Larry Jamerson, 47, sits in the Zephyr Lounge at dusk one Friday. A red paperbound volume of poetry rests on the bar next to him. Jamerson is the “People’s Poet,” he tells me. He’s lived all over—but he’s in Reno right now, where he sells his self-published poetry books and copies of individual poems on the street and in bars. A former boxer, mentor for young people and St. Louis native, Jamerson now makes street corner poetics a way of life. Jamerson will be reading his poems 11 p.m. Oct. 30 at the Zephyr Lounge, 1074 S. Virginia St.
Tell me about what you do.
I was in the role model program [for at-risk young people] in St. Louis before they cut it. They gave the funding to jocks. [The kids] got frustrated, and they went back to doing what they were doing. When I was on a talk show, the [talk show host] said [it was wrong for me to tell kids] to take their drug money and turn it into profit, invest it in legal business. His argument was unrealistic. These people were victims, and they already had this money. Most of them, their mamas were on crack. I was trying to take a negative and turn it into a positive.
Could you see the effects of your work?
Yeah, yeah. I’ve had people come up to me from time to time and tell me I inspired ’em. [A man] came up to me and said I inspired him to open a business. I’ve had pimps and hookers in Vegas and Atlantic City, who read my poetry, who have gone to higher game.
[Going on to higher game] means to become legitimate. … But if you really want to have an impact, talk to sixth and seventh graders. A square person can’t reach a pimp; a square person can’t reach a hooker. They listen because I know the life. I can do it all with my poetry. I can warm you, I can educate you, and I can shock you into truths. [People] do stuff that doesn’t make any sense, like drive-bys, shooting people. I read them stuff about politics. I say, the oppressor is the pusher man, and the copper too. He’s playing a shrewd game, just to make you blue.
How’d you end up in Reno?
I’ve lived everywhere. I’ve lived in Seattle, I’ve lived in Vegas. I’ve lived in Reno. Sometimes I live in Atlantic City. Sometimes I go home [to St. Louis], but I’ve outgrown my home.
Because I grew up there, and I witnessed some of my close friends getting murdered. It wouldn’t be wise [to live there now]. I put everything into my art. I give up my cars, I give up my apartment, I give up everything. I give up most of the luxuries that most people want. A kid asked me one time, "What would you do if you failed as a poet?" I said, "There’s no way I can fail; it’s who I am." Once you know who you are, you can’t fail at being yourself. Success isn’t measured in dollars and cents. It’s measured in making a difference. Reno is a harder town than most art towns, like Seattle. Reno is more Gestapo. You get harassed by the police. If Reno is trying to be Artown, they should allow poets to sell their art on the sidewalks. In Berkeley, they have areas where poets can go to sell their stuff. But in Reno, it’s a constant cloud of oppression.