“Give it up for the poet!”
Applause erupts at PublicUs as the host behind the microphone keeps things moving along. We’re in the middle of Poetry Slam, an event that generally takes place twice a month at the downtown Las Vegas coffeehouse.
“Judges… three, two, one. Scores up! We’ve got six-point-three...seven-point-two… and seven-point-four.”
“Poetry Slam is a mock competition,” explains Bruce Isaacson, who watches one person after another grab the mic, baring their thoughts and emotions in front of both friends and strangers. “Poets get up and read their poems. Then the audience - in a sort of funny, mocking way - grades them all as if they were doing a dive in the Olympics.”
They’ll usually go through three or four rounds as part of the Battle Born Slam team, hoping to earn a shot to be sent to the National Poetry Slam, which in recent years has been in disparate locations like Decatur, Georgia and Oakland, California. “Having a slam team in your city is not something where two people say ‘What do we do tonight? Well, let’s create a Slam team.’ You have to be sanctioned, which involves paying certain fees, it involves having a certain number of Poetry Slam events, it involves meeting certain criteria for how many poets you’re going to send and what you’re going to do.”
Isaacson says the friendly showdown of art and speech is part of a national movement that’s been around since the 80s. He was one of the first “slammers” at Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York City and scored high as a finalist. “Since then, the movement has grown. It’s become huge.”
Isaacson sometimes reads at the Las Vegas events but hasn’t “slammed” since the 90s. That doesn’t mean he isn’t busy with poetry. He currently serves as the first Poet Laureate of Clark County. “They issued an open call in April of 2015 and I had an extensive application submission,” he recalls. “I realized that’s a platform where you can do good things for poetry.”
He was selected and handed a two-year term. His duties include hosting weekly workshops and organizing the Poets of National Stature reading series, which invites guest speakers from around the country to Las Vegas. They’ve included Patricia Smith (“a four time National Poetry Slam Champion, the most successful slammer ever. A really strong African American poet”), Sharon Olds (“A major poet out of New York City. More of an establishment academic figure but… very clear, beautiful, heartfelt.”), Michael McClure (“One of the original people beat reading at the Sixth Gallery in New York”) and Juan Felipe Herrera, the Poet Laureate of the United States.
“We’ve often had an active local poetry community,” Isaacson continues. “But the goal was to link it up with national trends, ideas and alternative ways of approaching that thing that we all do - which is the poem”
Isaacson was drawn to poetry as a child, when he wrote his first book called The Apple Man. It was about an apple of course. “My mother and I drew the pictures and we stapled the book together,” he recalls. From there, the youngster continued his writing as a teenager (“love poems to girls, that kind of thing”). He was a dual drama and economics major, went to Dartmouth’s Tuck School, and was a senior executive at Wharton Econometrics in Philadelphia “in an effort to get rid of the arts side” of himself, but realized he couldn’t shake it altogether. He focused on business and computer services and by his late 20s, found himself working back home in San Francisco.
Inspired by Henry Miller’s themes of wanting to be a writer in the business world, Isaacson hooked up with local poetry readings, often at Cafe Babar, a hub for the 1980s spoken word resurgence. “It had corrugated metal on all sides,” he remembers of the small venue. “The room was absolutely savage. No polite applause. No sensitive feelings. No simple nuance. It was screaming and yelling, and when the poet really hit a zenith of emotional outrage, feeling, lust or whatever they were describing, they would hit the wall - this corrugated metal on the wall - and the whole room would vibrate and the audience would go wild. It was a free for all. It was a melee. It was really fun.”
Isaacson founded Zeitgeist Press to showcase some of those poets and is still printing books today. “A lot of our poets were Jewish American,” he notes. “Because that’s my background... We all knew, loved and understood each other.” Zeitgeist continued after Isaacson relocated to Las Vegas in 1995. More than a hundred titles have been published over the years with more to come, including Clark - a compilation of poets in Southern Nevada that Isaacson says is leaving no stone unturned: “If there was a poet who I thought was important twenty years ago, I’d go out and try to find them and say ‘Hey come on, give us some work.’”
Isaacson will be turning his attention to another important project - a tribute to late author Elie Wiesel co-organized with the Jewish Community Center of Southern Nevada taking place on Wednesday, February 15, 2017 at 7 p.m. inside the West Charleston Library (6301 W. Charleston Blvd.) “It’s a celebration of his work and his life. He’s one of the most important authors of the 20th century for sure,” says Isaacson fondly of the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner. “He wrote about Jewish life before the war, during the war and after the war.” Wiesel’s work includes memoirs of his own experience in Auschwitz as well as poetry and fiction. “I love the work very much… His passing is part of a milestone of the World War II generation.”
Isaacson’s admiration of Elie Wiesel resonates with his own appreciation for the craft of writing and artists who use it to express themselves. “The impulse to share what you feel and put it down in writing, that’s eternal. That doesn’t go away,” says Isaacson. “It’s basic not only to people, it’s basic to freedom.”