Jul 15, 2020
Today we’d like to introduce you to David A. Romero. David, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
My experience with spoken word poetry started with my college roommate Eduardo Virgen my freshman and sophomore years of college at USC. Eduardo exposed me to underground hip-hop and the artists Saul Williams and Sage Francis, who transitioned from being stars in the competitive world of slam poetry, to making music.
At events at USC and UCLA, I saw Mark Gonzalez and Mayda del Valle perform spoken word live. It was a profound experience. They were not only the first spoken word artists I had seen perform live, but they were also the first Latinx spoken word artists I saw, and they were speaking about Latinx issues such as language, colonialism, colorism, and racism.
My friend Eduardo found out about a spoken word venue on Fairfax and Melrose called Da Poetry Lounge. We started going every Tuesday. I was hooked. I started to write my own pieces and memorize them, but I don’t think I worked up the courage to perform on stage until after I graduated.
On my first night of performing at Da Poetry Lounge, I performed a very abstract poem, much in the vein of Saul Williams, about Latinx identity. The audience was confused by it. I walked away from the venue at the end of the night feeling defeated until a female African-American poet passed by and told me, “That shit was dope.” I didn’t understand it was a compliment. Previously, I had seen her perform amazing poems that rocked the crowd in the way I wanted to that night. I said to her, “Yeah, everyone in there was great.” She said, “No, you. You were dope.” I said, “Oh wow, thanks!” That gave me the confidence to go back to Da Poetry Lounge and continue performing.
One of the co-founders of Da Poetry Lounge, Devon “Poetri” Smith, took notice of me and invited me to join his workshop series. I was able to join his class free of charge. During that class, he gave me advice that has greatly influenced my career, “You’re funny. You should write more funny poems.” I wrote one of my first ‘hits,’ “Cheese Enchiladas,” a poem with a hook inspired by Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Piña Colada Song),” in his class.
In the course of starting an open mic in my hometown, I met Matt Sedillo, who at the time, hadn’t started writing spoken word poetry yet. He and I became friends because of our shared interest in poetry, films, and political theory. We’re also both proud Mexicans. Matt quickly became one of the most talented spoken word artists I’ve ever seen. We started to travel to venues together, gaining a reputation as some of the most active poets around.
My cousin, Sonia Romero, who was already a famous artist, allowed Matt and I to exhibit our first books at Avenue 50 studios. It was at these events that we met established artists such as Lalo Alcaraz, Gustavo Arellano, Ernesto Yerena Montejano and Gabriela Garcia Medina.
Besskepp, the host of A Mic and Dim Lights in Pomona (California’s second longest-running spoken word venue, after Da Poetry Lounge), started to offer Matt and I paid opportunities to perform, as well as opportunities to open for big name bands. It was through Besskepp that I was able to open for Ozomatli.
Opening for Ozomatli began a relationship with Lorena Marquez, a higher education professional organizing the event, who also opened opportunities for me to open for other big name acts such as La Santa Cecilia and Las Cafeteras in later years.
After spending some time in China teaching English, I returned to Southern California and the spoken word scene and Matt introduced me to a cultural center in Boyle Heights, Corazon del Pueblo. After some initial skepticism on their part, the organizers and artists affiliated with Corazon welcomed me with open arms. I performed at their open mic and even hosted it on occasion. It was a magical time in which members of Las Cafeteras and La Santa Cecelia and La Chamba and Tropa Magica played shows with poets such as Luis J. Rodriguez, and Matt and I, among many, many, others, and then jammed together at parties afterwards. It was incredible seeing all of these acts that were already touring nationally, and many on the cusp of doing even bigger and better things, all a part of an incredibly vibrant and active scene. For example, it was one of the greatest joys of my life to have performed poetry while the late Carlos Zaragoza of La Chamba strummed the bass at a party at La Mina.
Matt, Besskepp, and Darnell Davenport, aka Mr. Poetic, opened doors to start performing poetry throughout California. Often, we would perform together along with other poets such as Yazmin Monet Watkins, David “Judah 1” Oliver, Brian “SuperB” Oliva, Treese Powers, and William “Mc Prototype” Bissic, among many others.
Yazmin Monet Watkins made my appearance on the YouTube network All Def Digital possible. I was the second poet to be featured on the channel, with my video “Undocumented Football” (shot at Roosevelt High School). Clips from “Undocumented Football” were featured in a paid advertisement for the channel. It was the only poetry video featured in that commercial. Unfortunately, sometime before or after All Def Digital changed ownership, my video was unceremoniously dropped. I have since uploaded “Undocumented Football” onto my own YouTube channel.
A friend of my cousin Sonia’s, the nationally-touring poet Gabriela Garcia Medina, taught me a lot of the art of self-promotion and gave me a road map for booking national gigs. My first out-of state gig was in Maine, after that Florida, and Washington. Over the next few years, I charted a borderline obsessive course of spending nearly every waking hour sending booking emails to every Student Life, English and Ethnic Studies Department at every college and university in the United States I could find.
In the process, I have performed at over seventy-five colleges in thirty different states in the country. I think that’s some kind of record. Three or four years ago, I may have been the most successful touring poet in the country. It might sound ridiculous to some people, because my YouTube views have never entered into the millions, and I’ve never been in any national slam competitions, but I’d encourage any skeptics to go to my website and look at my schedule for those years.
I’ve been fortunate to mix my poetry in with workshops on writing and performance techniques as well as on social justice related topics such as hate crimes, police brutality, cultural appropriation, and the rise of the “minority majority” in the United States.
Three years ago, I decided I needed to give back and help the next generation of young poets. To that end, I started The Romero Scholarship for Excellence in Spoken Word. The scholarship is five hundred dollars of my own money donated to a graduating high school senior each year for writing a poem about social justice. The scholarship also factors in their scholastic achievements and social justice work in their schools and in their communities. The scholarship has been awarded to students in Los Angeles, Colorado Springs, and West Covina.
In the last couple of years, I have been focusing on compiling my work into my third full-length book of poetry, My Name Is Romero. The book was published this June by FlowerSong Press of McAllen, Texas. Like many things in my career, the introduction of my work to my publisher, Edward Vidaurre of FlowerSong, would not have been possible without Matt Sedillo.
We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
In my early days as a performer, I used to get incredibly nervous. In those days, I checked my stage fright by drinking a little liquid courage, either before the show or sneaking it in. I thought I was sneaky, but a lot of people told me they knew I wasn’t drinking water, coffee, or energy drinks. They could smell it on my breath and/or noticed my erratic behavior.
Alcohol may have given me the courage to get on stage and perform confidently, but it also tended to bring out my worst qualities, either in making me loud and unwilling to compromise for anything, or to be sullen and withdrawn. There were many times when hosts of venues would beg me to dump my drink, leave the venue, be more polite to others, etc.
My alcohol addiction was bolstered by my unresolved grief involving the death of my father to cancer. I mourned the loss of my uncle as well, who had died around the same time as my father, largely due to complications brought on by a lifetime of alcoholism.
After a second DUI and court-mandated counseling, I decided to get sober. I was tired of my reckless behavior and tired of the lies and the excuses I made for my drinking.
As I became sober it became easier to both make, and focus on, plans to advance my career as a poet.
Touring came with its own set of challenges.
Over the course of traveling, I’ve dealt with canceled flights, traffic, closed highways, having to wait for my luggage at the carousel instead of bringing it with me off the plane. Delays, you know? I’ve made a lot of mistakes that have cost me time and money. I’ve read the times on clocks and schedules wrong and missed flights. I’ve gotten lost in airports. I’ve left cell phone chargers and books on seats and had to double-back. I’ve had to go to the bathroom at inopportune times. I’ve booked the wrong date for a flight or hotel and didn’t realize that until I arrived at the airport or hotel. I’ve slept in airports and bus stations because of all of this.
I’ve been in situations where I was completely reliant upon using public transportation while it was pouring rain or in near sub-zero temperatures outside. These were also times when I had forgotten to pack, had been too stubborn to pack, or had already lost, items like gloves, sweaters, heavy jackets, extra socks, umbrellas, etc.
This is obvious to people who have moved to LA from other states, but for people who haven’t really traveled much out of the city or state, most of the country gets a lot colder than it does here. It takes some getting used to.
I went on a trip once with only $10 to my name after having paid for my flight and hotel. Everything had to go perfectly for me to ride two buses from PDX, into Washington state, and check-in to my hotel. Once at my hotel, I had to rely on the kindness of the receptionist to waive the fee for incidentals. There were cookies at reception. That was all I ate that day. I was incredibly lucky, as I have been many times during my travels.
Another time, I was in New Jersey after a show and had to call a taxi because Uber wasn’t available. The taxi driver who showed up was an extremely troubled individual. Over the course of our ride, through a remote wooded area, which he insisted was a better route than the more well-lit route the bus had taken to the university, the taxi driver talked to me about aliens, angels he claimed had visited his mother, and the coming race war he foresaw between Caucasians and People of Color. It can be extremely scary to feel trapped in a place where you don’t know how to escape or who to call for help if something goes horribly wrong. Fortunately, the taxi driver did take me to my hotel and the second he pulled up to the driveway, I left my fare on the seat and ran out of the taxi and into the hotel. He had wanted to talk to me some more.
One time in the mountains in Tennessee, police decided to question me on my way to a gas station from a hotel and then followed me back. I don’t know if they thought I was suspicious looking, were looking out for my safety, or were just curious because I was someone they didn’t recognize. In some of the small towns it’s hard to figure what’s going on. I often get the feeling that situations can turn dangerous on a dime.
I’ve definitely been heckled on stage. It’s never usually anything that offensive. My most serious confrontation was in Maine in which a student walked in with a red “MAGA” hat and started pumping his fist and chanting, “Trump! Trump! Trump!” I think there were others in the hallway, but they decided not to join him. After a while, I said to him, “Ok, you can go now.” To my surprise and relief, he did.
What happens more often than heckling is an audience already in a space being annoyed that I’m not their regularly scheduled programming. For example, I once replaced the regular trivia night in a cafeteria, another time, event organizers shut off a game of the World Series in a bar for my performance while the home team was playing. The audience wasn’t too happy. Fortunately, the home team had been losing by such a wide margin that many felt comfortable and ready to watch something else. Still, wow, that could’ve gone very badly.
We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
As an independent contractor and spoken word artist, I sign contracts with colleges and universities and/or they ask me to send them my own personal contract. My contract now includes a tech and hospitality rider, which requests things like rides to and from airports, posters made, interviews done, etc. I don’t take it too seriously. Some colleges and universities are wonderful and fulfill each and every item listed in the contract, while others, well, yeah…
I’ve gained a reputation for my professionalism. My press kit, price sheet, and sample contract are sent in my booking emails and are available in multiple places on my site. I make it easy for student groups and departments to book me and then to advertise the events. Despite all of the travel complications I mentioned, I generally arrive at my shows early, and with all of the equipment I need. I dress well, I practice my poems, am sober, before, after, and throughout my performance, and try not to start any problems with anyone before, during, or after the show. A lot of this is basic behavior among professionals, but among spoken word artists, it can be hard to find. Artists are often complicated, you know? I had my own problems for a long time. I get it.
As a performer, I’m known for being funny. I’m an entertainer. I pride myself in entertaining an audience. I want an audience to feel multiple things over the course of a show. People often use the word “accessible” to describe me. I have a way of breaking down very complex issues into ways general audiences can understand. My audiences often don’t agree with me, especially when it comes to politics, but sometimes, I am able to reach them. Sometimes they thank me for exposing them to new ideas or getting them to appreciate the other side of an issue.
Giving the scholarship out every year is pretty unique. A lot of poets are extremely active in the community, but many do not have the chance to donate a portion of the proceeds of their performances to something like a scholarship. Putting the documents together, getting the word out, it all takes time. It’s worth it though. When I read those poems, and those applications and think about how talented and how genuinely good these young people are, it moves me to tears, sometimes. I mean, that’s corny, but it’s true.
I think I’m most proud when I come across people I’ve taught in workshops, years later, and they told me I’ve changed their lives. One student out of a poetry workshop I did in Ontario, told me my workshop on family objects and identity motivated her to write a poem about her brother who was murdered due to gang violence, and that opened a discussion between her and her brother about it and allowed them to finally heal. It’s really incredible the power that poetry has. I know poetry has changed my life. It’s still surprising to me that I can teach it and it can have such profound and positive effects on the lives of others.
So, what’s next? Any big plans?
I would like to go on a massive tour to promote My Name Is Romero. Break my records for the number of colleges and universities, and states, visited, during a fiscal year. However, COVID and quarantine may have their way, so virtual performances and workshops might be in the cards instead.
I’ll be focusing on generating as many sales, interviews, and reviews for My Name Is Romero as I can. The energy I once poured into booking shows, I am now pouring into this, except, for the moment at least, I have a day job.
I am also slowly working on a fourth book of poetry, Diamond Bars 2, a sequel to my first book. That book will be focused more on travel and what it’s like to return to one’s hometown after one has seen much of the larger world.
I envision a fifth book, tentatively titled, The Latinx Giant, that will focus less on Mexican identity, and will be about more of a Pan-Latinx identity throughout the United States. I think it could be really interesting. A lot of people out there really could use a “crash course” on Central American history and culture, for example.
I hope to continue making poetry videos and submitting them into festivals as short films. I would also like to collaborate with a group of musicians on a full album of music and poetry. I have a couple of groups in mind. I don’t want to say who. Wouldn’t want to jinx it. I’ve done that too many times.
I’m planning on reaching out to literary journals in Mexico, Canada, England, France, and Australia, for starters. From that, who knows what’s possible? My Name Is Romero could be a game-changer.