I've been doing some research among Latino writers
and I've concluded that
I could be a Chicana Poet
and serve up Latino food innuendo
by describing my tetas as melones
your cosa as un chile
my mother's milk as aguas fresca
my panocha as pan
si pan dulce

So begins Amalia Ortiz' "Chicana Poet," a poem that celebrates what she could be — if she weren't already a poet who happens to be Chicana. And when HBO's Russel Simmons Presents Def Poetry airs on July 12, it will feature, along with nationally recognized poets and performer Jamie Foxx, local girl Ortiz.

Ortiz' rise in national poetry performance circles began in 1999, at the outset of puro ¡Slam!, San Antonio's poetry slam. The upstart, year-old slam team took second in the nation at the national slam event in Rhode Island in 2000. For the uninitiated, "slam" is a spoken word entertainment in which competing poets stand and deliver for a roomful of rowdies, where randomly-selected judges dish out points (more for performance than poem, usually). Ortiz was the team ace in the hole, voted MVP of the slam team, and the win was a powerful climax to a summer which, for Ortiz, had started with some life-altering events, including her wedding.

When I heard that Amalia was flying to New York for the taping of an HBO special last fall, it was through a third party, and the details were sketchy. Now that the show is airing, catching up with her after a two-year break in communication is like trying to catch a VIA bus, always on the move, with me running one step behind. And VIA is something Ortiz knows quite a lot about. "Yeah, I had my car for a couple of weeks when I smashed it. Now I'm back to the bus," she says. To honor her ride, she composed "VIA bus bingo:"

San Antonio
downtown daily young and old alike
gather 'round bus benches on the corner of Soledad and Commerce St.
everyone anticipating that moment of winning
via bus bingo
68, 68, please God send me a
68, 68
Damn! 82.
'What number are you waiting for'
'...el #3 pal Centro Park Mall'

Spoken word, of which Ortiz is a master, is a combination of writing skills and performance skills. It requires a respect for rhythm, because not only does poetry feed off rhythm, but audiences do, too. The form is an excellent way of capturing snapshots of everyday life. People who attend slams aren't the same who might be pocketing a volume of Keats, and their lives are much more likely to groove to the bus ride than the Grecian urn.

a group of preppy pink tourists
drowning in the sea of brown faces
excitedly steps on to a trolley headed west toward
that quaint little market square
where they will purchase
authentic Mexican mementos like
ceramic chili pepper hotplates
or clay Aztec calendars

At 30, Ortiz has a gift for turning her real life, whether bus or business, into performance. She moved from the Rio Grande Valley to SanAnto to study theater at University of the Incarnate Word in 1990, and, like so many struggling artists, has remained to patch together a living through a succession of day jobs. Each of them provides fodder for the creative process, including her stint at a daycare center, about which she penned:

I poison tiny dreams
with Coltrane's "Favorite Things"
at naptime
I preside over
10 sleeping rug rats
lying on 10 plastic mats
and I play DJ
laying down the soundtrack
to infant fantasies

As a puro ¡Slam! grand champion for the past three years, Ortiz can tell you it's not all in the words. A dead microphone during the "live" New York City shoot meant the taping of "Chicana Poet" had to be done again, and the vibe the performer can get from an excited audience can't always be immediately reproduced. After her mic was switched, Ortiz gracefully segued into her second poem, called "Some Days," then minutes later repeated her delivery of "Chicana Poet" — to an audience that had already laughed at it once.

No matter: "Some Days" was chosen by the producers to air, in part because the emotional contrast to more riotous humorous works, which most performers featured. "I was a little bit nervous about the choice of "Some Days," but backstage (nationally recognized poet) Reggie Gibson told me to do it. He said some of what Def Jam was missing was real sensitivity. That it tended to be all ego MCs, lots of hip-hop and complaints, but no sensitivity," explains Amalia.

I watched
as Gramma stood for hours
staring out beyond a dusty screen door
sighing such a defeated sound
as if to say
this cannot be my life

The work might be familiar to some local audiences: "Some Days" is performed as part of "Women of Ill Repute: Refute," the evolving poetry/monologue/theater piece which Ortiz founded and directs. The group raises money for the Rape Crisis Center.

she would pace back and forth
back and forth
back and forth
teaching the caged bird that
having the option to leave
doesn't make leaving any easier

Backstage, Ortiz shared a flask of "maybe rum and coke?" with the star of the event, Jamie Foxx. When Foxx went out to perform after an hour of tippling, Ortiz says she was "amazed. He was great. It was incredible to see someone that drunk perform that well." The HBO taping took place shortly after September 11, providing Ortiz with an exciting and terrifying opportunity — her first national television stint and her first trip to New York City, where she stayed just off Times Square.

"I said to the bellman, 'You don't have any Mexicans in New York, do you?' And he said, 'No, but I'm Dominican, there's Puerto Ricans, and the guy in the bar is from San Salvador if you want to go down and practice Spanish.'"

click to enlarge cultfeat_amalia2jpg
Ortiz is sandwiched between other performers backstage at the taping.

Ortiz might have lingered longer in the Big Apple, but at the time she was appearing in Romeo and Juliet (as Juliet) here at home. A 6 a.m. flight the morning after taping whisked her to San Antonio in time for curtain, and away from a city that will no doubt find her again, some day.

Since the taping, Ortiz has performed between touring bands for the Def Jam music tour in Dallas, and had a near miss at HBO's touring version of Def Poetry Jam, for which a handful of performers were collected. (Ortiz was notified to expect a call, but when the final cut was announced, her name wasn't listed.) That production is currently retooling in California before taking a stab at Broadway, and Ortiz says, "There is talk of a tour with poets before the next election."

Back home in San Antonio, she's completed work as the lead on the film Speeder Kills, by local director Jim Mendiola. The film is scheduled to unveil at the Toronto Film Festival in the fall.

Some days
I let myself fall apart
before I can move forward

Or so she says. These days, it seems moving forward is all the future holds for Amalia Ortiz.

Friday, July 12
Sam's Burger Joint
330 East Grayson

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