Editor's Note: I first became aware of "Poetry Slam" in the late-1980s. Most of my-then poet friends were religiously attending Sunday night sessions at the Green Mill in Chicago. While those people have come and gone, poetry slam remains. It is still one of the most vibrant forms of performance. It is practiced not only in 150 American cities in America, but in Israel, Germany, England, Sweden, Italy and Canada too!

Marc Smith, Creator of the Poetry Slam.
Slam competitions are held on local, state, national and international levels and have even been held in schools and libraries. The following conversation with Slam creator/host Marc Smith took place in late March at Kafein, a local coffeehouse in Evanston, Illinois. During the conversation, Smith was often polite and very revealing. There is some editing due to space.
CB=Centerstage Writer Charles Bernstein


CB: How did the idea for slam poetry come about?

Marc Smith: I started a show at the Get Me High (November, 1984/Chicago) on Monday nights, which was the place where I and a few other people got their chops and performed there. We did that for a year and a half and from there we formed the poetry slam. We had done shows around town at different places and we were looking for one spot to do a regular show and that's when we found the Green Mill. There wasn't any competition in the beginning. I called it the slam because at that time, we were encouraging the audience to respond whether they liked it or didn't like it. To fill the last hour of the set, we started the competition. People don't understand that the competition part was an afterthought. We were paying attention to the art of performance.

CB: So, getting back to those early days ...

Marc Smith: ... I did it every two weeks through 1985 until August and got very frustrated with it and quit, but people kept bugging me to come back and do it. Then I started doing it every week in 1986 with a whole new attitude towards it. That first year, I did what like a lot of poetry readings do, cater to the poets. The poets were very self-centered and they did not care about their audience. After I quit the first time and came back, it was the audience that was important and you, the poet, you were there to do a job and if you didn't do it, I got you off the stage pronto, because I wanted the show to succeed.

CB: Has the slam formula changed over the years?

Marc Smith: The slam formula has stayed basically the same. The first set is the open mike, the second set are featured performers, usually two acts and the last set is the competition. The competition always changes. It depends on how much time we have left in the evening. It depends on my mood. It depends on how many people sign up for it. The joy of the competition is that we always make the rules to break the rules.

CB: Where does the slam rank among poets? I mean when you use the word "slam," which you have said kind of has a double meaning. I mean, slam sort of has a negative feel to it.

Marc Smith: If you get a grand slam home run? If you get a grand slam in bridge? If you slam dunk?

CB: Well, okay. I see your point. So, in that sense, do you think poetry is a sport?

Marc Smith: Well, you're on a very old question. Obviously, it's not a sport. The slam competition is a mockery of competition. The real competitions are trying to get your poem published in this book (refers to poetry book on table). See, all the literary magazines, contests that are out there, are serious competition. And it's a closed competition. With the slam, one of the sayings, is, "almost always, the best poet never wins." But this loose form of competition, it prompts the individual to try harder, to do better. And that way, it pushes the form forward. The form I'm most concerned about, is the art of performing poems. That's what I've done. I've brought the art of performing poems into the forefront. That's what the slam does. It makes people take a look at it. Even if you think about it, anybody who stands up and reads a poem, if they don't know the art of performance, they're wasting people's time. Just like if you publish a book of poems and nobody knows the art of writing poems, you're wasting somebody's money and time to even pick it up. I never looked at poetry as a sport. I've never taken the competition seriously.

CB: Well, let me ask you this question another way. If you put the two words, poetry and slam together, it appears to scare hundreds of people away. And I don't mean hundreds of thousands of people, either. I mean people who see that phrase. I belong to some suburban poetry groups myself and when I first joined them, I was considered the sort of genre of poetry slam, which is all the shouting...

Marc Smith: ... you are saying it scares off hundreds of people. The poetry slam, first of all, has brought in an audience far beyond anyone's imagination. Second of all, in the years I have been there, thousands of poets participate. Thousands and thousands. It's not like other poetry readings, where (the same) 15 people come for years. There's constantly new people trying it out. I don't think what you just said is true. You're talking to people who haven't spent some time with it. and don't understand it. If anyone in this whole world tries to say that, they're wrong. The poetry slam is different evdiy place you go to. The show is basically different every Sunday you go to it. It's a total open house. It's open to anybody. Whether they succeed or not, who knows? It's very irritating to hear the shouting thing. For people to equate what happens at poetry slam to shouting, is as ignorant as calling somebody from Mexico, "Spic-o-la." It's a prejudicial, stereotypical, ignorant statement. It ignores the facts. It's said out of malice. Many of the people who don't want to do the slam are not performance-oriented and that's great, that's okay. They're just not that type of person. Others don't want to bother to pay attention to the art of performance.

CB: How do you think poetry slam has changed the world of poetry?

Marc Smith: It's been given an audience. One of the reasons there is an audience is because of the poetry slam. When I started in 1984, there would be 10 people at a poetry reading. That was good. At the Art Institute, unless they had someone like (Lawrence Ferlinghetti), there would be nobody there. The same people would be there. The poetry slam has been responsible for bringing a large, large audience to poetry. It has also brought an honesty to the art form that wasn't there before. There were many more masqueraders of an obscure, pretentious verse that was propagated by the academic world, by buddy professors publishing their other buddy professors. They have to contend with the honesty of a real audience out there that is making up their own minds. They're not relying on the professors and the scholars to tell them what's good.

CB: How have poets benefited from the slam? I guess it's safe to assume that many have gone onto bigger and better things.

Marc Smith: Well, the most recent thing is, Maria McCray who was on the slam team last year and Reggie Gibson who was on the Berwyn slam team, their work is in this new Love Jones movie. Of course, Patricia Smith is the national slam champion for several years in a row and has several books out. The top ones (poets) are able to perform to real audiences around the country at a better rate than a lot of other would-be aspiring poets. We're still outsiders. The powers that be, the academic circles (like) the Art Institute is talking, "this is a formalist and they know the structures." As if other people don't. If the academics want to write in the forms of the Latins, in the forms of the 17th century French, god bless them, you know? That has little to do with America today. What does a sonnet have to do with us? To say that contemporary performance poets have no form, is like saying, "you're a spic or you're a Polack." It's a stereotype (used) by people who have their own kind of way of slurring people.

CB: How long has it taken you to build up the audience at the Green Mill?

Marc Smith: When Dave Jemilo bought it, it was a dive, I mean it was a hard place. It was a rough joint. On Sunday nights, we had a pretty good crowd, about 50 to 60 people. The first year it stayed like that. By the time we came into the second year, it was 100 people. The third year, it was cooking. It stayed cooking until 1991. The biggest year was 1995. There's been tiny dips, but it's been steady for 11 years. Nobody else in the city can claim the success that the slam can claim. There's nobody that can touch it.

CB: What are the general rules of the poetry slam competition?

Marc Smith: We have from 2-8 contestants. Sometimes we match them upon one-by-one bouts/elimination tournaments, in that poets get to read three poems. Sometimes they only get to read one poem. We have three judges picked from the audience to rate the poems (on a scale) from one to 10. No poem may go over three minutes and that's about it.

CB: How did you get interested in poetry and what kind of poet are you?

Marc Smith: (Laughs) I got interested in poetry because the woman I married was a poet. I'm a self-taught poet. I've been writing since I was 19 years old. I started out with just a lot of obscure sound and then just meaning and rhythms, that just grew out of music. I went to school and took some courses in literature and a few in writing. I went through a stage of writing in the free verse movement. I don't have much respect for the forms that came from the Latin (poetics). The masters have done it. Fine, but to hold it up on a pedestal is ridiculous. You should be looking for the new form. When I hit the stage, it was so freeing because I could go back to the natural musicality and really try to communicate something. When you're on the stage, you really have to say something. You can't be obscure. You can't fake it. otherwise, people are going to go (say), "Huh? What the fuck was that about?"

CB: How is your book Crowdpleaser doing?

Marc Smith: It's sold over 1,000 copies ...

CB: Yeah and that's something I was really intrigued with, because from what I understand, you're not that big on having your poems published, either!

Marc Smith: When I really started, at age 19, I acquired a little more than 10 poems published and thousands of rejection slips. When I hit the stage in the early days, some of the same people that had rejected me consistently, all of a sudden, wanted to publish me. When I got on the inside of what was going on in the little magazine world, I discovered that 70 percent is politics, who you know. It remains that way. Now my thinking is a little more sophisticated. I still think the idea of making a product out of art in our country is something that we as artists should all stand up against, because to make products out of art is much less sacred than it is.

CB: What do you think is the greatest misconception of poetry slam and you?

Marc Smith: The greatest misconception is what you said earlier, the shouting. It's anti-competition. Me? Now you got me thinking. That I'm a guy who questions himself through this whole thing.

CB: Is there anything you ever wanted to say in an interview, but you were never asked?

Marc Smith: I believe totally in some kind of God. My life, my gifts that I have, are given to me by the universe. It's a mysterious God. It isn't a Jewish God, it isn't a Catholic God. It's a force out there and I've been given this gift to humbly service to that mystery, a true source of real joy and hope. And I pray before every performance. When I forget to pray, it usually falls apart. That's a question nobody ever asks. Look at our capitalist world, with all its greed and terror and everything. And we wonder why because nobody ever asks that question, who do you serve? I don't serve the money God, I serve the God that everyone's been talking about, from the American Indians to the Buddhists to the Jesus freaks.

Charles Bernstein is the literary editor for Centerstage Chicago and a local poet/writer. Part 1 of this conversation originally appeared in Wilmette, Illinois-based Artisan Ink. Reprinted with permission.