Punketry versus Jazzetry: A poetic battle for the ages

Punketry at Denver's Mutiny Cafe

Punketry versus Jazzetry. Either you know what it is or you don’t. If you do, you’re probably a poet — and not just any kind of poet, but the kind that doesn’t hide their words in books, the kind that doesn’t think poems should be read on the page, the kind that believes words have a life of their own.

If you don’t know what it means, you’re in luck because both Punketry and Jazzetry are rather self-explanatory. The former is an improv performance of punk and poetry, the later an improv performance of jazz and poetry. The former is a monthly event at the Mutiny Cafe in Denver, the later a monthly event at The Laughing Goat in Boulder. Established just six months apart, they both came to fruition in 2016 and each is a brain child of a band and a poetry publication from their respective hometowns. The two events have existed, separately, for the past two years, but on Nov. 15 they will converge, in a competition of sorts, at Tennyson’s Tap in Denver.

Punketry might be listed first on the bill, but that’s probably just because its people, Punch Drunk Press and punk group Black Market Translation (BMT), made the flyers. But Punketry is just a little bit younger, coming into being six months after Jazzetry first hit the stage. Some call them copy cats. The founders say it’s an idea that existed long before anyone ever thought of it.

“It was already a concept before any of us caught on, although it took us a while to come around. Not surprisingly, the Jazzetry folks had their shit together more than we did and so they got to it first,” poet Matt Clifford says.

Looking back, he thinks Punketry’s entrance into this world happened accidentally, at a 2011 Fringe Festival in Boulder, back when they invited poets to perform. Clifford was invited to read and, on a whim, brought his improv psychedelic punk band with him. They set up on the stage behind Trident Booksellers and Cafe and performed the yet-to-be named Punketry for the first time, his words barely audible above the music, or “noise,” depending on who you talk to.

“We were the first act to get kicked out of Fringe Fest, the first people to receive a formal complaint,” he says, proudly. “And I think there’s a need for music like that that brings out the uncomfortable emotional side of poetry. I like that our music can let people be angry and loud; it’s a dynamic that can set poets free from their own expectations of what poetry is supposed to be.”

Meanwhile, Jazzetry’s Von Disco trio was probably off studying music and practicing sophisticated progressions in a diversity of musical traditions. As lifelong music students turned music educators, the group is refined, versatile and, as far as they know, haven’t received any formal complaints since coming together nearly 10 years ago.

“The difference between us and Black Market Translation is simple,” says Von Disco key player Tyson Bennett. “They basically play the same three chords over again and again. We are much more sophisticated.”

Guitarist Jesse Ryan Hunter interrupts: “He’s joking of course. But we really are much snobbier. We’ve studied music our whole lives and at Jazzetry we always try to explore as much sonic terrain as possible.”

Unlike other battles of the bands, the winner of Punketry versus Jazzetry isn’t determined by who was first or which is better. In fact, it isn’t determined at all. But if it were, it would be judged by who best supports their poets and how. And, with each band taking such different approaches, there’s really no way to determine a victor, only to recognize the difference in philosophies.

Sarah Rodriguez, editor-in-chief of Punketry’s presenting Punch Drunk Press, distinguishes the two, saying that Von Disco provides a musical stage on which the poets perform while Black Market Translation plays what they will, asking the poet to bend to their musical landscape instead.

“At Jazzetry, you will see Von Disco asking the poets for cues to help set the tone and tempo. Mid-set they will call out notes to each other in a very organized version of improv,” she says. “At Punketry, the band doesn’t make eye contact with anyone, not each other, not even the poet. They just play their hearts out.”

Differences aside, the two events do have a common goal: to empower poets and poetry. Boulder and Denver, both rich with poetic history and both strongly rooted in the Beat tradition, boast scenes that have almost always viewed poetry as musical and as a living, breathing form of art.

“Jazzetry will evoke that tradition very intentionally,” says Matt Diss, owner of Boulder’s ALOC Media, the producer of Jazzetry. “It has a very Kerouac vibe, the feel of being in a coffee shop and giving everyone snaps. It’s very calm and cool. Punketry is more of a departure, some might say an evolution. It’s creepy and raw and totally authentic. But you know, they’re both really beautiful.

“As a media company, it’s important for us to support artists. We want to give them a stage, we want to bring publishers to carefully curated shows. We want to give poets not just a stage to perform on, but a musical background to inspire improvisation — one that can change the game for a poet. So far, the outcome has always been true joy. You can see it on their face, in the way they smile.”

Traditional poetry, often seen as a mousy art form, may be used to living in the quiet pages of books, but Punketry versus Jazzetry is an event begging it to come out of the shadows. Not just because poetry matters and not just because it deserves a different presence in our society, but because, as Clifford says, “poets are rock stars. It’s time for that metaphor to become a fact.”

On the Bill: Punketry versus Jazzetry.  8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 15, Tennyson’s Tap, 4335 W. 38th Ave., Denver.