If you want to hear poetry on a Friday night in the San Joaquin Valley, stop by Howie & Son’s Pizza Parlor in Visalia.
You’ll find us in the back room, by the video game machines.
This isn’t your standard poetry reading. It’s poetry slam, the competitive art of performance poetry. We write our own verse and then deliver it, forcefully and in our own distinctive style.
I started organizing the Friday slam about a year ago because there was nothing like it in and around Visalia, where I was born and raised and where I still live. I’m attending the College of the Sequoias right now, working toward a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s in creative writing.
I’m only 19, but I’ve been involved in poetry for as long as I can remember. I started writing poetry in the eighth grade. (Before that I wrote my own music.) In high school, my English teacher, Melissa Link, introduced me to poetry slam.
But to compete in slams, I had to leave town. There are great groups around the San Joaquin Valley—the Inner Ear Slam in Fresno and Pierced Ear slam in Stockton—but that’s a long way to drive. So I decided to find a cheap place in Visalia that had enough space for a slam and would work with my budget.
Howie & Son’s gave me a deal on the pizza parlor’s back room, with light and sound equipment for the entire night. And they offer food and drink service to our audience members. The back room is just past the bar and kitchen and can seat up to 60 people comfortably. The room has brick walls on all sides and is dimly lit—except for the stage area, which is only large enough for three people with equipment to stand on. It seemed small and intimate, the sort of place where the old Beatniks read poetry.
I run my slams every fourth Friday of the month from 6 to 10 p.m. The entry fee is $5. Competitors sign up on our Facebook page. The top performers get a cash price (paid out of the entry fee) and free pizza.
The slam has been growing. Today, on average, we have about 50 people show up a month. I’ve learned a lot—about my community, which has supported the slam (thanks particular to the local arts consortium), and about other poetry slams, which have been very cooperative. It’s fun to put these together, but I don’t know how long I’ll do it; I want to devote more time to building a career as a poet. I’m hoping I can grow the slam to the point where it doesn’t need me around to run it.
A slam earlier this summer was one of the best turnouts we’ve had. The room was full, and we had 12 competitors, including some first-timers (always good) as well as a guest performer from Fresno named Scurvy. The best part of the night is when a poet delivers a great performance, and the audience erupts at the end of the poem.
Michael Jasso is a poet and student at the College of the Sequoias. He wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.