An incomplete history of Slam Poetry

Part 1: ConvergenceFor many people, the contemporary history of the Chicago-style slam begins around 1987, when the Green Mill began tocome into emminence as a regular poetry venue in Chicago.Others clock their experience from the Poem for Osakacompetition. The history of slam poetry ( as a style ) iswound tightly with the history of the poetry slam ( as asocial enterprise, a contest ). The phenomena have differentconnotations from one group of writers to the next, and theorigins of these connotations lay in the history of slamming.The history comes from many voices, across an ever growingnumber of years.

[photo: Marc Smith] Marc Smith precipitated a phenomenon which, while not new, had been overlooked and undervalued. In 1985 renewed forceswere converging which met once only a few years before. By1985, he was hosting readings at the Get Me High Lounge,contemplating the formation of theChicago Poetry Ensembleand working with his friendRon Gillettewho wrote poetry for performance in character.

But the Get Me High venue of 1985 was connected to otherpoetry readings held earlier still. There had been readingsheld in otherwise non-literary venues in Chicago by the late1970s and early 1980s. Jerome Salla and Elaine Equi werepart of that scene. Says Equi, "Jerome and I got together in1978, maybe '79, for readings at Facets Multimedia."According to Equi, the scene was building up. "What wasinteresting was that Jerome was getting bigger audiences,drawing from bars, the Art Institute scene, from [ clubs suchas ] O'Banyon's, La Mer, artists, and publishers. The peoplearound the Body Politic were one scene. But when Jerome and Iwould read, it was not really a literary crowd."

According to Bob Holman, Ted Berrigan and Ann Waldman did apoetry bout dressed in boxing gear, around 1979, but Holmandidn't first communicate with Smith until after he visitedthe Green Mill in person. Salla constructed his own poetrycompetition based on a boxing match by 1980, and it wasrowdy. Elaine Equi said, "My husband was reading at somespace in Chicago... his readings were always accompanied bya lot of audience participation. There was one particularmusician, named Jimmy Desmond, who got irritated easily whenhe was drunk. He grabbed a chair and swung at Jerome. Therewas a fight, but it didn't actually come to blows."

Jerome Salla continues, "A couple days later I got call from AlSimmons. He was involved with the old poetry scene in NewYork's lower east side, and in Chicago too, and hung with TedBerrigan. He said, 'Jimmy Desmond would like to challengeyou to a ten-round poetry fight to the death...'

"Simmons might have got the idea from professional wrestling,and told me at one point he saw a couple poets in a boxingring in New York... And wanted a match between me andDesmond. We staged the first one at a fly-by-night club in1980. I read a poem called 'Give Piss a Chance' shortly afterthe death of John Lennon, and the crowd booed..!"

Equi explained further, "They had a stage like a boxingring... Girls in bikinis, holding up cards for the number ofthe rounds... And judges... each round Jerome and Jimmyreading one poem. Jerome won." It was not a fluke, Equiconsiders. "They had a rematch and he won again."

About two hundred people witnessed the second match. "Therematch was at Tut's on Belmont [ at Sheffield, now TheAvalon ]. I read in leather boxing shorts, had a robe thatsaid Baby Jerome. Jimmy had a nickname too. We didn'treally hate each other. It was just a funny, kind of weirdevent we threw to make money," says Salla. "There was alittle story in the Trib."

"We were with the punk scene. A lot of forces were convergingin Chicago at the same time," Equi remarks. "Suddenly therewas an audience for poetry. There really isn't anything thatclose to the experience today except in rap music."

Salla adds, "We did just these two events. So then Al tookit out to Taos, then he called me six months later and said,'Hey, do you want to do this boxing thing in the ring? We'vegot [ Gregory ] Corso.' I didn't wanna do it. There was justmore negative energy from it. I was really crashing andburning then. Terry Jacobus went out [ instead ] and won."

Recognition for this new breed of urban, punk poetry was hardto get. The Chicago matches were outside the domain of thegallery system and the academy, so they were much more theexception than the rule. Equi's and Salla's own readings, aswell as the poetry matches, were extracted from punk art and,Salla pointed, "It was the end of the punk age. Everybody wasthrowing stuff, swearing, insulting, and loud. It was a moreverbally confrontational time, not just with us on stage butalso with the audience, back and forth with the poet...Just that constant thing where you'd assault peopleverbally... " The last thing in anyone's mind at the timewas the consequence of their actions.

There was also the issue of what other contemporary writerswere trying to achieve in their writing. Since most young,schooled, and aspiring writers were working to advance thecontinuity of their art, their creative dialectic concerneditself first with the art of written poetry.

In the early 1980s, Marc Smith was a young and informallytrained writer and performer. He took up no such dialecticalconnection and had little personal baggage. Smith hadnothing to risk by adopting a stance of his own. He spoke ofhis mission, "I wanted to maintain the idea of theresponsibility the poet had to communicate effectively." Hesought to balance poetry versus performance in a practicalway. "The real source of what made it more effective thanwhat was going on in the academy was that the poet knew hehad to keep their attention or he was going to get booed outof there." Smith wanted the people in the audience to judgeby making them part of an overt dialectic from poet topublic, not from poet to poet. In reaction, the so-calledacademic poets put themselves in a different camp; Smith andthe academics were not to begin reconciling for almost a decade.

But Salla suggested that the scene outside the academy wasburning everybody out, "I'll tell you one thing that wasstrange about it... After the second one there was a guy whocame out of the audience who said, 'You think you're a realtough guy..!' He treated it like a real boxing match and wasgoing to get in the ring and fight! Everybody was prettywasted... audience, performers, and so on... It's kind ofdifficult to remember what I got out of it! I don't evenremember any of the plans for it. It seemed kind of anti-art,so we said, 'Yeah, let's do that.' "

Still, there were rewards, as Salla reckoned, "I think onething about that time is that it proved that you could reallyget poetry to a semipopular state, because there were a lotof people who showed up and wouldn't necessarily read it forthemselves. It was an event and it really took poetry out ofthe ivory tower, more so than it had been before. Thoseevents were resonant in a lot of people."

After the poetry bout at Tut's, Salla and Simmons' fightconcept wandered within Chicago. Elaine Equi explained,"Jerome's best friend was named Butchie. He was the fellowwho grabbed the chair and kept Jimmy Desmond from hittingJerome. After we did [ the poetry bout ], Butch did it atthe Get Me High Lounge. We had no real plan. We did itspontaneously." But Salla vaguely contradicts Equi. He says,"I don't really know if anyone kept the poetry match goingafter we did." Salla confirms that the years 1981-84 wererelatively quiet for performance poetry in Chicago. However,he does say, "I sort of dropped out of the scene... The guysfrom the Mill used to hang out at this bar [ the Get Me HighLounge ]... Butch claims they got the idea because hementioned it to them..." Much later, Marc Smith colleague Rob VanTuyle noted more clearly, "Marc always said that this was never his originalidea. But as far as I know he modified it." Whatever thecase, the ambience of the Get Me High attracted Smith toButchie, so that by 1985 Smith was hosting his own readingsthere on a regular basis.

As an actual venue, The Get Me High Lounge was a small, damp,run-down bar set in the very center of Chicago's Bucktown neighborhood.The walls were narrow, painted black and graffiti'd upon asthough they were a chalkboard. Newsclippings, album covers,and old jazz posters smothered what was left of the walls. Inwinter, gray street slush covered the floor while the guests'heads sweltered. The ceiling leaked a smelly, nondescript liquidonto the bar at a corner near the door; and guests suspected itwas the toilet upstairs. The club's own restrooms wereactually on stage at the back of a small area three steps upfrom the street-level floor. The club survived on late nightjazz performances most of the week under Butchie'sproprietorship. Butchie spoke only a minimal, rapidlymuttered English to his new guests, if he spoke much at all,though he did heckle the poets. The clientele often feltthey'd arrived in another anxious, dangerous but enticingworld. It has been said that Studs Terkel and, after he leftthe presidency, Jimmy Carter visited the Get Me High to hearjazz.

Monday nights were reserved for poetry with Smith at thehelm. Attendees came from most of Chicago's poetry scene,and occasionally from afar. Michele Fitzsimmons, Joe Roarty,and Debbie Pintonelli were featured poets. On one night inJanuary 1986, a woman read a poem in the open mike expressingenvy from not being chosen as the grade school teacher to bea space shuttle astronaut; the next week Krista McAuliffedied in the Challenger explosion. Among the regulars, therewas the immediate acknowlegement of karma. When an oldergentleman named John Scroggins, himself a regular listenerand a business associate of Smith's wife Sandi, died in a carcrash, Smith broke the news to the house that the emergencycrew found a walkman playing back Get Me High readings byScroggins' side. The house was never the same thereafter.The people, poets and audience alike, felt they were ridingtoward the edge of some strange destiny, but no one couldarticulate what it was going to be. With the scent of riskin the air, the Get Me High people took their poetry moreseriously and so began an informal one-up-manship amongthemselves.

[ graphic: Open Mike newsletter with flyer for the first poetry slamThis spirit was a long time in coming according to Marc Smith."We didn't see many people come in the first year at the GetMe High. There was Monday night football and other obstaclesto getting an audience," says Smith. Also, once the audienceestablished itself, the venue needed a way to maintaincommunication. Marc and Sandi Smith published a newsletter,Open Mike, for several seasons as a chronicle to the eventsaround their scene. This early four-page 'zine listed poets'upcoming appearances in and around Chicago and had shortreviews. By 1987, Open Mike became part of the other xerox-printed poetry flyer in Chicago at the time, Letter eX,thanks to Debbie Pintonelli and to Karen Nystrom, a regularGet Me High poet who became managing editor at Letter eX.Elaine Equi recognized Smith's contribution. "Marc workedharder than we did for the slam. He saw it as a promotablephenomenon."

According to Smith, "We all learned a lot from trial anderror. It was the job of the poet to try to communicate, andwe fostered that at the Get Me High. We wanted to emphasizeartistic responsibility. We started [ the slam style ] withcontributions of democratic origin, a focus on the communityand the audience, the poet as the servant of the people."

As poets gathered at the Get Me High, Smith had a chance tosurvey new talents and create new events. He opted to creategroup readings outside his usual efforts at the Get Me High.First, he put together a reading with Julie Parsons, CarlWatson and Alice George at the Deja Vu Lounge ( ca. 1985 ).Then he assembled the Chicago Poetry Ensemble to perform agroup reading called "Circus Chatter", also at the Deja Vu (May 1986 ). "When I went out, I kind of hand-picked thosepeople", says Smith. "I wanted to have an ensemble, a groupof poets who would perform. I looked for people who had aflair for performance. The step with the Chicago PoetryEnsemble [ was to find ] poets who would start learning aboutperformance. That was the new direction."

Butchie's business practices were, at the time, dubious bywide repute. Before very long, he sold the Get Me High to DaveJemilo, proprietor of the Green Mill and the Deja Vu. MarcSmith set his sights on setting up a new venue. Jemilo wasencouraging.

Rob VanTuyle explains, "Our official audition for DaveJemilo was Circus Chatter. I remember Dave sitting at the barat the Deja Vu saying, 'I don't mind thinking once in awhile.' That was May 1986. Our first date [ at the GreenMill ] was on July 20th. It was billed as a presentation byMarc Smith, Ron Gillette and Jean Howard." Jemilo offeredSmith the Green Mill as a permanent venue.

The Sunday night events at the Mill, which commenced on 20 July 1986, were strong and, like Salla's poetry bouts,very much outside the established literary community. Still,there were a few practical shortcomings. Marc Smith wasgiven an entire evening to work with, so he divided it intothree sets, each set under an hour spaced by intermissions for the bar. This meant filling each setwith something different, an easy task for theater or musicbut much harder to do with poetry. Featured poets occupiedthe second set of an evening and drew new audiences to theMill, while an open mike filled the first set.

The third set was the responsibility of theEnsemble.As such, the Ensemble was inadvertantly put into a dilemma ofwriting poetry under rapid deadlines, and having potentiallyrapid reruns of existing material played before audiencesbuilt from regular attendees. It was clear that somethingelse was needed to fill the third set.

Van Tuyle says, "In the beginning there was no competition.When we [ the Ensemble ] started I was in it for theperformance. I was into music, not into competition. Afterthe third week Marc came up with 'slamming'. It was poetryagainst the convention, in bars instead of salons."

Smith decided that a competition would be key to entertaininga returning audience. The contest was polemically dubbed"The Uptown Poetry Slam." The first slams were run asexhibition bouts and, while not formalized as they are today,were like present day slams in every regard. Anna Brownrecalls, "All I remember is we performed the first one inGurnee, then for real at the Mill. It was Marc's idea. Ihad this character called Rambolina. Jean Howard had herown." Van Tuyle adds, "She was a ballerina in camouflagewith weapons and Jean showed up in leather shoulder pads andstudded leather gloves with spikes."

Brown goes on, "Marc wanted us to do battle. We workedtogether on it. We came up with poems we could battle with."Judges, who were picked from the audience, held up scorecards immediately following a given poet's reading to passsentence ( or praise ) with a score from one to ten. Whenthe scores added up, "I won!" exclaimed Brown. "I beat her.I don't know why because my poetry wasn't as good as herswas. But I appealed to the crowd."

"Nobody knew what a slam was at this point, so we werehelping to define the process," said Jean Howard. "The wholeidea was to help the public understand what a slam was. Wewent into it to be very obvious, but also let people knowthat there was a lot more to it than just a contest, that wecould be quiet, subtle, or dramatic, whatever..."

[ graphic: Chicago magazine cover and feature, November 1987]In time, poets-at-large filtered in to join the competitionin earnest. Mary Shen Barnidge was one of the first. InkaAlasade ( then known as Teri Davis ) held an early dynasty aschampion, successfully defending the title from TonyFitzpatrick over several attempts. By November 1987,Chicagomagazine had chronicled the Davis/Fitzpatrick rivalry, andslamming had become a big-time affair in the Windy City.

The slam's success with the public, its ability to engage ageneral audience, set it apart. At the Green Mill, all theappropriate ingredients at last came together to make thevenue a success: concept, contributing artists, hostpersonality, audience, and aesthetic.

Meanwhile, others were connecting nationwide. Bob Holmanalmost chanced upon the Green Mill. He followed a lead, "Itmust have been in an early article in the New York Times. Iwas in Chicago visiting relatives and thought I might be ableto drop by and visit the phenomenon, this gladiator concept.Van Tuyle was in his tux, Marc was in an auto accident."Looking back to that time and Smith's recovery, Holmanconsidered, "It was in that moment when Marc rededicatedhimself to poetry.

"I had been traveling around the country doing performancesand at that time had just began to realize the extent andvariety of poetry," he continued, "I came to Chicago and wasblown away by the crowd, the whole openness, theentertainment of the crowd... It was an immediateappropriation. It reminded me of when I first heard rap atNuyorican. Here they were living a dream, dancing to poetry.I knew the slam was a hoot, was going to overhaul the engineof the nation, and that I could do this..."

Continue to the next section,Diaspora.
copyright (c) 1994, 1996 Kurt Heintz