"Return of the Poet" by Jason Sanford

(Originally published in Siren, July 2000)


Try this as a Cinderella story: It?s early April, late night, at a poetry slam in the smoked-out Titanic Lounge of Kieran?s Irish Pub. Xavier Cavazos settles into a chair as poets from across the Twin Cities prepare to compete for spots on the local slam team. Few people know Xavier. He?s new to the area, only moved here a few weeks back.

"You?re a tattoo artist, huh?" a drunk guy beside him asks. "Been to any slams before?"

Xavier nods. He?s been to a few.

Poetry slams have been described as lyrical boxing matches, a contact sport where poets compete against each other in voice and style to the rhythm and words of the world. As the poetry starts, the audience around Xavier flashes between quiet listening and excited cheers. Big things are expected from this slam team. They made it to the semi-finals at the nationals last year and are a good bet to go all the way this time. Most people have already picked out their favorites to be on the team?poets they know from the local scene. No one expects any surprises.

Then up walks Xavier. His body is stocky, built, with intricate tattoos of warrior faces and playing cards along both arms, tattoos that catch the spotlights in bursts of reds, blacks, greens. He picks up his microphone, spreads his arms, and speaks:


Crisco never felt like it felt when
Anna Marie put it on me
The manteca would just melt in
Her handslike summer
I never understood why that never happened
When mom put it on

My hair needed a lot &
Anna Marie knew it
Knew how to squeeze the lard just
Right between each hair &
The hair after
Knew how to comb it just right
With her thin fingers

Knew just right
How to make a boy worship a can

The crowd screams. The judges give 9s and 10s. By the end of the night Xavier Cavazos is on the slam team.

Cinderella story? The audience certainly thinks so. But for Xavier, tonight is merely a return of sorts.

You see, Xavier split the last decade between Seattle and New York working on his poetry and life. Along the way his poetry won numerous awards (including the 1995 Nuyorican Poets Cafe Grand Slam), was published in several big anthologies, and attracted the attention of such notables as Allen Ginsberg, who became one of Xavier?s friends and mentors.

"Chess, poetry, and discus throwing are all the same," Xavier says of his work. "They all involve poetic movement."

To this add tattooing. For Xavier, who works at Absolute Tattoo near the U of M campus, tattooing is simply another version of poetry. "Tattooing is interactive, not at all like painting on a canvas. A lot of times how a tattoo turns out depends on how geared up the person getting it is."

Which gets us back to his poetry.

Knew just right
How to make a boy worship a can

If you want to understand Xavier and his poetry, you need to know about his trip to Thailand in early 1994. "It was a life-changing moment," he says. "Made me see things so clearly for once."

It all started while Xavier was on a west coast poetry tour with Allen Ginsberg. Navarat Pongpaiboon, a master poet from Thailand, heard Xavier?s poetry and introduced himself. Unaware of Navarat?s reputation, and only knowing him as a fellow poet who needed to see the local sights, Xavier took him on a tour of the Oregon coast. Afterwards, Navarat said he?d bring Xavier to Thailand.

"I didn?t think anything of it," he says, "just like, sure, whatever. But a month later this package arrives with roundtrip tickets to Thailand and a six-week itinerary of poetry readings."

During this time, Xavier performed his poetry across Thailand. He also got to know Navarat and his traditional beliefs?a simple way of life even most Thai people reject.

"He lived in this traditional Thai house with no electricity, window screens, or running water," Xavier says. "He believed in a simple life, not at all like the way Bangkok was getting built up with traffic and giant buildings and all."

When Xavier returned to the United States, he found out he?d won the Nuyorican Poets Cafe "Fresh Poet" award. This was the start of fast times for Xavier?he read all over the city, was the captain of the New York slam team, and became a poetry celebrity.

However, the pressure to produce new poems, and the cliquish literary atmosphere Xavier found where ever he went, began to burn him out. He started avoiding readings and seriously abusing drugs and drinking.

Life bottomed out when Xavier?s friend Allen Ginsberg died. In the weeks before his death, Xavier hadn?t known the severity of Ginsberg?s illness. Instead, Ginsberg had been the one worried about Xavier.

"Shortly before (Ginsberg) died," Xavier says, "he came over to my place and told me some people said I was getting in a bad way."

Xavier tried to downplay his drug use to his mentor by mentioning Ginsberg?s own reputation for drugs. However, the old poet merely smiled and said he hadn?t partied at much as people thought he had.

"He then punched me with what little strength he had and said, ?When it snows in your nose you catch a cold in your brain.? That really stuck with me," Xavier says, smiling.

Barely three weeks later Ginsberg was dead. Xavier was so shaken up he eased off the drugs and retired from the poetry scene. When a poem of his was accepted into the Best American Poetry 1996 anthology, he refused to allow it in. "That kind of academic scene just wasn?t where I wanted my poetry?and myself?to go."

Eventually, he decided he needed a complete break from the old life, so he moved to the Twin Cities, where his sister lived.

Knew just right
How to make a boy worship a can

These days Xavier is practicing a more simple life, perhaps not like the one Navarat Pongpaiboom lived in Thailand, but simple nonetheless. And despite all his success, Xavier feels that he hasn?t accomplished very much. He sees himself as the weakest member of the Minnesota slam team, and dreams of returning to Thailand to explore more of himself there.

Xavier is upbeat about his return to poetry. "I got out of (performing my poetry) because I was a bitter person and I didn't want to reflect that in my poetry. But I've got things worked out better now, and that's good," he says, laughing. "I mean, the last thing the world needs is another bitter poet."