An incomplete history of Slam

Slamming and literary criticism: hostility andreconciliationBecause so much writing, for Chicago at least, was getting somuch attention in such a kinetic environment, some writers took advantage of theirnewfound vantage point to blame the academy for desensitizing people to poetry. Theyheld that the academy ( namely schools, universities, and theestablished literary press ) had made poetry impotent andirrelevant in the current social condition. One problem withthe slammers' anti-authoritarianism in that period was thatwhile some of the academy's so-called legitimate writing andcriticism was withdrawn from reality, much of it was not.Many slam-school poets, or would-be poets, came from theranks of shop clerks, secretaries, carpenters, and such,often in lives apart from literary criticism and exposure tocurrent writing, and much of their judgement was rough and partly-informed. The populism of the slam early on became both a virtue and a liability.

Marc Smith staunched this effect at his own venue byshowcasing recognized writers, such as Angela Jackson,Reginald Gibbons, Carl Watson, and national figures such asMarvin Bell as guest poets at the Mill. But turnover in thecommunity was too rapid; a number of venues hosted readingswith greater frequency and less critical judgement. Peoplefactionalized and venues developed agendas and communities oftheir own. From that point forward, some local Chicago writersworried more about how unlike Marc Smith they had to beinstead of considering their own writing vis-a-vis otherwriters abroad; in their mind, Smith was the establishmentagainst which they needed to rebel, and the very idea of theacademy was hardly entertained.

The forced diversity of the decentralized slam school for awhile encouraged a flourish of readings. Letter eX expanded to a smalltabloid-sized monthly and it's center spread was often a full calendar section ofpoetry readings, performances and special events. But by early1993, the scene began to fade in Chicago. The slam revolution had beenstaged and had become somewhat spent.

A gradualshake-out in an overbuilt poetry circuit reduced venues downto little more than an essential few. The survival of poetry on Chicago's club and cabaret circuit seemed to hinge upon staking a solid claim to a particular night of a poetry-goer's week. Those which lasted best through the boom/bust of 1993 became the most significantpoints on Chicago's poetry map of the day: The Green Mill ( Sundays ),Weeds ( Mondays ); Estelle's ( Tuesdays ); and The GuildComplex at the Hothouse ( Wednesdays ). All these venues sported some form of open mike as part of theirregular poetry programming. Except for Weeds, an exclusively open-mike venue, it's worth notingthat all the others exercised some critical control overtheir featured artists.

Also, all of these venues experienced a stronginfluence from Chicago's Wicker Park artists' community priorto its exhausting gentrification in the mid- to late-1990s. Marc Smith's originalvenue, the Get Me High Lounge, was two blocks outside of Wicker Park in Bucktown.The neighborhood was home to Marc Smith, Ron Gillette, Cin Salach, Michael Warr, LouisRodriguez and many others by 1991-2. For a brief time immediately before theirmove to Boston, even Michael Brownand Patricia Smith resided in Wicker Park. Most performance poetsof that period have left the neighborhood since that time, but for a while, geography and demographicsconverged the right way for slamming in Chicago, thus enabling a groupaesthetic to evolve. Writers and hacks alike could trip from club to club on theirown during a given week and know that they'd encounter someone they knew, either a rival or a friend within the scene, and be able to check out others' poetry.

Of all the venues, one stood the furthest outside the academyand built upon traditions of its own.Weeds' individual success can be credited to its charismatic host GregorioGomez and proprietor Sergio Mayora who each wielded a heavy but personable attitude tomaintain the venue's ambience: a deliberate and vocal free-for-all of poets. Theroom somewhat intimidated newcomers who dared to take the mike, but earnestly rewarded those poets who delivered. Weeds became one of Chicago's most egalitarian poetry venues; almost anyone could trypitching a poem to whomever visited on a Monday night. Gomez' frontier law MC style proved itself over time; of the four venues mentioned above, only the Green Mill has been active for nearly as many continuous years.

Weeds also benefitted from cultivating its own poetry culture without thenecessary trappings of a slam. The late "Righteous" Bob Rudnick andother poets from Detroit's MC5 set were frequent visitors early on. A lot of trafficbetween the Green Mill and Weeds, both in audience and in open mikepoets, helped insure both venues' survival from 1986 forward. People couldsee one budding artist at one venue, then go to the other venue to catch them orsomeone else in a different atmosphere, and swap experiences along the way. Therewere also evenings in 1986-87 when poets at the Get Me High Lounge, then MC'd by Rob Van Tuyle and Tim Anderson in the wake of Marc Smith, would break early on their traditional Monday night only to reconvene for a nightcap at Weeds.

An informal performance poetry aesthetic, borne of this feral dialectic among thevenues, arose in a way similar to how jazz initially impinged upon more scholastic musics at the beginning of the 1900s.The entirity of the phenomenon - comraderie, the neighborhood community, acloseness of hopes and politics - fused into the whole experience of slam.Much of these shared experiences, however, were "street smarts" which neitherpecolated toward nor impressed those whom the more aggressive performanceadvocates wanted to influence the most. Many lesser or wildcat slammers and allies sought a public validation of their art but attempted to get it from their declared targets in the academy, and that only begat more tension between the camps.Only in a few instances did the slam aestheticfind the articulate voice to give it the appropriate coding to pass in scholastic circles;in those cases slam's defence was engineered primarily by experienced and well-schooledwriters.

Thus some anxiety and disdain were bound to be thrown both directions between the academics and the slammers. The sources of this criticism andcounter-criticism, however, were not always expected. Until the publication's demise in 1995, the fray ironically included Letter eX on the academic side. Its editorials and reviews tookshots at slamming, particularly at Marc Smith, and at the legitimacy of performance poetry as an art form altogether, and were sometimes penned under pseudonyms... this from a publication once founded by people in the thick of performance poetry in the pre-slam 1980s. Luis Rodriguez chafed with Letter eXover poetry's accessibility to the public when he took criticism from Robert KleinEngler, under the pseudonym "Gloria Klein", for leading writing workshops forthe homeless. The debate between Rodriguez et al and Engler was sparked by criticalletters to the editor of Chicago's arts weekly New City. New City didn't recognize that Engler was writing under a pseudonym and thus inadvertantlyconferred legitimacy to the comments. For some time afterward,"Gloria Klein" issued many lengthy attacks on slam and performancepoetry in Letter eX before that publication eventually had to come clean with "her" identity.

For some, the Klein episode smacked of being a synthetic controversy. Eventually the adamant posture of the slammers relaxed. Time and the decay of the hype surrounding performance poetry's oft repeated mission to storm the ivorytowers softened the conflict but a little bit of antagonism still lives on to the present in Chicago.

Marc Smith commented about an incident in January 1994, "When Pat Smith andLouis Rodriguez received the Carl Sandburg Award, the [ devisive ] momentum in poetry turned. Paul Hooveracknowleged the Slam as a positive force which made ithappen... The hatchet was buried." The collective effortsof Marc Smith, Patricia Smith, Luis Rodriguez, Michael Brown,et al brought the moment together, and pointed towardreconciliation with the academy.

By June of 1994, the maturing craft of the slammers wasbecoming more the academy's occupation. Further, many slamschool poets were ( or were becoming ) well-versed in otherpoets' work and criticism, just as the academics wereembracing performance poets' work more broadly. This marked, finally, aconvergence of the schools. At the Asheville PoetryFestival, Smith announced the end of the feud between theacademy and the slam. By then, it was clear that each campcould productively work with the differences of the other, toassimilate a stronger poetry in the end.

copyright (c) 1996 Kurt Heintz