Gambling? In Atlantic City?
As you cruise north on New Jersey’s Atlantic Avenue, through the drowsy, middle-class shore towns of Margate and Ventnor, the ice cream parlors and bike shops slowly give way to tattoo parlors, law offices, and pawnshops with “Money to Lend” signs. Imagine The Wire by the beach, and you have the idea. Then suddenly, the shops turn upscale, as if a developer flicked a switch and transformed urban blight into a Banana Republic outdoor mall, with glitzy neon casino hotels rising in the east.
Atlantic City, a place of intense juxtapositions, is where Joel Dias-Porter—aka DJ Renegade, 1990s National Poetry Slam phenom, unrecognized mentor, and old co-worker of mine at DC WritersCorps—has planted himself. In a way, it makes sense—Renegade himself has stark juxtapositions (a math whiz who writes poetry, a gambler who never drinks), and his path has always been different. In the early ’90s, he lived in a homeless shelter in Washington, DC so he wouldn’t need a day job and could go to the Library of Congress every day and focus exclusively on his poetry.
Word on the street is that seven years ago Renegade walked away from a decent-paying job teaching poetry to middle-schoolers and dropped out of the spoken-word scene to move down here and be a full-time gambler. If the story was that he had moved to Idaho to herd goats and suck the milk from their teats with his own mouth so he could be close to nature and have more time to write, it might be more digestible. But gambling? In Atlantic City? Some of us poets openly wondered if he’d lost his mind. As I park my car at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa it feels as if I’m going to meet Beat poet Bob Kaufman in the midst of his vow of silence.
“Do poetry writing and poker playing come from the same place?” I ask.
“In a poem, when you’re creative, your creativity is on display for the world to see. You are given credit for your creativity. In poker, if you execute the perfect bluff, you are being creative, but in order to be successful, you do not want to be found out.”
“What’s the joy you get from poker?”
“The same as I get from chess or Scrabble—that you outsmarted your opponent.”
“How is poker different than blackjack?”
“Blackjack is a simpler game. It has less decision points. There are four or five decision points in every hand of poker.”
“How many decision points are there in a poem?”
“A poem has a very large number; every time you choose a word is a decision point.”
“How has your tendency to write love poems been affected by your life here?”
“I just write love poems for women who work in casinos. ‘The Empress of High Desire’—she’s working at Caesars.”