Meet This Year’s Slam Feature: Joaquin Zihuatanejo

by Megan O’Reilly

What’s more fun than a poetry slam? Not much, as it turns out, which is why we’re getting excited for the 6th Wrightwood Poetry Slam. It will take place as part of the 2023 Wrightwood Arts & Wine Festival on May 20th. It’s hard to follow last year’s feature, the great Taylor Mali, but we’re up to the task this year with the renowned Joaquin Zihuatanejo.

Joaquin will teach a performance poetry workshop during the day of the festival, and then perform a set at the slam that night.

Drawing from Chicano culture and his childhood in the barrio of East Dallas, Joaquin inspires and entertains audiences with its unique blend of drama, comedy, energy, and sincerity. A National Poetry Slam Finalist, Grand Slam Spoken Word Champion, and HBO Def Poet, Joaquin has taught workshops and performed his one-man spoken word show all over North America and Europe.

My personal introduction to Joaquin Zihuatanejo’s work was through a Youtube video of his Ted Talk at University of Iowa. I was mesmerized, struck by the way his dynamic stage presence and unpretentious earnestness helped to bring the fascinating stories of his upbringing to life. With a wink and nod, he seemed to invite the viewer to share in his irreverent respect for his childhood and the experiences that have shaped him. It’s a pleasure to watch anyone succeed wildly and seemingly effortlessly at what they love, and Joaquin is surely a master of his craft.

It’s little wonder he was the 2008 Individual World Poetry Slam Champion (besting 77 poets from all over North America, France and Australia) and the 2009 World Cup of Poetry Slam Champion in Paris, France (besting 13 poets from 13 different nations.)

If you’re not unfamiliar with poetry slams, no worries–it’s a medium everyone can access and enjoy, whether expert or newbie. Slam poetry was founded in 1984 by Chicago construction worker and poet Marc Smith, as a way to rescue poetry from what he saw as snooty academics holding readings no one actually cared about. Smith turned the performances into a sport, with the poets judged Olympic-style by volunteers selected from the crowd itself. Scores are averaged, and poets advance through several rounds until an event champion is crowned. As a result, the poets have to work at actually entertaining and impacting the people who came to hear them.

You may have attended traditional readings at bookstores or coffee shops, but slams aren’t your mama’s poetry reading. They often take place at bars or small theaters, and the audiences are lively and engaged–think boos and cheers rather than polite applause. Historically, the Wrightwood Literary Festival’s poetry slams have drawn a large and enthusiastic crowd, and it’s so fun to feel the electricity and energy in the room as the beer and words both flow freely.

If you’re interested in performing, you can apply to attend Joaquin’s workshop or sign up for the slam at 7 p.m. The afternoon workshop is free to attend, but only 12 poets will be accepted.

Either way, we hope you’ll join us this year at the Wrightwood Poetry Slam featuring Joaquin Zihuatanejo. Whether you’ve been to one poetry slam or a hundred, we have no doubt you’ll come away entertained and enriched–and maybe even inspired to try your hand at your own slam poem.

Photo credit: Jessica Ewald

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