National Poetry Slam
National Poetry Slam
Guild Complex

National Poetry Slam is held in major cities each year and Chicago was the location in 1999. The event was covered nationally by The New York TImes and 60 Minutes (CBS). 60 Minutes taped a 20 segment on Slam Poetry with live poetry scenes at Chopin Theatre.

8/12/99 - 8/13/99

National Poetry Slam is held in major cities each year and Chicago was the location in 1999. The event was covered nationally by The New York TImes and 60 Minutes (CBS). 60 Minutes taped a 20 segment on Slam Poetry with live poetry scenes at Chopin Theatre.

"The National Poetry Slam 1999 also drew a lot of local press coverage -- 8 full-page articles came out in the weeks preceding the slam, including front page stories in the Chicago Reader, Tribune Sunday Magazine; 2 articles about finals in Tribune/Sun-Times; CNN, FOX and 2 documentary crews"

?Poetry slams have come a long away since 1985, when the Chicago Poetry Ensemble began reading their work at the old Get Me High Lounge in Bucktown. Today there are poetry slams in every city large enough to support a coffeehouse or two. A decade ago, Chicago poetry slam pioneer Marc Smith and some local colleagues went to San Francisco to face off against their Bay Area counterparts in what turned out to be the first National Poetry Slam. When the the event was last held in Chicago, in 1990, poets from eight cities competed. This year 48 teams from all over the U.S. and Canada are taking part; and though Wicker Park and Uptown remain the heart of the local slam scene, the championship final will take place in the Loop, at the sprawling, ornate Chicago Theatre.?Chicago Reader

It's Friday night at the Subterranean, a small bar in Wicker Park, which is so jammed even the narrow staircase leading to the upstairs bathroom is crammed with people who come for the night's entertainment.
On stage, a young man named Jamie Kennedy from Oakland is screeching at the top of his lungs, his voice hoarse from days of overuse. His is a screed against modern-day religious hypocrisy and violence in the schools, railing at one point against the suggestion that the 10 Commandments be posted in classrooms and wondering why pictures of Jesus always portray Christ as a benign Grateful Dead- like hippie, one without Jewish features. Judas, Kennedy notes, often seems to have red hair, brushing briefly his own fiery red locks.
For a finish, he mimes shooting himself point blank and then crumbles to the floor. The crowd goes wild, and he gets a pretty high score. No surprise, since we've been told one of the judges, picked at random from the audience before the proceedings began, is a psychiatric nurse.

In case you haven't heard, poetry, that once dead art relegated to an academic backwater, is hot again, bringing an invasion of practitioners to our city for four days last week for the 10th annual National Poetry Slam. More than 200 poets from dozens of North American cities, competing as part of 48 four-man teams or individually, showed up, cheered by adherents and curiosity seekers.

This year's meet was a kind of wordsmith's homecoming mecca: The poetry revival began in Chicago, as did the whole notion of onstage poetry as raucous competition, what the slammers refer to as "poetry as a contact sport."

Exactly where and by whom the competitions originated is predictably now enmeshed in debate. Many credit Berwyn's Marc Smith, who coined the term "slam" and who acted as overall emcee for the proceedings last week, as guru of all this after he started the slams in the mid-1980s at the Green Mill in Uptown and other area bars. Some maintain that other people started the actual competitions.

Whatever the origins, the Poetry Slam is now a national phenomenon, attracting at least a thousand participants. The crowd at Saturday's marathon, four-hour finals (with teams from San Francisco and San Jose winning an unprecedented first-place tie) filled the Chicago Theatre main floor to capacity and spilled into the upstairs. Morley Safer and a crew from "60 Minutes" were there, too, and had been covering the competition since it began earlier in the week.

"This'll be the first time TV cameras ever graced Phyllis'," Smith joked at opening ceremonies Wednesday, referring to one of the Wicker Park night spots that played host to the preliminary and semi-final rounds of the event Wednesday through Friday.

Like poems themselves, the national slam is a wealth of contradictions and ironies. An art form noted for its formal finery and precise structure is celebrated here in a messy, rowdy series of free-for-alls. "It's like trying to lift a 747 off the ground by hand to start these bouts on time," joked an emcee at one of the preliminary sessions.

Beyond tardiness, slams involve goofy onstage scorekeepers who keep a running tally on cartoon paper scoreboards; judges handpicked from the audience each night at random and often booed by the disapproving. Emcees (one of whom was Patricia Smith, former slam champion and ex-Boston Globe columnist) ad lib blithely and sometimes forget rules or event orders, and the crowd helps them get back on track with shouts and guffaws. A couple of times scorekeepers miscalculated totals and had to be corrected.

There's a ragtag, Bohemian, what-the-heck laissez faire to the whole proceeding in keeping with the poet's role today as rebel, outsider, cultural jester and iconoclast, not to mention, thanks to the slammers, hipster. Multiculturalism, anti-racism, anti- establishment, anti-bull, and a celebration of the intellectual as underdog are rampant. So is a retro-Beat fashion show, with sarongs and flaming Hawaiian shirts on view along with jeans, T-shirts and shorts. And hats, lots of hats, including derbies, berets (of course), straw panama hats, baseball caps and even the occasional turban and indescribable, homemade original.

But anyone who has ever worried about the future of literature in a media-mad, electronic rock-'n'-roll era must take heart from all this. The poems may not boast the formal delicacies of a sonnet or sestina, and the vernacular sometimes outweighs the profundity. But even Green Mill owner Dave Jemilo hinted at what these people have accomplished. "When Marc (Smith) asked me in 1985 if he could read poetry at the bar, I thought, OK. Just don't tell my buddies on the South Side."

His buddies, of course, and thousands more, now attend poetry with the passion once seen only at a Bulls game.

The week's highlights:
- Washington, D.C.'s, Gayle Danely, in a tribute to slain coach Ricky Byrdsong, delivers a searing and unsentimental memoir, personalizing the tragedy and decrying hate crimes everywhere. "I called him cousin. We loaned him to you."

- Vancouver's Shane Koyczan, in this Slam-like metaphorical conceit: "Capitalism is a convenience store open seven days a week, and if you don't come to buy, they won't let you in to take a leak."

- Roger Bonair-Agard, winner of the individual prize and also a member of the third-place New York City/Union Square team, spoke of his upbringing by his Trinidad-born grandmother and inverting her Christian myth into a lesson in defiance. Imagining she sees him on what he calls "an urban cross," he expects she would say: "Get down off that thing, boy, and fight."
- On Saturday night, in the final moments, when the teams from San Jose and San Francisco unexpectedly tie, Marc Smith begins to make plans for what he calls a Sudden Death face-off round. But as he asks for a coin flip to see who should go first, members from each of the two top teams come on stage, arm in arm, and tell Smith that they'd rather share the prize ($5,000) in a tie, than continue the battle.

For all the revved up energy of a sports meet, these poets can't quite shed the humanism and community of their tribe.?Sid Smith, Chicago Tribune August 16, 1999

Tags: Literary, , 1999