“So, I’m very gay and very disabled,” slam poet Nathan Say jokes during a performance in the student union auditorium at UNLV on Nov. 4.
Say appeared as part of the UNCENSORED poetry series put on by UNLV’s multicultural programs office. Nadia Omar, the university’s multicultural programs director, is planning another slam poetry event for students in the spring.
“The goal is to have a series of local and national slam poets come and feature their voice, and talk about their identity in different ways, in an art form like poetry,” she says.
The native Hawaiian came to Las Vegas last year while touring and never left, because he just did not have enough money to go back to California. The exuberant arts community here was also an incentive to stay. Say is part of a network of poets that compete every year in the National Poetry Slam competition.
“People are amazed when they find out that Las Vegas is a hotspot for spoken word, poetry slam and competitive poetry,” he says.
Open mic and spoken word aficionados have found homes all over the Las Vegas Valley, including The Beat coffeehouse downtown on Fremont Street on Monday nights and at the Freakin’ Frog across from UNLV on Maryland Parkway on Tuesday nights.
Say leads the group Battleborn Slam every first Saturday of the month at the Downtown Project’s Learning Village on Fremont Street. His two-year-old group competed in the national slam competition this summer in Boston and made it to the finals.
But Say insists slam poetry is about more than competition. He says it’s about self-expression and social justice.
He performs poems about being gay, about his conflicted relationship with his religious family and about being disabled.
“So at 29, I still get awkward glances at bars, get looked at sideways when I ask a boy to dance, get rolled eyes when I ask a boy to fuck, get head-patted when I roll through a crowd,” he says, performing a piece called “I Wish I Could Tell You.”
“My body is as broken as I’ll let it be,” he says.
Another of Say’s poems, “How To Kill A Crippled Person In Six Easy Steps Just Because You Want To,” is about caregiver abuse.
“There’s no percentage or statistic that states what caregiver abuse looks like in our community,” he says.
As Say slams a poem he encourages audience member to participate with claps, snaps, oohs and ahs. And slam is a verb, he explains, not a type of poetry.
“The only requirements in poetry slam is that it has to be original work, and there’s no props and no nudity.” But, he says, “Slam artists do slam sonnets, and they do slam form poetry, like villanelles.”
His interest in poetry started in college when he used to defy the curfew at Brigham Young University in Hawaii to watch “Def Poetry Jam.”
“Their words were making me have an emotional reaction, and I had just been in this place where I’m a gay man in a Mormon school where I’m not being accepted,” he says. “I was really dead inside, because there was nothing I could relate to.”
“I literally thought before I came out that I was the only gay disabled person ever,” he explains. “I really thought that I was the only one.”
Since he moved to Las Vegas, Say has met plenty of queer poets and like-minded souls.
Contact reporter Wesley Juhl at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @WesJuhl.