Clebo Rainey’s college career could be set to the tune of B.B. King’s blues guitar riffs. He was caught with pot, arrested, kicked out of SMU and disowned by his parents, all in one week. Now 61 and married to Noemi, a lawyer, he’s come a long way since those college days in the ’60s. And he’s seen it all: drugs, tumultuous love affairs, traveling on a motorcycle from Dallas to Arizona in one night. Rainey has lived in Oak Cliff since 1990, and now he is one of the most reputable slam poets in Dallas. His larger-than-life persona, combined with his booming voice and physical stature, help him live up to his reputation as the “god of slam poetry”.
How did you get involved in poetry?
I’m up on Mulholland Drive [in L.A.]. I get off my bike. I walk up to this little park. It’s got a little round patio, and across from me is the Hollywood sign. Down below me is the Hollywood Bowl. I wrote my very first poem right there. I met these friends of mine, who are friends of mine to this day, who were poets. They took me to Austin where I read these poems, and everyone loved them. I remember pulling into Dallas on I-35 on my motorcycle — 6,000 miles and my bag full of poetry, and all the stories, and thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to be a poet. That’s what I’m going to do.’
How did you get your poetry career going?
I started doing poetry readings in Deep Ellum. I started traveling a little. I met other people when slam poetry had just started, and I went to a slam in Tennessee. I said, ‘Dallas, we’re as good as anybody else. We need to get our own slam team.’ Because now they were starting to have national poetry slams. I was already becoming a famous local poet. I did some tours with Lollapalooza. They had a poetry stage, and so I was a Lollapalooza poet for a while.
How did slam poetry take off in Dallas?
Noemi and I, basically together, started the Dallas Poetry Slam at Club Clearview. She was the organizer, fundraiser, scorekeeper, and I was what they call the ‘slam master’, which is the person who runs it. There was a long history of the established poetry scene hating slam because we were performers, and we were getting a lot of press. We were these street poets, and there was this big grudge against the two groups, but eventually, we started to cross-pollinate. I would bring them in to do features, and they would have us out to do things.
What other achievements are you proud of?
Poetry slam grew, and we started going to nationals. At first we got our tails whipped. Finally, in Austin, we made the finals for the first time. In Seattle, in 2001, we won the National Poetry Slam Championship. We’re the only Texas team that’s ever won it. I was made a distinguished poet by the city of Dallas. I was on the Poetry in Motion series, and I had a poem that was on the DART buses and trains—so I retired.
What are you up to these days?
Two years ago, I went to work for Half Price Books. I’m thinking about going back to part-time and getting back into performing and teaching.