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Damien Flores

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


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.”

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