DENVER — Some nights at Smiley's Laundromat on East Colfax Avenue, you can hear poetry over sloshing suds and the spin cycle.
As feedback squeals through an amplifier, a dozen would-be poets lean against vibrating washers, dragging on cigarettes and waiting to step up to the mike.
"I'm glad all of you could make it out," says Cameron Walter, 19, host of the Tuesday night readings.
A few bemused onlookers in the busy Laundromat stop folding clothes to look. They might not know it, but they are seeing poetry in its newest form--young, hip and happening in unlikely places.
Poetry is everywhere you turn these days--a few verses taped to a lamppost, shouted in cafes, on MTV and in the staid Denver Press Club.
While the packaging may be different, these "Generation X" poets--most of them under 30 and fed up with packaged entertainment--are walking in the footsteps of the Beat poets of the 1950s.
The poets tonight are black-clad--in faux fur, tie-dye and berets. One wears a neon orange cap with a Tide logo on it. Several others are decked out in mismatched thrift-store finds.
James Gonzales, a local favorite in his early 20s with black spiked hair and wild eyes, stands next to a soda machine and readies himself.
"Shower curtain theater!" he exclaims.
In pink dress, stiletto clacked on
a eurythmic block of head
neon pink and Mediterranean 3 o'clock a.m. haze
alley vessel echo mint melted mask
I cry my face off at night . . . "
Gonzales shouts over the rumble of washers, the ding of pinball machines and a television blaring "Roseanne." He finishes and the distracted gathering offers a smattering of applause.
As the night goes on, one poet laments the rogue she loves to hate; another curses his uncle's flea-bitten dog. A 4-year-old with his mother on laundry night sings "Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star."
The newsletter Poesis lists about 45 venues in Denver and Boulder offering everything from lesbian and cowboy poetry to a reading of works by the late Colorado Poet Laureate Thomas Hornsby Ferrill. And there are the many casual, come-as-you-are open readings and workshops at coffeehouses around town.
Some of the readings are raucous "poetry slams." Part performance and part "Gong Show," these sessions feature judges giving scores based on their own fickle vibes and on audience response.
At these gatherings, the poet faces howling, whistling patrons clanking their beer bottles and cheering. The spectators are prone to rapid mood swings.
The slam phenomenon began at Chicago's Green Mill Tavern in 1984. It is now the rage in 25 states, especially with the TV-bred Generation Xers looking for spontaneous entertainment.
Heckling is strongly encouraged.
"Please do not applaud a mediocre poem," said emcee Mari Christie at a recent slam at the Mercury Cafe.
Through the smoke that night, teen-age bards scribbled furiously in notebooks. But all eyes were on a wiry young man in a golfer's cap as he stepped up to the mike.
He spoke in a rapid-fire monotone, dropping pages to the floor as he went.
I keep on writing;
Hope someday I say something;
Honest and intellectual to someone.
I call myself an alarm clock;
To prove I'm asleep.
Henry Alarmclock, 22, is a regular on the slam circuit. He and Christie both have won Denver slams and have qualified for the national slam championship this summer in Asheville, N.C.
Christie likens slams to other art competition--Battle of the Bands, Comedy Sports. The fast pace keeps the attention focused, she said.
Critics say the slam is not necessarily every poet's forum.
"Ego, style identification, putting somebody up as No. 1 . . . poetry slams have all those things that Americans love, but really aren't conducive to community, inclusivity," said Cynthia Payne, who has read at slams.
Payne describes the scene as a melting pot, but it mirrors the Beat tradition of being mostly male.
"There's a friendly confrontation going on within the younger poets who are saying, 'Hey, guys, yeah, you're great, but there's another side to the coin here, and that's women.' "
In nearby Boulder, the Naropa Institute and its Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics are celebrating their 20th anniversary this summer with a tribute to Allen Ginsberg. "Beats & Other Rebel Angels" also features Marianne Faithfull, Philip Glass and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Naropa's Ivan Suvanjieff said that, much like the Beat poets, the new Generation X poets are outsiders defining life on their terms.
"Poetry is about looking for something real," Suvanjieff said.
"I think slams, these new forms like spoken word, it's all marketing to lure this new generation," he said. "They think back to high school teachers who get up there and bore people to death with poetry."
And with large crowds showing up at slams, what Ferlinghetti said in the '50s could be true today: "My whole kick has been oral poetry. The poets today are talking to themselves. They have no other audience. We're trying to capture an audience."