Mr. Smith Comes to Albuquerque
An interview with Marc Smith
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.
Do you usually attend the national poetry slam competitions? Did you come to the one in Albuquerque last year?
Has the poetry slam phenomenon you started evolved the way you wanted it to evolve?
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.]
What's the future of poetry performance?
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?
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?
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