Mention the names Copioh, Roma, Rainbow or Enigma to a longtime Las Vegas hipster and you’ll likely get nostalgic recollections of the vibrant Bohemian poetry landscape that lived—and eventually died—in those smoky Las Vegas cafés. Shepherded by John Emmons, the city’s slam-poetry scene of the late 1980s to mid-1990s gave name to a number of notable locals, including Gregory “The Professor” Crosby (whose words are bronzed at the Las Vegas Poets’ Bridge and who now teaches English at the City College of New York), Metropolitan Police officer (and dynamic poet) Harry Fagel and Rodney “the Solitary Man” Lee (now a local high school teacher). In an exciting cultural moment for Las Vegas, coffeehouses across the city enthusiastically adopted open-mike nights as more literati embraced the events.
Saddled with a somewhat elitist reputation by those who didn’t get it, poetry is still a hard sell to the uninitiated. Initially, slam poetry aimed to make poetry more audience-accessible, employing highly edited verse-and-cadence pieces crafted to the very edge of performance art—more Eminem than Emerson. But regular readings attracted regular readers, and eventually slam poetry became a gated community of its own.
Perhaps the most notorious local poet is judge/attorney/former Tippy Elvis frontman Dayvid Figler. Credit his bottle-dodging Lollapalooza gig (main stage, performing directly before the Beastie Boys) for the notoriety; credit his wit, writing and performance skill for landing the gig that gave it to him. Still—despite Shane Koyczan’s inspired Olympics showing at Vancouver—for Figler and much of the literary world, slam poetry is soooooo 1995.
What has emerged instead is spoken word at its most basic: storytelling. The phenomenon actually began before slam poetry had faded, when Ira Glass aired David Sedaris’ “SantaLand Diaries” on National Public Radio in 1992. Slowly, storytelling events and festivals have grown in popularity, not surprisingly in the literate locales of Portland (“Back Fence”), San Francisco (“Porchlight”) and New York, home of “The Moth,” whose 1997 launch is considered the originator of modern live storytelling. According to Figler, who has witnessed or participated in dozens of formal storytellings nationwide, the events are logistically simple, taking place in theaters old and new, and requiring little more than “a mike, a person and a P.A.” Unlike poetry, storytelling is as old and natural as language itself, making stories inherently more accessible than poems.
“Nobody would—or should—bust out a poem at a cocktail party,” Figler says, and you can hardly argue the point. But few can resist telling, or listening to, a good story. Against slam poetry’s crafting, storytelling speaks rawness and exposure. Versus poetry’s universal messages, storytelling is a very local thing. Good storytellings reveal plenty of local color, and audiences are afforded a sense of place simply not available anywhere else.
Storytelling events are curated rather than open-mike, and often use a loosely tethering theme to provide a sense of continuity and comfort to a virgin audience. For instance, “Mortified,” a series that started in Los Angeles about eight years ago, includes adult participants reading—directly, unedited and without explanation or commentary— from their high school diaries. Few would have difficulty “getting” that.
Enter Las Vegas. Or, at least, it should. There is perhaps no large American city that could benefit more from storytelling than Las Vegas, where that intangible sense of place is what is often most needed. Las Vegas is, according to Figler, “an untapped reservoir of interesting stories from the ridiculous to the sublime.” Such local folklore was prevalent when Las Vegas was still a small town—until, say, the mid-1980s—but was shelved in the mad boom that followed. But shelved does not mean eliminated, and Las Vegas stories are unique, colorful and deep—much deeper than many may suspect. Real people with real stories live in Las Vegas, and a local storytelling series would go a long way to revealing, beyond the lazy clichés, who we are, why we are, and why we live how we live.
“If I can go to Portland [Ore.] and tell a story about Vegas and have it go over well, we should be able to do it here,” insists Figler, who told stories at that city’s “Live Wire” on Feb. 19.
Again, you can hardly argue the point. As for whom we are and why we live how we live, there may be no better time for Las Vegas to explore those very subjects than right now, while we still have time to breathe.