According to legend, back in the mid '80s, poet Marc Kelly Smith was working as a construction worker in Chicago when he put together the world's first poetry slam at the Gin Mill Lounge. The idea was to pump some juice into staid traditional readings, give some emphasis to performance and stage presence, and throw a little good-natured competition into the mix.
Needless to say, the idea has since gone mainstream. There is currently a National Poetry Slam competition held in a different U.S. city every year. (Albuquerque played host last year.) Countries in Europe and elsewhere have started hosting their own competitions as well. It's hard to believe, but at the start of the 21st century, poetry has once again become hip, and that's due in large part to Smith's larger-than-life influence.
Smith will be in town this week to perform in a benefit for the Alzheimer's Poetry Project. The Alibi recently had an opportunity to chat with him by phone from his home in Chicago.
So, you're coming to Albuquerque.
I'm coming out to support Gary Glazner's Alzheimer's project, where he goes to the homes of folks with Alzheimer's and performs poetry for them. He contacted me in Chicago, where I've been working with this new poetry group, the Speak'easy Ensemble. I'll be performing in Albuquerque with them. I'm a big believer in service work.
Do you usually attend the national poetry slam competitions? Did you come to the one in Albuquerque last year?
I had for years, but in the last couple years, I've been too busy. I've been touring a lot in Europe—they have their own national poetry slams in Europe now.
Has the poetry slam phenomenon you started evolved the way you wanted it to evolve?
There's good stuff about it, and other stuff that's not in tune with what I originally started. National poetry slams focus too much on competition, and people who are new to it often think slam started as competitive poetry. What makes slam really work is the performance aspect. That's truly what I did. The original show in Chicago centered around performance. I mean, it always had a little competition, but that was secondary.
That's the biggest thing that's really contrary to my original intent. Sometimes the serious focus on competition causes so much goofiness, and it's so absurd because it doesn't really determine who's best. That's so subjective. Thankfully, these days, national poetry slams have a lot more going on than just the competitions. They've got special readings and other poetry events running during the day throughout the festival. Unfortunately, audiences who come for the first time often don't understand that.
I suppose the perfect example of that would be what happened at the finals last year. [One of the teams in the final four rudely protested the Albuquerque team's victory.]
I heard about what happened in Albuquerque, and that's exactly the kind of stuff that disgusts me. That's been present from the beginning, but in the early years people would do outlandish things because they got so caught up in meaningless competition, but they would learn a lesson from it. They'd wake up the next morning and realize how stupid they'd been. Unfortunately, as years went on, slam got more credibility, and it helped make people's careers and lives, so now the competitive aspect is very strong.
What's the future of poetry performance?
I think it doesn't matter any more what I envision—it's taken on a life of its own. I think it's become a legitimate performing art form. That's what I always hoped for it. I suppose I hope people will turn back to the roots of it. In Chicago, it's always been a platform to start new shows, new ideas, new ways to do poetry live. Just the other day, we were in the middle of Millennium Park here in Chicago with our poetry hotdog cart where tourists would order custom-made poems, and poets would cook them up right in front of them. It sounds like a gag, but it was a wonderful experience for these people. It gets back to my original goal of finding all kinds of new ways to present poetry to people.
I've been doing this full time now for 20 years. Over all those years, I've done a zillion different things with poetry, hundreds of different types of shows. Slam has made me a kind of historical figure, allowing me and others to travel around the world. I've gained a lot from it, but I've always refused to do the standard commercial entertainment things. It's against what I want to do. For instance, I don't perform on TV, because I started this whole thing as an alternative to TV. I'm a live performance guy. TV performance is not something Marc Smith does.
Some people say that poetry slams are “The Jerry Springer Show” of poetry readings. How do you respond to that?
Well, you know, in the early days, it was so absurd that they would criticize people for this. Back then, for the first 10 years or so, we were very protective of the text. On the other hand, a lot of the things those early critics were saying, a lot of that stuff is true now, because poets don't have to try as hard. A lot of stuff on TV, I mean, what is that? A big part of the problem is the mass media. They present a flashy narrow picture of something so young folks will start copying it, then it loses some of its integrity.
In my view, performance poetry is a higher art than poetry on the page. Written poetry allows for a whole set of choices and techniques. A whole new set of choices and techniques is possible for performance. Performance poetry should combine the best possible text with the best possible performance, making it way more effective than poetry on the page.
Many universities now teach poetic performance. Whether they call it performance poetry or slam, they teach it. In reality, they understand that if you're on the stage talking, you should learn to communicate effectively. It's really a no-brainer.
Are you excited to be coming to Albuquerque?
I'm looking forward to it. You've got a great poetry community there. In addition to Gary Glazner, Don McIver is a great guy, and Danny Solis is the heart and soul of the slam. Danny may have his faults, but he's been one of the truest people from the beginning. And he goes back to the beginning. There should have been more Danny Solises.