gary whitford

Underscoring our colorful city’s arts like a caption below a picture, poetry in at least two languages and a thousand different styles flows through every neighborhood in San Antonio. In April, we harvest this wildflower crop with a month of celebrations, National Poetry Month in San Antonio. Activities are happening as we speak, so check out the calendar as you continue reading.

Six years ago, Jim Lavilla-Havelin and Jesse Castro scheduled a couple of readings, and since then, the celebration has grown “like Topsy.” This year’s celebrations include “La Voz de San Antonio” (a spoken word competition put on by City’s Department for Culture & Creative Development and Gemini Ink), Words for Birds at the Mitchell Lake Audubon Society (April 14), evenings with San Antonio Jazz Poets Society and the San Antonio edition of the Texas Book Festival (also on April 14).

Celebrating the Word Arts

National Poetry Month is so big in San Antonio, it takes at least six weeks to unfold. Some events happened in March, and – for the first time this year – will conclude with a “grand finale” on May 4 in Main Plaza. San Antonio has a yearning for literacy – Lahavilla-Havelin points out that we have university programs that offer community-minded poetry and writing programs, Gemini Ink providing a constant series of educational and celebratory events, weekly reading series at three or four Barnes & Noble stores, at least three independent bookstores (the TwigImagine Books and Nine Lives), small presses like Pecan Grove and Bryce Milligan’s Wings.

We have Blah-Blah-Blah slam poets and storytellers at Deco Pizza every first and third Wednesday reading without a mic and sometimes reciting without reading (also called “spitting”) or reading from their mobile devices – the host Jay Alejandro makes up for the lack of a p.a. by giving each poet a rousing introduction and post-performance cheerleading.

Blah Blah Blah Poetry Spot group
Blah Blah Blah Poetry Spot members. From left to right: Christopher “Rooster” Martinez, Diamond Mason, Shaggy (top), J Alejandro and Amanda Flores ready themselves before the first qualifying slam to send two SA poets to the Texas Grand Slam. Photo by Melanie Robinson.

Don Mathis leads a regular “Writer’s Walk” and annual picnic at the “Poet Tree.” There are groups of writers all over town, creating and performing nearly every genre of the literary arts.

“All of this said, poetry is not the easiest artform. We don’t draw the crowds we would hope. Much of the time these readings are poets reading to each other,” said Jim LaVilla-Havelin, local poet and KRTU producer. “That is something we’re trying to work on. Part of the mission of all of the National Poetry Month work and the collaborations with places like KRTU and Mitchell Lake Audubon Center and Vía (our mass transit system conducts a poetry competition and posts poems on their vehicles during April) – places where one might not necessarily see poetry – is to build audience is to promote more of a community around literature.”

Poetry on Jazz Radio

The first week of April has featured a jazz poetry series on KRTU’s noontime “Jazz Break” program, currently hosted by Kory Cook. LaVilla-Havelin helps produce the series.

“Poets write about jazz the way poets write about sports, politics, except that when they’re writing about jazz, there’s a certain inter-connectedness with the nature of sound. All poetry is related to music; rhythm and tone and meaning,” Lavilla-Havelin said. “Langston Hughes wrote poetry based on the vocal music, the sound of the voice coming out of James Logan Johnson and other people like that coming out of the black American poetry of song. That brought Langston Hughes to write (the classic poem) ‘Weary Blues’ and the African American jazz in poetry tradition is rich.”

Beret and Bongos

Jazz poetry entered popular consciousness in the late 50s as the Beat Generation turned on to the form.

“It happened before the Beats, but it’s easiest to lineate with the Beat Movement, where you have the classic stereotypical image of a beatnik in a café in either North Beach in California or New York with a beret and a bass player and a bongo drummer next to him,” Lahavilla-Havelin said.

“And it so happens that it’s at the same time as a real upsurge in free jazz. So you have people like (Charles) Mingus working with people who are writers.You have people like Ornette (Coleman) working with David Henderson. Some of this comes from poets who wrote about jazz actually showing their poems to jazz musicians. One could posit a smoky dive where Jack Kerouac finally walks up to the bandstand and says to Mingus, ‘Man, I’d like to sit in with you,’” Lahavilla-Havelin said.

One could argue that jazz poetry is one of the Beat’s most enduring contributions to popular culture. The San Antonio Jazz Poets’ Society, led by Eduardo Garza, has offered an improvisational combo ready and able to back poets. The group currently holds an “open mike” reading at Espresso Gallery on San Pedro Avenue every Tuesday. They will have a National Poetry Month concert of jazz poetry at Jump-Start Performance company April 28.

SA Jazz Poets Society consists of Garza on drums and flute, Carl Rush on bass and Efrain Garza on keyboards. “In six years, we’ve had more than 200 poets step up to the mike, including the late Mim Sharlack, Harold Warford, Cat Lee and “the Black Butterfly” Valerie Thibodeaux Mondy,” Garza said.

The music can be pretty raucous, but a poet with good performance chops can ride the improvisers like a surfer on a wave. “The poet known as Joyous Windrider can really take off on our music,” Garza said, “She does improv, and we work together really well. Amanda Flores can also work up a good groove with us. It really just depends on experience – when we’re listening to the poet and the poet is listening with us, it works really well.”

Live and Local alongside Historic Recordings

Valarie Thibodeaux Mondy
Valarie Thibodeaux Mondy, “the Black Butterfly” reads at Olmos Bharmacy. Photo by John Whipple

Lee and Thibodeaux appeared on KRTU’s Jazz Break Tuesday. Lee has worked with many local jazz musicians, including George Prado, Cecil Carter and Ron Wilkins. On Tuesday, she read a poem over a recording of local pianist Dorrie Woodson playing “Green Dolphin Street,” arranged to fit with the poem. Black Butterfly read her poems over a recording of T-Beaux, a percussionist. The Jazz Break jazz poetry sessions feature poets reading live as well as historic jazz poetry recordings. DJ and KRTU music director Kory Cook says the mix itself is an improvisation.

“The first thing to consider is the timbre and feel of the music chosen for the particular piece being read. Once the appropriate choice has been made, whether it’s an opposing kind of rhythm or melody to the words being spoken, or a match in tone and emotion, I ride the levels on the board and monitor all sources of sound while it’s being performed live. In other words, I don’t always settle on a mix, but instead adjust as the performance carries itself. Much like making music with like-minded artists in the same field,” Cook said.

Cook is a jazz musician in his own right, playing drums.

“Word and melody both often play like a reed or brass instrument in my stream, punctuating the ever-evolving yet still constant pulse. Deviations from the pulse, empty holes of silence, and spot-on notes all revolve around and play a role as the piece is being created, whether it’s a poem, a piece of music or a combination of the two. And in the end, it simply either works, or it doesn’t,” he said.

You can hear the Jazz Break series on the web by navigating to KRTU’s “Playback” page and clicking on the Jazz Break programs, broadcast during the noon hour April 1 – 5. Lahavilla-Havelin said the program manages to mix a wide spectrum of jazz poetry through the week.

“If there’s a theoretical mission behind a week of jazz poetry on the radio each year, it’s the interconnectedness, a longer arc. I love having live people doing poetry on the air, and I think KRTU loves it too, but at the same time that classic stuff, it’s all within one tradition and it’s important to see the whole arc,” he said.

You have words in your head from the time you wake up in the morning and echoing in your dreams at night. Take a moment to jot them down, or type them into a notepad on your nearest device. No one else was born in your skin, no one else has had your experiences. You have knowledge to share – make every word count.

San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford is half of Extraordinary Words, providing effective communications for business and non-profit development. You can find Extraordinary Words onFacebookLinkedIn and its website. You can read more of gary’s writing on his personal blogand by searching The Rivard Report for “Every Word Counts.”

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gary s. whitford

San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford is a partner in Extraordinary Words, providing clear, compelling content for business and non-profit communications. gary has lived in San Antonio for 2/3 of his...