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Who's Your Daddy?

The National Poetry Slam sputtered without founder Marc Smith. Now he's back on board and bringing it home to Chicago.

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Slampappy Marc Smith was in his element at the weekly Uptown Poetry Slam last Sunday night at the Green Mill. All blazing eyes and fervor, he wrangled the standing-room-only crowd all the way back to "slime corner"--what Green Mill regulars call the place near the front door, where a wall-mounted TV competes with the live performance, flashing and droning while the poets spill their guts in three-minute segments. As far as Smith's concerned, television is the monster that inspired him to create the slam, and his dread of it is one of the things that separates him from some of his disciples--a gulf that a few years back had him walking away from the national organization he created, Poetry Slam Inc. "A lot of the younger people in the movement were looking at me like the old guy who's an obstacle," he says. "I said OK, if you can take it over, turn it into a thriving nonprofit institution, fine." He announced a three-year sabbatical in '99; by the fall of 2001 he was back. Without him, he says, things had gotten so bad that this year's 14th annual National Poetry Slam--running August 6 through 9 at various Chicago venues and bigger than ever--wouldn't be happening otherwise.

Smith launched the earliest version of the slam at Bucktown's Get Me High Lounge in 1985 and ran various local and national events out of his own pocket for a dozen years. Poetry Slam Inc. didn't become an official nonprofit organization until 1999, and even now, he says, it's "insanely underfunded," unable to afford even one full-time staff member. The annual budget, which everyone seems a little vague about, is around $100,000, including PSI's major event, the national slam, which usually costs that much to put on. The only time the national event has generated a significant surplus--$20,000--was in '99, the last time it was held in Chicago.

PSI's only paid employee is part-time executive director Steve Marsh, who agrees that the organization struggled while Smith was gone: "There were people who tried to provide leadership but didn't come to it with the same moral authority. And we were very short on money. Nothing came in from the national event in 2000." According to Smith, "internal rivalries and petty political ambitions" were causing things to "fall apart big-time. The only reason it's in Chicago this year is because nobody [else] wanted to do it. I got called up by organizers in several cities and they told me, it ain't gonna happen. And we had the nationals coming up in Minneapolis and it looked like it was going to be a total disaster."

It used to be that the host city did all the work, but Smith says after problems in Providence and Seattle (in 2000 and 2001, respectively) it was decided that PSI would organize and manage the competition and the host group would provide only venues and audiences. The Minneapolis slam, in spring 2002, turned out to be a success, but it was already late to start planning this year's event, and "none of us was relishing it," says Smith. For the first time, there's some grant money large enough to mention--$20,000 from the NEA (the result of work done during Smith's absence)--but "in real dollar terms this is a $300,000 or $400,000 event," says Smith. "We've existed on the door and products we sell" and a "tremendous" volunteer effort. Now, "coming back in the worst fucking economy...there are people I won't even go to. I've asked them too many times."

Hobbled by its late start and dicey finances, the reluctant Chicago host team was surprised by a flood of applications. When 56 team slots filled in one day this spring, the organizers scrambled for more venues and still had to turn some teams away. (Next year's slam is slated for Saint Louis, and there's talk of regional preliminaries to keep it manageable.) The 2003 slam is so big that, for the first time, individual and team finals need to be held separately. On Wednesday and Thursday, 63 four-person teams and 21 individual poets will compete in initial bouts at five Wicker Park venues. (See the sidebar in Section Two Performance listings for details.) Then ten individual finalists will face off Friday night at Metro, and four team finalists will meet Saturday night at Navy Pier's Skyline Stage.

After this year, the individual slam will spin off as a completely separate event, the first one to be held in Greenville, North Carolina, in February. PSI is also nailing down details on a contract that'll have it managing the Taos Poetry Circus, a New Mexico festival held every June. Taking it over is "a risk, but I think it can pay off in the long run--generate some income for PSI--if we can just revive it," says Smith. He says some of the people who tried to step in while he was gone were looking to use the slam for personal gain. "This thing that I started and have put so much energy into [but] have never exploited for my own purposes. I was pissed off. That's the same way I feel about the Russell Simmons people." Smith says a few years ago Simmons's HBO show Def Poetry Jam approached PSI looking for some "diverse people." Mike Henry, who served as president in Smith's absence, gave them some names, and slam poets began to appear on the show. "That gave a big boost to their program," says Smith. "We're still waiting for Mr. Simmons to donate something to [PSI], which he's promised for two years now."

This unrewarded contribution to Def Poetry Jam's success is especially galling for Smith since he fought any sort of cooperation with mass media for years--even initially refusing to help with Paul Devlin's 1998 documentary SlamNation, which he now recognizes as a good piece of work. (He says he made Devlin spend two years with the movement so he'd really understand it.) Like all mass media, Smith says, SlamNation and the Saul Williams film Slam, which followed it, created images people want to copy. "Young artists, instead of looking around in their own environment and being inspired to create something out of it, are looking at a mass media product and saying, oh, that's what I should do. The slam was started as a reaction to the television culture--to put people together in a room and have a place where you don't want to watch TV." But the old jouster knows this battle's been lost. Norman Lear will be at the Chicago finals, he says, scouting for a new television show. Letterman's been in touch. And Mike Henry, who's now PSI's development director, is taking a half dozen of the best poets to Los Angeles in September to do a showcase for a national cable company.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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