By LARRY ROHTER
Published: June 2, 2009
CHICAGO — Slam poetry was invited into the White House last month and it is also the focus of the recent HBO documentary series “Brave New Voices.” So you might think that the originator of the poetry slam, a raucous live competition that is more likely to take place in a bar than in a bookstore, would be feeling rather pleased these days.
But from his base here at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, Marc Kelly Smith expresses mixed feelings about the growing popularity and respectability of the art form that he created almost 25 years ago. From the start, he envisioned slam poetry as a subversive, thumb-your-nose-at-authority movement, and he wants to ensure it stays true to those origins.
“At the beginning, this was really a grass-roots thing about people who were writing poetry for years and years and years and had no audience,” Mr. Smith said recently, just before his weekly Sunday night slam at the Green Mill. “Now there’s an audience, and people just want to write what the last guy wrote so they can get their face on TV. Well, O.K., but that’s not what people in this country, from Marc’s point of view, need. We’ve got too much of that. This show wasn’t started to crank out that kind of thing.”
Like it or not, Mr. Smith’s concept has become a global phenomenon, especially among young people, who, helped by exposure to hip-hop, seem more comfortable with the idea that poetry belongs both “on the stage and on the page.” Slam poetry has been incorporated into school curriculums across the country; more than 80 cities now compete in the annual national championship; and similar contests are springing up in the most unlikely places, most recently on Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean.
“I think that perhaps Marc sees this as snowballing out of control,” said Susan B. A. Somers-Willett, author of “The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry” and a slam poet herself. “This is something that started in Chicago as a group of oddballs who wanted to do some pretty avant-garde things, but over the years, as it entered the commercial sphere, it has gotten more and more homogenous and started catering to a demographic mainstream.”
The poetry event that President Obama and his wife, Michelle, hosted at the White House on May 12 was a “jam” rather than a slam, perhaps to distance it from the sometimes boisterous atmosphere that Mr. Smith promotes. The evening included performances by two college-age slammers who have appeared on “Brave New Voices” and by Mayda del Valle, a slam poet from Chicago who won the national slam competition in 2001.
The Chicago connection is not coincidental. As Ms. Somers-Willett put it, “Chicago is America’s poetry city, with a rich, rich tradition of orality and performance-oriented poetry that goes way back,” at the very least to Carl Sandburg and Kenneth Rexroth in the first decades of the 20th century.
The Poetry Foundation, which publishes Poetry magazine, also has its headquarters here, and in April set up a Chicago Poetry Tour that includes 22 sites around the city. (An online version of the tour can be downloaded at poetryfoundation.org.) One of the stops is the Green Mill, Mr. Smith’s artistic home since 1986.
“What Marc Smith has achieved here and around the world is remarkable,” said Stephen Young, program director of the Poetry Foundation. “The slam movement summons a lot of energy and has taught some traditional poets a thing or two about how to read their poems in public.”
Yet Mr. Smith and his disciples still raise the hackles of what he refers to as “the academic poets,” on both sides of the cultural wars. Amiri Baraka, a Marxist who is known for his politically provocative poetry, has said, “I don’t have much use for them because they make the poetry a carnival” and “elevate it to commercial showiness, emphasizing the most backward elements.”
On the other side of the divide, Jonathan Galassi, now the honorary chairman of the Academy of American Poets, once described slam poetry as a “kind of karaoke of the written word,” while the critic Harold Bloom has called it “the death of art” and complained of “various young men and women in various late-night spots” who “are declaiming rant and nonsense at each other.” George Bowering, a former poet laureate of Canada, condemns slams as “abominations” that are “crude and extremely revolting.”
Mr. Smith seems to relish such attacks. The initial impulse for slam poetry, he acknowledged, came from his disdain for the conventional poetry readings he attended when he first began to study the craft.
“I went to them, and they were stupid and horrible, with nobody in the audience, and somebody up there onstage throwing all these allusions around, acting as if it’s a crowded room and he’s communicating,” he said. “So I started looking at these poetry readings like, ‘These people don’t know what they are doing.’ And they didn’t, which gave me the confidence to say, ‘Well, I can do that.’ ”
A college dropout, Mr. Smith, born in 1949, worked for more than a decade as a surveyor and construction worker. At the same time he was also writing and reading poetry, verse from Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost, all of whom he admires, to Ezra Pound, “who I hated, because, what is he saying, you know?” But when asked about influences on the slam style, he mentions the singer-songwriter Tom Waits first. On hearing songs by Mr. Waits, like “Putnam County,” he said, “it was like: ‘What was that? Wow.’ ”
To spread his version of the slam poetry gospel, Mr. Smith has recently released two books, “Take the Mic” and “Stage a Poetry Slam,” which he wrote with Joe Kraynak. In addition, the Sunday sessions he leads at the Green Mill are broadcast nationally on Sirius XM satellite radio.
He also continues to refine the show here, which consists of an initial open-microphone set, followed by a performance by an invited artist and finally the competition. But since “the competition from my point of view is meant not to be serious, but a mockery,” the first prize is $10, which is an improvement over the Twinkie he used to offer.
“The gimmick here has always been to entertain you and then pow, put it right in you,” he said. “Slam is a serious art form that seems like it’s just a big, goofy thing. But it’s
deadly serious. Why do it? Why do any art if you’re not going to bring out of yourself the thing that is most vulnerable and most precious, that has to be said? Why do something unless you’re really trying to get at what it’s really about? And that’s what this show is.”