On the road with Marc ‘Slam Papi’ Smith
The poetry slam turns 25 in 2011
Twenty-five years ago, Marc Kelly Smith changed poetry readings forever. An ex-construction worker, Smith has the kind of no-nonsense approach to life that you might expect from a blue-collar Chicago guy, and as the story goes, he’d had enough of the stuffy, dry and often exclusive world of poetry readings that were dictated mostly by academia. So he merged the art of performance with the poet’s words, and added the interactive element of the audience giving scores, creating the first poetry slam at Chicago’s Get Me High Lounge in 1986.
The following year, his Uptown Poetry Slam moved to a permanent home at the famous Green Mill Lounge, where Smith has been hosting it ever since, calling it “the longest-running nightclub show in Chicago.”
Of course, from there it took off across the country and the world, with hundreds of poetry slams in big cities and college towns snatching the microphone from the hands of their much-more-subdued literary counterparts and simultaneously changing the image and increasing the profile of poets for the past two decades.
Chico’s slam has been running nearly nonstop since 1995, and has been steered for more than a decade by poet/radio DJ/videographer/ slam master Tazuo Yamaguchi, who will welcome Smith as the featured guest for the Thursday, March 31, slam at Café Culture.
On a recent morning, the Slam Papi pulled over to the side of old Route 66 in Missouri en route to Springfield to talk on the phone about what’s become of his baby.
CN&R: So, you’re on a tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of the poetry slam.
Smith: Yeah, I’m trying to do all the slams I can this year. Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve spent a lot more time in Europe and around the world visiting the slams there. And this is the year to visit the slams in the States.
In visiting some of the established slams, how have they struck you?
You know, to be honest, I would hope that they would have moved on a little bit further than what they are. A couple of the slams I visited, they told me, frankly, they were worried because they were in a little bit of a decline. So, I kind of put my nose in it to see what’s going on and offer advice when I can.
The one thing in America that is thriving is the youth slams. America has really put some effort into getting the youth involved in performance poetry.
Are the slams gaining momentum in Europe?
I’ll give you a good “for instance.” The slam in Munich is [at] Substanz. It’s been going for 18 years, once a month. Every month there’s 300 people inside and sometimes 200 people in the line waiting to get in. [For] their show, they choose who’s going to be the slammers. And it’s only four people. A little different from us in that each person gets, I think, 5 to 10 minutes or something. And the second round is just two of them competing. That’s a real tight show! Instead of [how it is in America] with 20 poets, three rounds, I’m-there-till-2-o’clock-in-the-morning. It’s not to take away from the part of the slam [where it’s] an open door to everybody coming in, but there’s got to be some kind of quality control to draw new audiences.
What I see when I go out is the talent and just the homegrownness of seeing somebody get up and do their first poem, that is still very appealing. What seems to be lacking is nobody’s been passing on the good principles of running shows down to the organizers, and it’s an art form to do a good show.
Have you noticed academia warming up to slams?
There’s kind of a layered answer to this. At the mid-level colleges and universities, they love it. High school teachers love it. It’s the greatest educational device for getting people interested in poetry—reading it, performing it and writing it. At the upper level they still cop an attitude with it. And unfortunately, the slammers are giving them evidence and ammunition to set against us. In the early days, we were very protective of our text, in that we were really saying something and we were writing well. But now a lot of performers are using a lot of clichés and a lot of tired ideas borrowed from the newspapers, and that fuels the academics to criticize the slam.
What’s next for you personally?
I’m on a vision quest right now. Part of this trip is that, to see where I wanna be next. Twenty-five years is the longest I’ve done anything. Artistically, I’ve dabbled in clays. I could go the acting route. I always postpone, but I’ve had some really major success in the acting realm—stage acting. I still connect with people more than ever as a performer. I don’t know. That’s what this trip and this year is all about, to find out what’s next.