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As Paul Suntup pushed through the dense crowd gathered to hear a Canadian transvestite reading elegant, confessional poetry on the steps of the Chicago Cultural Center last month, he had a Talking Heads moment.
First he thought, "This is not my beautiful wife."
And then he thought, "Well, how did I get here?"
Suntup, a South African native who lives in Santa Ana, had traveled to Chicago as part of the 1999 Laguna Beach Poetry Slam Team (which also included local poets Mindy Nettifee, Buzzy Enniss and Lizzie Wann) to compete at the 10th annual National Poetry Slam Finals against representatives from 47 other regions across North America.
Suntup says the experience was dream-like: swimming through curious locals, CNN camera crews, mimed-out members of a Dada performance-art group and nearly 400 poets, many of them more flamboyant than the well-mannered, soft-spoken writer.
"If you had told me five years ago that I'd be in Chicago reading poetry," says Suntup, "I'd be, like, 'Riiiiiight. What are you smoking?'"
It wasn't the first time he's been in the public eye. Seven years ago in South Africa, Suntup garnered international headlines for battling his government's ban on the popular independent comic book Love & Rockets. Then 20 years old, Suntup had enrolled in college ("to put off military service") and meanwhile launched South Africa's first comic-book store in Johannesberg.
"I became a minor celebrity and found myself supported by popular comic-book writers like Alan Moore [Watchmen, Swamp Thing]," he says. "We fought the ban against Love & Rocketsand won."
Suntup came to the U.S. seeking financial opportunities, solid financial footing for his new family, and, by his own joke, decaf mochaccinos. He moved to Orange County and took a job as operations manager for a line of automobile parts warehouses.
Things didn't remain stable for long.
"You may say to yourself," he sings, returning to the Talking Heads song. "I'm in America, married and looking at kids. The next thing I know, I'm in a therapist's office, clutching an album of memorabilia from my comic-book store and looking at divorce."
The divorce came in November 1997, and Suntup began writing poetry shortly thereafter. "There was no inkling of poetry before that," he recalls. "The divorce was painful, the only thing that carried me through was my poetry. I didn't try to write poetry; it just came out at times I thought I needed it."
After several months of writing, Suntup was eager to share his work. He picked up an issue of the Weekly, read through the readings listings, and chose to attend Lee Mallory's reading at the Gypsy Den Cafe & Reading Room, which had the virtue of being near his apartment.
"I didn't know what I was supposed to do," he recounts, "didn't know I had to sign up to read. That night, a poet before me stripped down to his underwear, and here I was with my broken-hearted poem. I was surprised at how good some of the people were, how dramatic. After the divorce, this was the first time I felt in alignment."
Suntup's newfound fascination with poetry led him to attend more than 60 readings in three months. He listened carefully and learned from the wide variety of poets that inhabit OC and LA. Accordingly, his work has developed quickly—from somewhat clichéd Romanticism (he used the word "soul" with alarming regularity) to a sort of suburban confessionalism. He embraces the strange, small details of living in a pre-fab apartment—spartan living rooms; green, blinking lights on the answering machine. His most popular poem depicts a pretty spartan existence and displays his subtle humor—the poem is untitled, his cat is unnamed, and the subject is three green apples in his near-empty refrigerator: "I bought them with one thought in mind:/I should eat more fruit."
His honest portrayals of suburban living have earned him admirers countywide—and eventually his spot on the slam team.
"For me," he says, "it was similar to running the comic-book store. Everything I could visualize, I made happen. Whatever I needed to do to make it happen, I was willing to do. There didn't seem to be an alternative. A lot of the time, I'm unsure about the future. This time, I was sure. If you attack something with passion, you'll succeed. You can't make passion be there—it's either there or not there—but I was pretty impassioned about the slam."
Business philosophy applied to poetry? The Seven Habits of Successful Poets? Whatever it is, it works for Suntup. It carried him from his apartment, through the OC poetry scene, and all the way to Chicago.
"I felt a little out of place [at the Chicago slam] with a guy in a dress [Ms. Spelt of Vancouver] and the guy with the metal-encased fingers [Lord of the Vibes of Oklahoma City]. But on the whole, it was a wonderful experience."
And Laguna Beach did well, losing to Oklahoma City and Kalamazoo on the first night but rebounding to defeat Knoxville and Winston-Salem—not enough to survive the first elimination, but finishing a respectable 26th place.
"We did our best," says Suntup, who chalks up the difference on the second night to better focus, higher energy in the room, and a strong feeling of support from members of the powerful Venice team, which featured OC poet Derrick Brown and placed seventh overall.
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