To start talking about slam poetry I have to first talk about Marc Kelly Smith

marcsmallI first met poet and poetry slam founder Marc Kelly Smith in a class that he taught at Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois, way back in 1991. An enthusiast of poetry and fiction in all of their personalities for a long while, I can say with pride that I am but one of a legion of readers re-energized by what words can do by watching and being around Marc Smith. What I mean to say, and I think this holds true for many definitions of the slam world, is that I was captivated by the person Marc Smith: his passion, his writing, his show, his performances and his philosophies on art. To this day I am still fascinated with Smith. If not a slam still a Marc Smith would I follow and enjoy being around. But there is a slam. And this blog post was directly requested by Keir Graff because slam is making some news again.

The newest wave of stories hit for two days straight last week. On Wednesday the New York Times did a nice, historical summation with oppositional views (as if there are but two) on the slam via Chicago via via Marc Kelly Smith. The article even included a wonderful, wacky picture of Smith. Likewise, our own Chicago Tribune  did a nice piece and the Sun-Times had a blurb (although they had a full wonderful article a month or two prior). These pieces centered around Marc, the creator, and his mission. While the pieces were wonderful, the missing element is always the man himself. He is where some of the conundrum lies: Marc Smith wears many hats. He wears them all well. Smith celebrates the drama of the poetry slam—the inventive, artistic renewal is always at the forefront. It is rare that at any other poetry slam in the country you will find dueling poet swordsmen in full regalia; transvestite lounge singing poets; tap dancers moving to free verse; Iron Chef Poets; the list goes on. At the poetry slam in Chicago, so many different art forms make their way onto the Green Mill stage.


That is what Marc Smith loves the most—I’ve seen it, I’ve seen him smile at the madness and the failure and the attempt and the beauty and the soul. He is almost manic about it. He is at his best when the beast of the show that he has wrangled with for 25 years teeters between disaster and triumph. Likewise, though, he is the charming host at the door who welcomes you to the night of poetry, introducing himself, asking others if they write poems or have one with them, and breaking up cliques of people who have sat together for too many weeks (“Dick, get up and come sit over here, meet so and so”). And then, in complete concert with it all, Smith is a hell of a poet himself and performs poetry in a  way that few others on the planet are capable of. This is the Chicago poetry slam, and Smith’s shoes are very large shoes to try to fill.

The short end of the the New York Times question—has slam become too popular for its own good?—is dependent on the way other cities run, encourage and provide their slams. In many places slam has become a silly competition of three-minute poems, many of which hit the same beats, to the point of driving away audiences clamoring for new breath. At its lowest it becomes an avenue that urban youths use to try to become stars. But even in that case, the star-maker-syndrome, these kids are reading and writing more than they have before. Definitively. And those in the audience seeing the youth perform their verse for the first time are engaged—I was on the golf course last Friday when two retired English teachers told me how thrilled they were to catch the HBO version of the slam world. The term poetry slam has made its way into the everyday vernacular. And as a high school English teacher myself, I can attest to the smile on the students’ faces when we get into slam poetry.

The New York Times piece asked some useful questions: Is slam poetry alive? Yes. Very much. Is there too much? I’m not sure I know what that means. No. I don’t think there is too much. Are there other, better questions and stories? Yes. Much better. Check in tomorrow for more of an update from this insider of the poetry slam world. Oh, and check out what Jon Stewart had to say about the night at the White House version of the slam I helped program:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Old Man Stewart Shakes His Fist at White House Poetry Jams
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Newt Gingrich Unedited Interview



Posted in: Book News
Tags: ,

About the Author:

Mark Eleveld has been reviewing for Booklist since 2004. He is the editor of The Spoken Word Revolution Redux (2007) and editor of The Spoken Word Revolution: Slam, Hip-Hop, and the Poetry of a New Generation (2003).