Marc Smith had plenty on his mind. It was getting late and last week's poetry champion, defender of the crown, was nowhere in sight. The Green Mill Lounge at Broadway and Lawrence (the former haunt of Al Capone, rumored to still have within its bowels a secret passageway to the neighboring Uptown Theatre) was filling up with cigarette smoke and customers.
The muscular Smith, a former construction worker, hunkered down in a booth with a circle of the Green Mill's regulars, but his eyes were like a hawk's on the door. This is his Sunday night place; on Mondays he claims the Get Me High Lounge in Wicker Park; he's also a free-lance performer and producer of sorts at the fresh new Scenes Cafe as well as the venerable Chicago Filmmakers and a handful of other poetry venues.
"We're trying to get the word off the page. We're putting out poetry that stands up and says something," said Rob Van Tuyle, one of Smith's cohorts. "You know, that's one of Marc's obsessions: 'Is it art?'"
It is the Uptown Poetry Slam, a slugfest of verse that has been taking place every Sunday at the Green Mill since Smith began it a year ago. Smith compares it to the Olympics, but it's more akin to Dance Fever, replete with celebrity judges--this particular Sunday, a grinning Wall Street Journal reporter.
"We do three sets," Smith explained. "The first is an open mike; you can do whatever you want. The second is prepared, with invited guests to come and read. The third is the Slam itself."
A competition in which poets take turns reading a poem for points from the judges, the Slam crowns a winner when one bard wins four out of seven rounds. This Sunday, the champ, the poet everybody was waiting for, was Teri Davis (who now calls herself Inka Alasade). For six weeks she'd been the winner in the "Grand Slam" bout, and she kept Smith waiting right up to the last minute.
"Whether good or bad, what you hear here is sincere," he promised.
What you hear is a melange of poetry and performance. Some of it--for instance, what Davis and her challenger Vince Kueter have produced--is very good. And some of it, as evidenced by one spastic reader at the mike, is very bad. "Baby," he yelled, "you say you love me / But you voted for Bernie Epton . . . / Baby, you say you love me / Baby, you're sick."
Van Tuyle insisted there is quality control. And Smith said that whenever anybody's really bad, he gets the crowd to start snapping their fingers, hoping the poet will take the hint.
"The unexpected is a big draw," Smith said with a laugh.
He got the idea for the Slam after attending a "poetry boxing match." Some of these are still operating in Taos, New Mexico, he explained, although they didn't last long in Chicago. The three-part competition at the Green Mill, however, has proven to have the right chemistry. "It's a gas," he said with a grin.
For Smith it's much more than a gas, it's a profession. "My wife and I, we did the big switcheroo," he said of his decision to leave construction to devote himself to poetry full-time. "She's a very successful copywriter now; basically, we live off her writing." These days he produces the Slam, reads his work, and does a few acting gigs.
Smith takes home a few dollars as producer of the Slam, as does everybody who wins. "What, $25, $50, $100 max?" he asked rhetorically. "Believe me, nobody does this for the money."
"It's a very brave choice," said Van Tuyle (himself a special education teacher with the Chicago Public Schools) of Smith's career move. "He did a lot of the work, almost all of the work here."
With Smith, Van Tuyle got the Chicago Poetry Ensemble together, a group of poets that specializes in performance. "We did 49 straight weeks at the Green Mill," Van Tuyle explained. "And every show was different." Now the ensemble is playing other venues at a more leisurely pace. "Sometimes Marc works with us, sometimes not," Van Tuyle said.
"Everybody hears the Slam and the street shit and we do entertain, but there is within all the stuff poetry," Van Tuyle continued. "The published poets, they hate us. They don't know what the hell we're doing. They ask, 'Hey, why do you have to rattle so many chains?' We want to rattle chains."
Smith, who doesn't send his work out for publication, agreed on the tensions between the published poets and those who perform. "Publishing is bullshit," he said. "People get published because they know somebody."
Still, one of the Green Mill's stars, Vince Kueter, has been published "here and there," and champ Teri Davis has a book, Green Wine, that she self-published. In fact, Davis's lack of paper credits probably has more to do with procrastination than with any particularly negative view of editors and their friends. "I keep meaning to do it," she said with a smile. "I really should, shouldn't I?"
She certainly should. Davis, cool and confident, writes a brash but fine poetry that tackles more than its share of issues. It's not flippant or funny simply for humor's sake, but it certainly communicates her amusement with the world.
"I love Teri's poetry. She reads with a rap, a beat," said challenger Kueter. "It's mesmerizing." Kueter, who started attending the Green Mill after seeing an ad in the Reader, said the performances have made a difference for him. "If I read with any style at all, it's because I've been coming here," he said in a kind of testimonial.
When the round begins, Smith takes the stage, making the introductions and filling the time like a young Johnny Carson while the judges are scoring. He's understated and smooth. The room, filled with people drinking and smoking, sits in rapt attention.
Onstage Kueter comes on like a fighter, throwing his body into the reading. At the end of each round, he's breathless. "I like his stuff," said Davis. "He's got stuff to say; I listen to it."
Between poems, both Kueter and Davis huddle with friends about strategy. Of the two, Davis is the more daring, reading a poem in Spanish, tackling racism and sexism and other thorny stuff. She is, however, the more conventional performer of the two.
"I don't consider myself a performance poet; I don't even know what performance poetry is," she said. "I think poets are a dying breed. I want to stay true to the art in a classical sense. The operative word for me is 'reading,' not performance, not entertainment."
Still, some of her stuff is sassy, sexy, and highly entertaining, even without pyrotechnics. In "Ode to Men's Bodies," she reads, "Hey soldier boy! / what's for dinner tonight? / if you show me yours, I'll / show you mine, / In praise of men's athletic abilities / boys with collegians and athlete's foot / boys with skates and boys with dates / Hey country boy! / Do fries come with that shake?" After a close match with Kueter, Davis retains her crown, but surprises the crowd by resigning it.
"I resigned for artistic reasons," she said. "I'm more into the reading than the winning, and it sort of makes me feel like a bully to win so many times in a row. I don't always like to compete."
After the workout, Kueter was the first to congratulate her, then he sat down to talk about writing--any kind of writing. "I used to free-lance for SnackWorld and Progressive Grocer magazine, if you can believe that," he said. "But this is great; it doesn't matter who wins, it's fun, it gets your juices flowing."
However, the crown did matter to at least one customer, a scraggly man with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. Kueter introduced him as a fellow poet.
"You should have won," the guy said.
"Nah, she was great," Kueter responded.
"Hey, I know you have to say that, but it's not true."
"Yes it is; she's very good," Kueter said.
"No, she's not," the man said. "She's bogus."
"I like her stuff."
"And I like justice," the man said with a flourish as he headed back to the bar.
"Can you believe that?" Kueter said with a shake of his head. "Some people just take this too seriously, man, just too seriously."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.