WORDS OF MOUTH
Boulder poet Benjamin Porter Lewis isn't your average mountain-town java-joint junkie. If his streetwise delivery and frizzy near-dreads don't make that point abundantly clear, his sublimely untutored rants against political injustice and racial prejudice tend to do so in a hurry.
For example, a piece titled "Censorship" opens with the eardrum-rattling line "Fuck you!" Rather than degenerating into self-indulgent raving, though, the poem, like much of Lewis's work, ends with a call for his audience to unite against a common enemy, in this case bigotry, hatred or intolerance in any form. The conclusion of "Fueling the Phoenix" typifies this approach. "Rise up! rise up! rise up! from the ashes," writes Lewis, who often performs under the name B. Porter. "Rise up! rise up! rise up now and strive. This ain't a dead letter!"
The theme of "Phoenix" is Vietnam, a topic this 22-year-old busboy by day knows very well. Born in Saigon to parents (a French/ Vietnamese mother and a Spanish/North African father) he doesn't remember, Lewis was adopted by a family living in Ithaca, New York. Appropriately, his adoptive mother is a high-ranking member of the Modern Language Association.
Two years ago, Lewis says, "I began to have a lot of ideas and thoughts regarding social issues, cultural issues--things I think about." In his desire to communicate his feelings to others in a way that he enjoyed, Lewis turned to writing. At first his focus was fiction, but after moving to Colorado a little more than a year ago, he stumbled into an open poetry reading at Boulder's Penny Lane coffeehouse and discovered the vehicle he'd been seeking.
Since then, Lewis has enjoyed a warm reception from a wide variety of audiences, including ones at Montbello High School and the Denver Press Club. The response is understandable, since Lewis's attitude toward poetry represents a refreshing change from the sometimes self-consciously artsy ruminations of more traditional poets. Although he appreciates the achievements of past masters from the Romantic and Beat movements, Lewis says, "This is here and now. This is the Nineties." As such, he continues, "it's difficult to come across to somebody in an inner city or on the street with Wordsworth or Lord Byron."
For this reason, Lewis has developed a style that he admits can be hard and abrasive. He claims, however, that he never employs tactics like profanity for their own sake. "People have this necessity and this desire to be entertained," he explains. "And so that's something that I've been trying to work with--to give that entertainment aspect and to really get people involved in this interaction between yourself and the audience, but without compromising the writing"--or, he notes, the message behind it.
Lewis's live energy, to say nothing of his rather haphazard command of spelling and punctuation, makes his work, at least at this point, better suited to the stage than to the printed page. Nonetheless, he's been published locally by The Red Wheelbarrow, Galaxy magazine and the Rocky Mountain News, and nationally by the San Francisco-based alternative bible Mother Jones. In addition, he won a statewide poetry slam held last June, was recorded for a CD commemorating a nationwide poetry slam contest, will appear in a film documenting the twentieth anniversary of Boulder's Naropa Institute and performed on the second stage at this year's Lollapalooza festival.
Those who inspire his work, Lewis admits, aren't strictly poets. In particular, he credits artists as diverse as jazz-rap pioneer Gil Scott-Heron and Clash founder Mick Jones's Big Audio Dynamite (BAD) with fueling his creative muse. He's also partial to the confrontational style employed by the rappers in Public Enemy and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, along with the smoother stylings of Digable Planets.
In the same breath, Lewis says he's "very irritated" by media programming of the sort seen on many national outlets, including MTV. While a hot single or video performance can help an artist sell millions of albums, Lewis says that much of the music channel's output is "very watered down. It's very powder-puffy. The substance isn't really there."
Not that Lewis has anything against being paid for his work: He makes it clear that he doesn't want to wait until he's sixty--or dead--for his writing to start making money. Lewis is quick to add, however, that the goal of his poetry is "being able to make a decent living off of it, but also understanding your social responsibility.
"A question that I ask of anybody--and of myself, hopefully--is, `Did you give back? What have you done for people? How do you help uplift a situation?'" If Lewis is destined to fail in any of these areas, you can bet that it won't be for lack of trying.
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