‘Slam Poetry is a confrontation that is intimate, theatrical, and a gospel sermon’: An Interview with Regie Cabico

Regie Cabio at the Boots Bows and Rainbow Ties Gala, 2019, at Texas Tech University

Regie Cabico is known for at least two things: his theatrical slam poetry and being known as the “Lady Gaga of spoken word.” Slam poetry is something Cabico holds dear to him: he has been awarded high-ranking awards at the National Poetry Slams and has been named Nuyorican Poets Cafe Grand Slam Champion. Cabico has used his passion for poetry to found Capturing Fire, a Queer Word Slam, based in Washington, D.C. For this interview, Cabico and I talked about two notable slam poetry pieces, “He’s Gonna Fuck Him” and “The Mango Poem”, intersectionality, and the influence and meaning of his work over the years.

We recently published four new poems by Regie Cabico; read them here.

You have been a Nuyorican Poets Cafe Grand Slam Champion and won top prizes in several National Poetry Slams. How did you feel upon receiving your first award? Were you surprised? 

My poetry career jump started with the Poetry Slam. I knew winning the poetry slam would get me on tour at Lollapalooza with the Beastie Boys and Smashing Pumpkins and George Clinton. If I could win the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, I could do the National Poetry Slam, and I could get a short video on MTV. 

In a time where there was no direction in my life, Poetry Slam was my North Star. It gave me an audience, I met incredible poets and I took intense workshops to be better. The night of my Poetry Slam finals I wrote a bad check to pay to Macy’s for the boots I wore. I had to win the slam to pay for my boots.

In 2010, you founded Capturing Fire, an international queer poetry summit and slam, with the intention of creating a queer community for artists. Has it accomplished what you aspired for it to do?

Capturing Fire started as a result of so many factors during 2009, among them the second Split This Rock Festival and the rebuilding of the Poetry Slam community in Washington, DC. I really wanted to be in a city with an active Poetry Slam community, and I wanted to create an intergenerational Queer Slam to preserve my own history but also to create international and national networks of queer slam poets to find voice. 

After almost 10 years of Capturing Fire, I have started to publish books, Capturing Fire Press. I really feel that leadership of Capturing Fire should come from a young trans queer poet. We have had to postpone this year’s Capturing Fire because of this pandemic, which offers some time for me to replan and revise what Capturing Fire could become. 

In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, referring to the power of poetry, you talk about “[t]hings that you could never tell your mother, things you could never tell your father, and a lot will come out.” 

You can’t write to please your parents or your family. Where’s the danger in the poem? How much of a risk did I take by writing about this moment? Why do we even care? What am I dying to say and who am I now, in all my flaws and glory? Who am I today, now? 

Poetry is intense feeling plus imagery. It’s a lifetime struggle as a poet.  

An age-old question but I have to ask: What do you feel the difference is between slam poetry and written poetry? Which do you prefer and why?

Slam poetry has an intense, up-against-the-wall moment. It is a confrontation that is intimate, theatrical, and a gospel sermon. I write slam poetry and I write “written” poetry. Certain poems will slam well others will not. 

It is a gift when I write a poem or when a poem passes through me onto the page. I like writing in experimental forms as well, but the slam poem is a gift because it’s got the power to go viral. The slam poem gives me permission to perform in front of an audience and channel a new part of me. It gives me something that needs to be belted out live. It is a show tune Broadway showstopper. 

Watching your performances, I do notice very theatrical perspective! One of my favorites is “He’s Gonna Fuck Him.” It is dramatic and humorous at the same time. As a poet who has taken acting classes, what might you say the most valuable thing you learned from them is?

I am so happy you like “He’s Gonna Fuck Him.” It was painful at the time, but pain makes great comedy and you’ve got to be able to laugh at yourself. It is a poetic soliloquy and I am proud to say it was selected [to be included] in Monologues for Actors of Color, so the fact that some possibly queer Asian acor might perform this piece for their audition really excited me. Cause Lord knows there were no monologues for me to memorize except The Tea House of the August Moon … asian male broken english bullshit role… I learned that acting requires empathy, but also that the acting world is inherently racist in its lack of consideration for actors of all identities. So that fueled my early writings.  

You could say the world was a much different place in the ’90s, when you entered the slam poetry scene, and as we have progressed, we see an increase in acceptance of diversity. If you agree with that being the case, do you think it’s affected the way your work is received? 

I have had to redefine myself over the several decades. Being Filipino and Queer, the child of immigrants in America is the prime source of my poetry work as a writer, performer, and as an event curator and publisher. I believe in using humor and going into the guts of a poem.  

After the initial immersion as a Queer Asian poet, I have tried experimental, surreal, romance and love, isolation, and loneliness, among many other themes. Now I feel more than ever to be politically charged—not to represent my own identities, but for the civil liberties of trans, gender-nonconforming, undocumented immigrants, as well as the misogyny and terror the crrent administration triggers on a daily basis. 

I recently performed an early poem, “Game Boy (What Kind of Guys are Attracted to Me)” in Paris at Le Cabaret De Poussière. The translated text was projected behind me and the poem worked. The Francophones got my message.  I’m fortunate that the early poems still hold up with minor updates on cultural references. I am not the 23-year-old, skinny brown boy that wrote the poem, but I am still angered and I can perform the poem with truth and humor. 

Lady Gaga is known as an empowered woman who is wonderful at her craft and known for constantly making statements, whether in music or in fashion. How does it make you feel to be referred to as the “Lady Gaga of spoken word”?

I was flattered to be given this title, when Tamiko Beyer asked what poet has the same  power as Lady Gaga to stir and move and entertain audiences in the literary community.  At the Asian American Literary Festival, I dressed up as Lady Gaga at The Oscars to sing  “Shallow” with Dan Lau as part of Queer Literaoke. Wo Chan did my make-up, Jack “Mia” Shamblin dressed me, and I had a fucking ball! 

As a white woman growing up in Gaston, South Carolina, where there weren’t many mangos. But I do feel connected to comfort food. I found myself captivated by “The Mango Poem.” The way you describe the mango’s importance makes me wonder more about the way that it’s symbolic to you. 

I like food as a catalyst to poetry writing, events with food. I love cooking and using spices and herbs and names of sauces. “The Mango Poem” is almost like a “13 Ways of Looking at a Mango” through a family narrative. Mango is the cultural soul flavor of survival. It is an old poem, but it still works and it is a poem that I am almost surprised by its popularity. It was just a small poem. Like a mango pit.

Originally from South Carolina, Brooke Gantt is an aspiring licensed mental health counselor. She moved to Albany, NY to attend college in hopes to practice her passion of studying psychology. She has a passion for writing as well. Some of her background includes writing for leisure as well as two years of Yearbook Club. 

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