After 25 years, slam poetry still thriving in Chicago

By Brianna Wellen

When poet Marc Kelly Smith first thought to incorporate performance with poetry, purists of the art form saw the act as disgraceful. Typical poetry readings at the time consisted of a gathering of artists standing and politely reading their poems, according to Smith. Despite this accepted format and the pushback surrounding any attempts to change it, Smith stepped in and brought his own twist to the medium.

“It seemed obvious that if you were going to speak on the stage in front of people, you should try to do it with some passion,” Smith said.

So on a Sunday night in July 1986, Smith brought the “Uptown Poetry Slam” and the Chicago Poetry Ensemble to The Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway, introducing the city—and soon after, the nation and world—to the art of slam poetry.

Now in its 25th year, the slam poetry movement continues to evolve with the modern times while maintaining the underground sensibilities that first made it groundbreaking.

“People don’t understand today because we’re so used to it, but what we were doing in Chicago 25 years ago was just mind blowing to people,” Smith said. “It rocked their preconceptions of what poetry was supposed to be doing.”

The Sunday night shows still take place at The Green Mill, and according to its owner, Dave Jemilo, the show remains the same. Smith still runs the night, the show still lasts three hours and the slam winner receives the same prize given out 25 years ago—$10. Jemilo said the only thing that has changed is people now know what to expect.

Jemilo, who admitted to not knowing much about poetry to begin with, said he wasn’t surprised at the movement’s growth throughout the city but didn’t realize how far the it would spread. It wasn’t until a trip to the Himalayan Mountains in the early 1990s that he grasped how the “Uptown Poetry Slam” at The Green Mill was affecting the rest of the world.

“As we’re in the middle of the mountains, you can’t even drive a car there, and here was a Newsweek that talked about a poetry slam in Chicago at my joint,” Jemilo said. “I’m sitting in the tent going, ‘Look at this, I own this joint.’ So then I thought, ‘This is pretty wild.’”

Poetry Slam, Inc., was formed in 1996 to protect the art of slam poetry and make the movement more official. From the group came the “National Poetry Slam” that debuted the same year and was a one-day event with 20 teams of four poets per team. Today, the national slam features more than 75 teams of five poets each and lasts five days, which Scott Woods, president of PSI, said acts as a testament to the growing interest in slam.

While slam poetry is now something most people are familiar with, they still don’t fully understand where the movement came from.

“Now that we’ve figured out how to [be official], we’re still trying to figure out how we can best serve its original mission,” Woods said. “I think we’re dealing with a lot of legacy issues. That’s something I want to confront, and as a community, we need to confront. We need to make sure while we’re moving forward into the future, we’re not leaving the past too far behind.”

Smith, while supporting and encouraging the growth, also wants to maintain the format and feeling behind his original vision. Instead of seeing artists put out books, CDs and DVDs of their poetry, he said he would prefer to see artists getting larger venues to perform and continue working live.

“I think we’ve been fortunate that every attempt the media has made to glom onto this and turn it into some commercial commodity has not corrupted too much of the movement,” Smith said. “I am against the commercialization of art, I think it’s one of the most horrible things that have happened to the human experience that creativity becomes so instantly a product in fashion and music— everything. To me, that’s wrong, and I don’t like to see it happen to my thing.”

Dan Sullivan, poet and founder of artists’ group The Urban Sandbox, agreed the commercialization of poetry hinders the art. He said instead of using slam to push boundaries, people are creating poems prepackaged to win a competition, which is drifting away from the reasons slam was created in the first place, he said.

Sullivan participated in his first slam at the Oak Park Public Library in 1999, not realizing it was a competition or that Smith was a guest host of the event. Since then, he has represented Chicago in the “National Poetry Slam “and worked closely with Smith at The Green Mill as a member of his ensemble.

“He has taken us under his wing as artists, as writers, as performers and pushed us in all those categories,” Sullivan said. “I think The Green Mill has become sort of a school of poetry. Marc continues to say this particular art form cannot exist without community, so Marc has always pushed me to try to be involved in what’s around me. If art becomes about one person, then the community gets lost.”

Smith, Sullivan and Woods agreed the future of slam rests with the youth. With slam now being taught in schools and youth-centered programs like “Louder than a Bomb” rising in Chicago, young people are able to build a strong foundation in slam and grow as artists from an early age, Sullivan said.

According to Woods, continuing a cycle of mentorship from original members of the movement to the emerging generation vhas kept the movement going strong and will maintain the momentum in the future.

“There doesn’t seem to be any signs of it slowing down and that’s 25 years in, so that’s saying a lot for an artistic movement,” Woods said. “I think the expectation hopefully generates an appetite, so our job is to increase the appetite for poetry.”

The “Uptown Poetry Slam” takes place every Sunday at 7 p.m. at The Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway, and costs $6. For more information, visit GreenMillJazz.com/PoetrySlam.html.

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