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Spoken-word open-mic nights

Poetry nights may have started as a trend, but three stage shows have proved the art form has staying power.
Photograph: Max Herman The Uptown Poetry Slam at Green Mill
By D.L. Hopkins |

The poetry slam began in 1980s Chicago, getting a boost from Larenz Tate’s sultry open-mic reading in the 1997 locally filmed flick Love Jones. These days, poetry nights showcase writers, singers and actors just about every night of the week. But we didn’t hear it through the grapevine—we visited three spoken-word stalwarts to see if participants are still rocking the mic.

Mental Graffiti Since 2006, Emily Rose and Tim Stafford have emceed this event, a certified offshoot of Poetry Slam Inc. Stafford, an HBO Def Poet, doubles as resident selector, spinning in the colossal butterfly-shaped DJ booth. Dismiss any thoughts of a creepy, possessed-poet character. Rose, a seasoned contributor at Encyclopedia Show, is as jubilant as they come. Together, these two work the Butterfly Social Club’s small, Buddha-themed room with a little teasing and lots of encouragement. Mic virgins should bring their best-rehearsed material and be prepared to hear experienced spoken-word artists such as Roger Bonair Agard (HBO Def Poet) and Mojdeh (Lethal Poetry president) spit hot fire. Extra points to Mental Graffiti for ADA accessibility, which on the night I attend, allows a first-timer in a wheelchair to perform. Arrive early: Slots fill up quickly for both the open mic and slam. Butterfly Social Club, 722 W Grand Ave (773-677-2135). Every third Monday of the month; doors 7:30pm, performance 8pm; $5.

Uptown Poetry Slam Organizer Marc Kelly Smith’s famed dimly lit slam, the longest-running at 24 years old, is backed by jazz-band accompaniment. Young folks, seniors and Cubs-hat–clad fans vibe to nationally recognized orators, reciting work about everything from bee pollination and sex to collect calls from imprisoned mothers. Audience members join in on the fun by heckling: Hiss when you hear feminism; shout “That’s my shit!” when a line touches you. The show begins with an open mic, followed by a special performance (the night I went, California’s amazing Chas Jackson owned the stage) and last, the slam. Six poets whose names are randomly selected from the sign-in list face off in three-minute battles. These bouts are judged and scored by two-person teams handpicked by the host. Bragging rights and $20 are up for grabs. Green Mill, 4802 N Broadway (773-878-5552). Sundays 7pm; $6.

In One Ear On a quiet spring night, I arrive at Heartland Café, and I’m greeted by a boho vibe and $2.50 organic drinks. Though we don’t get hippy-dippy enough to hold hands, we do sing along to a vocalist/acoustic guitarist version of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Cohost and 2010 Lethal Poetry/Chicago Grand Slam Champion Billy Tuggle announces the feature, author Jill Charles, and states the rules: “Don’t use the stage as a weapon and keep within your five-minute time limit.” I can’t imagine anyone being the least bit disrespectful. (For goodness sake, there’s a cheery general store inside the café that sells green household products.) The showcase—thought to be the city’s second-longest-running—draws in an eclectic mix: An ASL translation of a rock song; an interpretive dance (reminiscent of Little Miss Sunshine’s “Super Freak” pageant routine, but set to piano bar music); and an impressive magician who delivers a comedic bit while presenting a rope trick. Heartland Café, 7000 N Glenwood Ave (773-465-8005). Wednesdays 10pm, registration 9pm; $3.

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