On stage & the page
When Damien Flores was eight years old, a nun caught him drawing a gang tag on the back of his Jesus coloring sheet during catechism class. His mother and grandmother were summoned to the school office at San Felipe de Neri Church in Albuquerque’s Old Town — they received a lecture, and he was expelled. The nun did not think highly of his mother. “She said that she was divorced and was dating around. My mother cried so hard in the car on the way home, I thought we were going to get into an accident,” Flores said. His grandmother transferred him to St. Mary’s Catholic School. “Going from the Franciscans to the Jesuits meant going from Jesus coloring sheets to in-depth Bible study. The Jesuits are very studious, and that’s where I got indoctrinated in the spooky side of the church.”
This story is included in a poem Flores wrote that does not appear in his first full-length book, Junkyard
Dogs (West End Press, 2016). “The book was too long. Things got cut,” Flores told Pasatiempo while driving from Albuquerque to Dallas, on his way to support three poets who were competing in the Women of the World Poetry Slam. Flores’ book has many poems about his childhood, some of which are tinged with religion or what he referred to as his “Catholic trauma”; others take on the gentrification of Albuquerque; and some pay homage to the Hispano work culture of his grandfather’s generation.
The poem “Manuel Leyba Speaks to the Bulldozer” recalls an old joke, he explained. “People don’t remember it, but it’s ‘My name is Manuel Leyba but they call me Manual Labor.’ Or, ‘You don’t need to read a manual to fix things, because you’ve got a Manuel to fix things.’ ” In conversation with Pasa, Flores lamented the disappearance of mom-and-pop stores along Central Avenue and suspects that city
“YOU DON’T GO TO THE SLAM TO FEEL GOOD. YOU WANT TO BE ENGAGED, AND GETTING THE AUDIENCE INTO WHAT YOU ARE SAYING. I’VE SEEN BAD POETRY ON BOTH SIDES. SOME ACADEMIC POETS DISCREDIT THE WHOLE SCENE.”
Poetry: Damien Flores,
continued from Page 31 planners are intentionally trying to turn Albuquerque into another version of “Denver or San Antonio, with these posh shops and things like that. The identity of my home as I know it is going away. That’s the political end for me. I can’t stop it, but if I’m going to die anyway, I want to punch the guy killing me in the face.” Figuratively, he means — through poetry.
Flores teaches eleventh- and twelfth-grade social studies at Native American Community Academy and Chicana/o studies at the University of New Mexico, where he earned a degree in creative writing and Chicana and Chicano studies. Among his many poetry-slam-related activities, he hosts the Spoken
Word Hour on Sunday nights on KUNM 89.9-FM. Flores is a four-time ABQSlams City Champion, and he was named Poet of the Year in 2007 and 2008 by the New Mexico Hispano Entertainers Association. He got his start in slam as a teenager, through a program at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, in the months after his mother died of a diabetesrelated stroke, and he turned to poetry as a means of coping with his feelings. Hoping to further his craft while earning a college degree, he enrolled in creative writing classes at UNM, where “I jumped into a fire I didn’t even know was burning.”
He quickly found out that since slam’s emergence into the poetry world in the mid-1980s, academic poets have considered it a nonserious form, and it was not generally embraced by his professors and peers. “Some people called it the karaoke of poetry,” Flores said. Many of the critiques of slam concern its heavy focus on politics and personal identity to the exclusion of poetics. And there is also what Flores described as a “stereotypical” cadence to the performance of slam that can be overused, but that some academic poets simply find too aggressive. “You don’t go to the slam to feel good,” he said. “You want to be engaged, and getting the audience into what you are saying. I’ve seen bad poetry on both sides. Some academic poets tried to get involved in slam in the early days and found out that they weren’t performers, so they discredit the whole scene.”
Flores walks the line between the worlds so that his work succeeds on the page as well as on the stage. In videos that are available on YouTube, his awardwinning oratory style is relaxed and gently redolent of New Mexico even when he is yelling at the audience. He recently found the first poems he ever wrote, for a seventh-grade assignment, in his grandmother’s house, along with his baptismal certificate. She died recently, and in her honor Flores attended Mass on Ash Wednesday. “I just got my ashes and left,” he said. “There were too many people. The priest wasn’t talking loud enough and I got annoyed. But it was important to go for Grandma.”