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Poetry slam’s 25th anniversary

An interview with founder Marc Smith

Marc Kelly Smith

In 1986, Marc Smith and a cadre of literary ne’er-do-wells created what was to become the poetry slam at the now-shuttered Get Me High Lounge in Wicker Park. Like all great art movements, this one positioned itself firmly against the practices in fashion at the time. In this case, we’re talking sparsely populated readings, gate-kept language of a cliquey elite class, and a posture that almost dared its audience to enjoy the show. We shall call this the Poetics of Death. And as the myth goes, Smith rode into the ivory tower on a wild bear and shoved a stick of TNT into poetry’s bloated carcass. Or so I’ve been told—I was five at the time.

A brief disclosure: Smith is the director of my performance ensemble, my mentor and a good friend. If it weren’t for the poetry slam, I would be a failed stand-up comedian. If it weren’t for the poetry slam, I would not be an artist at all. Thousands of young-ish people would not be interested in poetry; we had 650 youth participants at the Louder than a Bomb youth poetry festival this year, which would not exist without the slam and Marc Smith. I can say this with certainty.

“[Smith] created and popularized a framework for poetry that changed how we experience it forever,” says Dennis Kim, a lead organizer of Brave New Voices, the international youth poetry slam. “Not only that, he was willing to share that framework with, literally, everyone. Even a kid like me. Rich, poor, white, black and brown mingled where art and sport collided.”

Many people define the poetry slam as an Olympic-style competition where poets are ranked on a scale of one to ten by randomly selected judges from the audience. However, Smith isn’t happy with the competition representing the slam.

“What attracted audiences to the Get Me High, and later the Green Mill, was performance poetry formatted into shows that were highly entertaining and interactive,” says Smith, 61, a South Side native who has worked as a construction worker and sharecropper. “To this day, the competition segment of the Green Mill slam takes a back seat to the featured performers. The root definitions of the poetry slam are: (a) the remarriage of the art of performing and the art of writing poetry and (b) an interactive performance poetry show.”

It’s clear that Smith always favors the audience, the regular people who don’t care about the bickering and infighting of poetic camps, the people who just want to be moved. And I would say that many people know what slam is, and their definition is closer to Smith’s than it is to the (mostly unfair) competition.

At 25, the slam has gone through some growing pains, and Smith feels a little uneasy with the current landscape. “A troubling phenomenon is the indiscriminate cheerleading that goes on at almost all slam events,” he says. “Most everything presented onstage gets a roar of approval whether it’s coherent or muddled, crafted or hacked, genuine or just a manipulation of mainstream emotions and status quo thinking. It turns away new audiences that smell the bullshit and choose not to return to smell it again, and provides no incentive for the slammers to scrape the crap off their verse and go deeper in their thinking.”

Smith still hosts the weekly show at the Green Mill, and it’s still a marvelous, well-attended event. In his opening shtick, he says, “You, the audience, are always in control,” and when you see the audience booing a particularly self-loving poet off the stage and back into obscurity, it certainly seems in control. But Smith is, too. The show is so successful because you can’t see the marionette strings attached to your heart dancing at his fingertips. That’s the problem with slams as they are run elsewhere—the competition caught on, but the other shows didn’t have Smith as the puppeteer.

On Saturday 30, Smith will celebrate his giant poetry baby’s birthday at Metro. I asked him if he’s interested in saving slam’s reputation as it continues to morph and grow from its original concept. He isn’t.

“The slam is but one of a million human activities, and by comparison not a very essential one outside its own little corner of the universe, but it started with me and has resulted in much good service to the human condition,” he says. “That’s an accomplishment I can take with me to the grave.”

Thankfully, the old man and the slam movement aren’t dead yet.

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