Jazz club moonlights as slam poetry haven

By Pete Russell

Every Sunday night for the past 21 years, poets have gathered at Chicago’s most venerable jazz club to celebrate a different sort of sound: the spoken word.

On any given night at uptown’s Green Mill, there’s a six out of seven chance that you will hear some awesome live jazz. If you happen to go on Sunday, you will see the Uptown Poetry Slam, hosted by Marc Smith. “So what?” you ask, along with the rest of the crowd when he introduces himself. He will tell you: As the founder of the poetry slam movement, slamming was his idea. In 1984, when Smith was working as a construction worker, he held the first ever poetry slam at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago’s very own Bucktown. The notion of slamming has caught on since, with a national slam in San Francisco each year, hundreds of international slams, and even an anti-slam movement born on New York’s lower east side—more due to jealousy of slam’s birthplace than literary ideals, I would guess.

A slam is an atypical poetry reading in that it is competitive and interactive. Three members of the audience are chosen to be judges, and the rest of the audience is encouraged to snap when the poem starts getting bad, stomp when the poem is really bad, and hiss if any hint of sexism arises (which it did, in great abundance, to the delight of the hissers and the hissed-at). Predictable rhymes are called out beforehand by the buzzing crowd that seems to have equal appreciation for the jester and the bard.

Smith started the event with a recitation of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” by Langston Hughes, that was as convincing and moving as it could possibly be coming from a 58-year-old bespectacled white man. Smith is honest and vital, and he set the tone for the poets to come.

The open mic set came next, in which the names of volunteer poets were drawn at random from the 25-year-old fish bowl. All of the selected poets recited original pieces. Poems ranged from simply phrased complaints about office life in corporate America to a moving protracted metaphor: the summer of Chicago in 1968 as a tough, no-nonsense single mother. Some took the comedic approach while others were more heartfelt; the best combined both.

Local bluegrass quintet Sex Fist performed a set after the open mic session. Each member brought dazzling solos on the banjo, dobro, guitar, or fiddle. They combined a forlorn country tone with some contemporary troubles, and the result was a refreshing rendition of classic bluegrass style.

During the main event the “spoken word artists” employ a wide range of styles and topics. One speaker, South Side native Jus Rhymz, started off with a funny piece about the name suffix “icia” in black culture. His high score earned him a spot in the second and final round, where he took a more serious tack, telling the story of being raised by a sister who had to prostitute herself at 13 to feed the family. University of Chicago alumna Laura Dixon recited a poem about love, both had and lost. Robby, the eventual winner of the slam, started with a hilarious exhortation to passionate love-making. His second poem, about a first experience in a punk-rock mosh pit, combined a great performance, literary agility, and a sense of humor with the earnestness that was common to all the poets at the slam.

Smith adjourned the rite with a poem of his own. It was performed as a speech with an uncanny impression of John McCain. Smith proved an outstanding wordsmith. He voiced the recurring theme of anti-poetic-establishment poetry with deftness: “Make the reading room a listening room, curse those who tote their knowledge in little red wagons of obscurity.” The poetry slam is about checking your literary pretensions at the door in order to enjoy a communal celebration of language. And of course, no evening is complete without some U of C bashing. Hear this with a nasal lisp, “Picture a group of poets, down by the U of C… You see them squirm. They begin to twist. How did they get here, a place like this? Make it plain, this ain’t their game, slammin’ poetry.” Prove him wrong: Check out the Uptown Poetry Slam, and make sure to bring some verse.