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Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas

Face of the Hood: J.W. Basilo, Uptown

Written by
Clayton Guse
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33, Cohost of Uptown Poetry Slam, executive director of Chicago Slam Works

When did you get started in Chicago's poetry slam scene?

I started slamming in 2004—the first Sunday I was old enough to get into the bar. I had been reading around and knocking around at open mics, and I heard of this poetry slam thing at the Green Mill. The first Sunday I was 21 I went in, read two terrible poems and the rest is history.

Why did Marc Kelly Smith start the poetry slam in the first place?

Initially, poetry readings would have about 12 people in them. There’d be 11 poets on the bill, and one of them would have a girlfriend. Poets would typically read in a sort of “I’m very sad, I’m sad all the time” fashion. And then Marc started to work, and he wanted to bring his poems to life, so he started performing. He’d stand on chairs, scream and yell… It caught fire and has continued to grow.

What would be your elevator pitch for a poetry slam?

People either associate slam with some terrible college union reading their girlfriend dragged them to in their sophomore year, or they think it’s a bunch of angry kids screaming into a microphone. Those things exist, but that would be like saying you understand what stand-up comedy is because you saw Larry the Cable Guy one time. There’s a broad spectrum of performance poetry out there, many of them are working in an art form that’s still relatively new. These performers are engaging, they’re active, they’re great writers and they work to bring poetry and literature to life.

Tell me about your work at Chicago Slam Works.

Chicago Slam Works is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of performance poetry and slam’s place in the city of Chicago. We preserve the legacy of slam, and we work to advance the art form by working with educators, arts organizations and poets in the city to the overall betterment of slam here.

What’s new with Chicago Slam Works?

The Chicago Slam Works Ensemble Theatre. We’re working to take performance poetry out of dive bars and coffee shops and libraries and actually putting it in real theaters.

How do you hope the poetry slam movement affects the city?

Slam has given a voice to so many people all over the world for the last 30 years. It’s given an opportunity for stage, it’s given an opportunity for community, for artistry, for sticking it to the man. We’re hoping that, as we continue to work, not only does the art form continue to grow and poets continue to feel empowered, but also that it ceases to be a niche art form floating around on the periphery somewhere and works itself into the conversation of mainstream art.

How has Uptown changed in the 12 years you’ve been doing the poetry slam at the Green Mill?

Uptown seems slower to progress than your average neighborhood on the North Side in terms of gentrification, but it definitely has lost a lot of its character. Some would argue that’s a good thing; some would argue the other side. But even the new corporations, the new large-scale shopping centers that I won’t make reference to, that have moved in there have made Uptown arguably safer, but I certainly feel that some of the character has gone away.

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