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From a Stutter to ‘Tonight Show’: How Rudy Francisco Became a Poetry Slam Champion

[dropcap size=big]G[/dropcap]rowing up in San Diego, Rudy Francisco struggled with a speech stutter and never imagined speaking on stage in front of people. Today the Belizean-American poet has established himself as one of the most recognizable names in spoken word poetry thanks to Poetry Slams with over 100 million YouTube views, an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and various championship titles under his belt.

“Sometimes we don’t know what we’re writing about,” Rudy says. “We’re just figuring it out as we’re doing it and then we end up with this piece of art that we didn’t have before. It makes me think about how so many of us start off without knowing who we’re going to be in our experiences. As we grow and as we learn, the image just becomes that much clearer.”

Rudy’s poems typically discuss personal and political narratives through an honest and humorous approach. He says his future poems will focus more on identity and his daughter to honor his culture now that he is a father. “I was at my parents’ house, and in one room they were drumming and singing traditional songs and in the other room everyone was playing Xbox,” Rudy notes. “I saw the divide and that was the beginning of realizing who I am and how I didn’t want lose that.”

He says he did not place emphasis on being Belizean in previous poems but he now recognizes the importance of representation. “My parents are from a whole different country and speak Garifuna. There are ceremonies and rituals that people do but you rarely hear people talk about the entire diaspora,” Rudy says. “I’m not African American, I think a more accurate term would be black American. 'The only thing harder than being black in America is being black and foreign',” he adds, recalling the words of a close confidante.

[dropcap size=big]R[/dropcap]udy first encountered poetry during his senior year of high school when he wrote a poem as part of an assignment. In 2000, Rudy graduated from Southwest High School and began attending Alliant International University. This is where he first discovered HBO’s television series, Def Poetry Jam. It inspired Rudy to write his very first performance poem, which he later presented at an open mic called Poetic Brew. “I fell in love with it,” he says. “That’s really how I got started in San Diego.”

By 2005, Rudy attended open mics in his local area but they began closing down due to gentrification. Rudy and his friends then decided to start up their own event called Elevated, which withstood more than 10 years and became San Diego’s longest running open mic! “We just had to do it ourselves,” He recalls. “At the time it sounded crazy because we were so new, but the first time we had an open mic 250 people showed up.”

A couple of years later Rudy discovered Poetry Slams. “When I first found out about poetry slams I thought it was weird, but when I did it I was like these are my two favorite things. It’s competition and poetry,” he says.

After winning two slams in 2007, Rudy became a member of Da Poetry Lounge’s (DPL) Hollywood Slam Team. Over the years Rudy continued to win several competitions including the National Underground Poetry Individual Competition (2009), San Francisco Grand Slam (2010), Individual World Poetry Slam (2010), and many more!

He applied his newfound knowledge towards the San Diego Slam Team, which led them to their first National Poetry Slam Championship in 2017! “Before nationals in 2007, we would go to slams and get murdered,” Rudy says. “To go from those moments to being on the final stage was crazy.”

You can purchase Rudy’s best-selling book Helium through Button Poetry. For more information, visit Rudy Francisco’s website. Below, an original poem:

RELATED: Hood Profet: Afro-Indigenous L.A. Poet Is Fighting An Eviction With ‘Porch Poetry’

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