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Active Cultures: poets in a history slam

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In 1980 Marc Smith was just another poet yearning to express himself onstage. But when he tried to break into the Chicago poetry scene, he discovered he wasn't welcome.

"The scene back then was smaller, pathetic, stupid, boring, pompous, and very elite," says Smith in his typically direct fashion. "If you weren't in the higher circles, like from the School of the Art Institute, you were incredibly snubbed."

Instead of packing in his dreams of performing, Smith set about shaking up the poetry status quo. As the oft-told tale goes, Smith beginning with performances at Bucktown's Get Me High Lounge in 1984 and ending up at the Green Mill two years later, perfected the formula for what would soon become a worldwide sensation: the poetry slam.

Smith organized it as a three-part show: an open mike, feature performances by visiting poets, and finally a competition in which novices took on award-winning veterans. He selected judges from the audience at random, and in a bow to our beatnik ancestors, observers snapped their fingers to express displeasure with performers.

Since then slams (a term Smith says he coined in 1986 when asked by a Sun-Times writer for a title) have spread to at least 15 countries, and this week Chicago will host teams from 48 U.S. cities at the tenth annual National Poetry Slam. The prize for the winning four-person team is $5,000.

Smith's vision of an inclusive poetry scene has come a long way, but he has his critics. "I think the slams are an attempt to democratize the whole poetic process, but I caution that in order to be any kind of artist it takes a great deal of discipline and mastery of the genre," says Sterling Plumpp, a poet and professor of African-American studies and English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "What concerns me is that the slam sometimes places too much importance on the poetic punch line, as the poet strives to elicit a particular, immediate response from the audience. Poets have to strive for honest expression above all, and not to forget the great literature that came before them."

Smith counters that slam poets are grounded in the literature of popular culture rather than the "white-man classics" favored by academics. And to those who worry that some nascent poets may be intimidated into silence by the slam's competitive aspect and tough audiences, he says, "You have to make the experience enjoyable unless you want to just have 12 poets watching each other. We draw people from age 15 to 85, of every race and gender."

Veteran poet Terry Jacobus claims that the slam phenomenon really sprang up from the "poetry bouts" he and Al Simmons staged in the early 80s. They'd been performing poetry in Chicago since the late-60s heyday of Ted Berrigan and Gwendolyn Brooks, and even hosted a celebrated scene out of their Blue Store, located in the basement of a north-side antiques shop. Jacobus says the poetry bouts were an attempt to revive a moribund scene drained by the popularity of disco and nightclubbing.

After Jacobus wrote a story on the bouts for Rolling Stock, a magazine at the University of Colorado, a man named Peter Rabbit from Taos, New Mexico, was so inspired he launched the World Championship Poetry Bout in 1982, incorporating a boxing ring, ring girls announcing rounds, bells, and uniformed judges. A few years later in Chicago, Bob "Righteous" Rudnick started staging bouts on Monday nights at Weeds, which Smith hosted for a while before moving on to the Green Mill. Jacobus says he went to the Green Mill in 1986, when the slams were first attracting press attention, and tried to get Smith to share credit for the concept. "I didn't feel like the history was clear or being respected," says Jacobus. "A certain egomania seems to take over with any popular art form as people want the recognition for ideas."

Smith responds, "Publicly performed poetry has been going on since the time of the Japanese and the Greeks. The key to the slam is that we made the effort to get the word out and build this into something the public is aware of. If you do the work, you deserve the recognition, and it's no accident that it's packed after 12 years."

Even Jacobus concedes that Smith's slam has rejuvenated the performance poetry scene, and Smith takes pride in both the praise and the criticism thrown his way. "The concept is to give the stage to the people, because the more you give, the more you get back in real voices, real entertainment, and real art."

The tenth annual National Poetry Slam runs through Saturday. For a complete schedule of events, see the sidebar in Section Two or call 708-848-8007. --Carl Kozlowski

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

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