write about Poetry & Beer, I read a facebook post by Matthew John Conley acknowledging that this Tuesday, July 30th, marked the six year anniversary of Trinidad Sanchez Jr.’s passing, a date he’d marked annually with letters of gratitude to Trino’s wife Regina (also now recently passed). In a comment, Matthew also posted the image of the mural above, which I believe is from San Antonio (though there’s one of Trino at the Mercury in Colorado also). Do you see what I am driving at? While whatever crazy (or quiet) poetry event is happening, we form connections that last… we figure out how to grow and we learn how to be alive.

When I mentioned this article and Matthew’s contribution to Mitch Rayes, he told me that one of the best things about an archival recording he has of Trinidad reading at Back Door Music is the sound of Matthew’s laughter in the background. Another friend I spoke with who remembers the poetry scene in the 90’s talked about how the events at the Dingo always got more than just poets in the audience, how many types of people showed up and different kinds of events happened there, saying, “Miguel*  was an interesting cat.” *[Corrigan who ran the dingo]

Personally, I have never used the phrase, “interesting cat,” except in regards to my tabby Sparrow, a cat who I once suggested judge a slam at the Dingo because she would only purr for ancient Greek or good poetry rhythms in English but not for prose or flat intonations or laundry lists…

Interesting cats. Discerning cats. Literary cats.

Mark your calendar for Oct 4 at Low Spirits, and in the interim, chip in a few bucks to the Indiegogo campaign to make this event happen. Even if you’ve never met the people who will be flying in for this reading, chances are that their work and poetry built part of the foundation that allowed you to meet someone in your life who really matters to you now. Or perhaps you’ve simply been enjoying the books written by people who stood on that stage, like Trinidad’s Why Am I So Brown.

See you Oct 4.

–lisa gill