An incomplete history of Slam Poetry
First edition online: February 1994
Second edition online: March 1996
Current edition: February 1999

Foreword:This history of slam poetry was originally compiled for an event flyer inAugust 1994. In that month, I participated in a three-way live video linkup between Chicago, Los Angeles, and Asheville,North Carolina, coinciding with the finals of the National Poetry Slam held in Asheville. My original concept was to produce a concise record of slam poetry to hand out and share with poets in Chicago and Los Angeles so guests would have something to browse. I didn't expect it to run more than four 8-1/2 x 11" pages whentypeset. That is, after all, about the size of a typical program one receives at a recital.

As the threads to the story fanned out, however, the storygrew to be too large and branching for me to conveniently publish through anyother means but the Web. The first draft of the program notes filled eight pages, butit was woefully incomplete. The second draft went to 16 pages, much too large to be a simpleset of program notes, but it, too, was still very incomplete. Each thread in the story of slam lead to another contact which lead to two more stories, which lead to even more contacts. To some degree, my drive for completeness wasstoked by a responsibility to the many people I encountered in slam poetry over the last decade. I began remembering more and more personal experiences fromthat time, and called more friends to help me fill in details which I didn't recall orknow first-hand. And it was not that the new anecdotes themselves were simply volumes of bare text; each added a new facet to the whole slam story and involved another personality or two who contributed to the development of themovement.

[ photo: Green Mill facade ]Phone calls to the original players began to reach beyond Chicagoand into New York and California, to people who had taken Marc Smith's inspiration as their own and had incorporated slam into their local poetry scenes. Friends andstrangers alike began tipping me to leads in the story which they knew were special or unique. For a while there was a modest nationwide hunt for the notorious "Butchie" who once ran the Get Me High Lounge where so many of theoriginal slam folk convened in the mid-1980s.Before long, the project began to look very much like a small book rather than a free hand-out at a poetry reading. It was obvious that spending an hour or two at the local copy shop was not going to solve my printing dilemma. I had to resort to something new to publish this unweildy, branching and growing tale.

The answer, of course, was HTML and the web. Early attempts to shoe-horn the storyinto linear text and then to flow it onto paper demanded sidebars of some size whichrivaled the main story itself. There were basic design problems where the sidebars shouldhave taken precedence over the main story. And there were connections between personalities which Iwanted to underscore by affording the reader the chance to jump into a related article ata particular moment. Hypertext was natural for this. It was also affordable. My trips to thecopy shop were getting me nothing but bigger rough drafts, scrap paper and bills, and werenot getting my message out to the reading public. After a bit of editing and reformatting, and after teaching myself HTML, I uploaded the original document andposted it here on 18 January 1995 for all to see.

This version is the second edition plus, modified to work on the new web domain. It makes some cosmetic and typographical improvements on the first and restructures the story into chapters which I've only considered since the first edition went live on-line -- Convergence andDiaspora. Slam, like any art movement, hasa life cycle which is driven by the commingling of personalities, the times when they fuse into a critical mass and effect change, and the times when they propagate that change into the broader culture in which we all live.

Convergence may as well have been named Communion instead, since it focusses on how a group of like-mindedindividuals began connecting with each other and creating a common vehicle to support their own poetic mission. It's no accident that the two main parts of this story have biblical connotations. As slam built local momentum in thelate 1980s, it began toexhibit an evangelistic energy. This energy is visible today in the way some newcomersare so consumed by the urge to listen to, write for, perform and compete in slam venues. There are similarities, too, in the wayboth slam and evangelism coalesce around charismatic figures. The movements themselveshave charismatic qualities. The magic, the supernatural fire and brimstone which slam has returned to poetry, has helped poetry in general escape the soporific effects of highscholasticism. This action has not endeared slam to many scholastic writers, but it gave poets everywhere in the 1990s something to talk about, and that dialogue has since spread to what was otherwise becoming an uninvolved, and unengaged literary public.

No doubt some will say that this story drifts a bit from the notion of a poetry competition. I answer that with a tenet the central figures inthe slam movement frequently repeat for others:competition isn't entirely what slam is about. Others may criticise me for offering an incomplete presentation of poetry in Chicago during the nineteen-seventies, -eighties and -nineties, but that critique is an error in the opposite direction, one of over-inclusiveness. It would be nice to just keep expanding the threads and write a small history of every current inChicago's literary life during that period. These were fertile times. There are no doubt other tales to tell from each of these experiences but I leave those tales to others. I had to draw the line somewhere for myself. And considering the feedback I've heard from a few, others are indeed writing books about those very experiences. They should appear in conventional print within the next two years.

Others can make what they will of history. Those who live to tell the story get to program the future's memory. The happy side of this is that many of us who were present when "slam" was coined are still here and remember its origin. My hope is that our spirit from that moment will remain alive in this testament and will carryforward a new contribution to the world's poetry from Chicago, much like jazz and blues have done for music. Ten years after the the first "slam" detonation, the term is well understood in all major English-language nations. Poetry slams are held in England, Canada, and Australia and in a continuously growing number of locales in the United States.Continental Europe, despite its plurality of languages, also hosts slam events atfestivals and other literary goings-on. For us in Chicago, there's the happy memory and joy that our child, our visceral, cranky, energetic and conscious hometown poetry, has taken a life of its own in the whole of the world.

I give special thanks to the following people for offering their personal experiences and assistance in research for this document:

Sheila Donohue - Elaine Equi - Garry Glazner - Bob Holman
Jean Howard - Jerome Salla - Marc Smith - Rob Van Tuyle

There are numerous others who've helped me with incidental experiences through interviews I conducted as far back as 1991. Whether we met at clubs, over coffee, at readings, or dinner, in travels near and far... They know who they are and they should take some credit... The next one's on me, guys!

This web employs inline graphics, audio samples, tables, and other basic HTML advancements. I recommend that you use a table-capable web browser program, such Netscape Navigator 3.0 or later, to see this web at its best.

copyright (c) 1994, 1996, 1999 Kurt Heintz
All film photography by Jeannine Deubel unless otherwise noted.
Graphics and videography by Kurt Heintz unless otherwise noted.