Sophomore slams his way to the top of Austin poetry scene

Jessica Lee

When Zach Caballero steps onto the stage, he hears the cheers and claps from the audience. He takes a second to breathe, and the room goes quiet. He has performed poetry across the nation from Los Angeles to Boston, yet the nerves still manage to creep in.

Caballero is a poet. After tagging along with his brother to slam poetry, a competition in which poets perform their work, Caballero, who was 12 at the time, began to cultivate an interest in the craft. Then he began writing poems of his own.
Slam poetry, or as Caballero refers to it, spoken word, is a form of performance art. Poets take the stage usually with their poems memorized and dramatically recite what they have written. The inflection of the voice, the movement of the body and the words they say are all a vital part to creating the slam poetry experience

During his senior year of high school, Caballero’s English teacher asked him what he was going to do with his writing. That simple question gave him the motivation to take a leap and perform his poetry. At a school talent show, Caballero took the stage and later received best dramatic performance, and he has been performing ever since.

“I feel this liberation every time I go on stage,” Caballero said. “I kept saying to myself, ‘This is definitely what I need to be doing.’”

By the time he entered UT as an English freshman last year, Caballero was no stranger to the stage. In an introductory meeting for an upcoming class, the professor was asking random students in the auditorium what their passion was. When asked, Caballero responded that he was interested in slam poetry. The professor asked him to perform a poem, and without hesitation, Caballero got up in front of about 300 students and performed.

“I just did it,” Caballero said. “There was applause; I even made one girl cry, unintentionally of course. To this day, people come up to me and say, ‘Hey you’re that poet!’”

Caballero can be found every Tuesday evening at 29th Street Ballroom performing his work at Austin Poetry Slam competitions. Because of its move to the 29th Street location, Austin Poetry Slam has seen an influx of young college students both in its audience and as performers.

“It’s kind of like my church,” said public relations senior Victoria Daughtrey. “Whenever I feel uninspired or down or just that my soul needs some rejuvenating, I go to slam poetry and instantly feel inspired.”

Inspiration is what Caballero hopes the audience will get from his poetry. He writes about the things that are on his mind, whether it be love, current events or his tattoo of his favorite “Great Gatsby” quote: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

“I want my poetry to matter,” Caballero said. “I want what I do to matter and I want what I say to matter because I think that if it matters to me, maybe it will matter to someone else.”

According to Caballero, slam poetry is making poetry cool. At Austin Slam, there are so many people signing up to perform each Tuesday that a new system had to be developed that allows everyone a chance to perform at some point.

“Poetry, besides being an art in itself, is self-expression,” said English senior Jomar Valentin, a fellow slam poetry performer. “It shouldn’t be constrained on a page. It takes on a life of its own. Every poem has a different story.”

Austin Slam has become a community not just of poets, but also of poetry lovers. Each Tuesday, the ballroom is filled with a welcoming crowd of outgoing people waiting to envelop themselves in the energy and liveliness that makes poetry slam the place to be, Caballero said.

“Tuesdays help me keep my sanity,” Caballero said. “I step off that stage, look back, have that sigh moment and then just leave everything on the stage.”