An incomplete history of Slam

How Slam knit itself into Chicago's art and culture"The Whitechapel Club," an extended suite of dark comedicpoems with occasional serious tones, was perhaps a high pointof the Ensemble at the Mill. It was a conscious effort amongthe early slammers to diversify the voice of poetry heard atthe Green Mill, and it became the taproot from which a hostof performance poetry voices drew heritage.

"Whitechapel..." topically swayed from autopsies, to murders,to Jack the Ripper, to mysticism, to necrophilia. It waspresented incrementally in September-November 1986 to coincidewith Halloween. Other suites by the Ensemble had similarincremental potential, such as "Circus Chatter," poems aboutthe circus and the life of carnies; "Animal Songs," poemsabout the animal kingdom; and and early suite called "TheLady," which paid homage to T.S. Elliot. Still, the Ensemble could generateonly a finite amount of writing in a given time. And it demanded the serious cooperation of the Ensemble to be performed. While the members reapedsubstantial exposure at the Green Mill, this period became stressful for thegroup as they sought to create new material to fill animpending void.

The Slam came on-line in time to avert a total splintering of theEnsemble, but the stress took its toll. To compound matters,Smith was hospitalized a few months into the season. Heentrusted the operation of the slam and other Green Millpoetry affairs to VanTuyle during that time, and left TonyFitzpatrick to compete for himself in the slams. With Smithin a month-long recovery, VanTuyle enhanced attendance andgate receipts. When Smith returned, it seemed to him thatVanTuyle was challenging his authority.

[ photo: Tony Fitzpatrick ]The Ensemble's split mended, but not perfectly, and the twopoles which formed between Smith and VanTuyle began toseparate the Ensemble again. There was the possibilitythat Tony Fitzpatrick ( pictured, MC'ing a slam at the GreenMill in February 1988 ) may have been involved in theSmith / VanTuyle rift because Fitzpatrick, it was said, alsowas interested in hosting the Green Mill in Smith's absence.Smith claims he was unaware of such a power play until it wasbrought to his attention by his wife and another friend sometime afterward.

Further, according to Smith, there was at least one otherpolarity in the Ensemble with VanTuyle and himself allied at one end,advocating "performance first," and Mike Barret and KarenNystrom advocating "a defense of the word over performance," ( i.e. text first ) a more formalist stand which put the group in an aestheticconflict. But VanTuyle commented, "This was a very healthything we always loved to do. I was always pulling Barret back frombeing too intellectual, and he was always pulling me backfrom being a clown. Karen had the purest voice. Mike had allthe references and all the academic stuff. He called me a'native' poet, an epithet as outsider artist." Smith leftand the Ensemble continued on its own, but with much lessoutput as members left or moved into other artistic venturesof their own.

VanTuyle remarked, "The Ensemble dissolved after our lastperformance in 1991. Mary Shen Barnidge had a reading at theTower Coyote Gallery, and I told her take a good look becauseKaren Nystrom was moving not long thereafter. We never foundanyone to replace any member who quit."

After Smith left the Ensemble he formed a group with newpartners to make The Bob Shakespeare Band: Smith, KendallDunkleberg, Sheila Donohue, Doug Rand, and Cindy Salach. Atleast one reading featured Dan Pearson as well. The BobShakespeare Band was much more lyrical than the Ensemble; theBand employed multi-vocal tactics and diced poems up tocreate tensions and dialogs, occasionally performed thewriting of others outside the group ( e. e. cummings, forexample ), and used much less theater to reach a more auralplace for their work.

Says Donohue, "Doug Rand went to study playwriting in Paris.Doug was able to just improvise his poetry when we werereading our own multivoice poetry, so there was randomelement to it. And because he was an actor he always was afoil for us, a goof-off." Kendall Dunkleberg left afterabout a year of the Band. Donohue observes, "What weactually wanted the Bob Shakespeare Band to be wouldn't work,but it was a good experiment.

"Kendall used to speak Flemish, and when we did ourperformances we'd use the ancient Flemish just for the soundof it. Marc could never do the Flemish thing, but he loveddirecting it, and was good at that... In 1987, we were aquintet for two months. Then we were a quartet for a year.We were a trio from 1989 to 1991. By '92 it had folded, andby '93 it recovered."

[ photo: Cindy Salach ] Smith, Donohue, and Salach ( pictured, at ABC No Rio, New York, 1992 ) continued together until Smithleft in 1992. Says Donohue, "After a while, it was Marc justdoing solos and Cindy [ Salach ] and I doing duets, so that was wherethe split naturally occurred. Cindy and I did duets forabout a year or so at least before we determined that we'ddevelop it further with performance and video... increasedexploration of the duet just within poetry. At this point wehave technique down and rehearsal is just a matter of gettingoff-book in just a session." The heritage and performancetactic of the Bob Shakespeare Band can still be heard inperformance by Donohue and Salach's current collaborativeteam, called Betty's Mouth.

Donohue points to her direction in multi-vocal poetry, "Inthe beginning it was stamina... all we could do to just getthe show done, but now we can work out choreography and getvoicing down easily. We want to concentrate on new writing,doing something we haven't done before, not to sound or lookas we have in the past."

The connections through The Loofah Method

There is an additional branch in the family tree when oneconsiders that Salach, while collaborating with Smith andDonohue, also maintained an independent collaboration withcomposer Mark Messing, performance artist Mark Howell, andpoet/media artist Kurt Heintz under the banner of "The LoofahMethod."

[ photo: Inka Alasade, 1995 ]Originally, The Loofah Method were only Salach, Messing, andHowell beginning in August 1986. Salach was inspired to bring her own poetry to the Green Mill after seeing Inka Alasade ( pictured: Di Falco Gallery, Chicago, 1995 ). Messing offered to set her poetry to music andHowell, a mutual friend, designed performance for it usingcreative lighting and projections, props and cardboard cut-out costumes. Their first appearance as an ensemble was atthe Green Mill. From there, they played at small clubs, such as Bedrock onBroadway and Surf ( now defunct ), andgalleries around Chicago. Their productions rapidly grew insize until they numbered over a dozen crewmembers by 1989. Bythen, they were performing at Edge of the Lookingglass, runby Chris Murray and Tony Fitzpatrick, with assistance from Seth Greene. Here, Salach'sconnections to visual art and performance began toexpand. Contact with Lookingglass precipitated herfriendship and collaboration with actor, monloguist, and eventual Big Goddess Pow-wow cofounder Paula Killen.

In spring 1990, Loofah launched an ambitious showcalled "TV Dinner Theater" at Chicago Filmmakers, a broad sampling ofperformance/media pieces built around poetic texts. Half-waythrough, the performance stopped for an intermission while theaudience were actually served warm TV dinners. It was a verysuccessful show, but technical deadlines and last-minuteproduction demands strained the core members to nearbreaking. While they would eventually return,Howell and filmmaker Ben Talbot retired fromthe ensemble. Salach and Messing decided to dissolve theensemble, retain the name, and reconstruct from the ground up.

By fall 1990, Kurt Heintz was called to the ensemble asvideographer to collaborate on a new piece, "Vogue with the WarDead," for performance. In video, he digitally sampled OliverNorth to work with and around Cindy Salach's rap about theIran/Contra affair. The success of "Vogue" earned Heintz aberth with Loofah Method full time.

Since 1991, Howell and Talbot have worked again with Loofah Method.Heintz and Sheila Donohue have alsowritten part-time for the ensemble. The cross-connectionsfrom slam poetry to other art forms are ample through theLoofahs and their associates. Mark Messing is a bridge toacid jazz, industrial music, house, and to cabaret theater byway of his work with Curious Theater Branch and Maestro Subgum andthe Whole. His musical partners include jazz/soul pop artist Nicholas Tremulis, and avant jazz percussionist and composer Michael Zerang.

Kurt Heintz came out of the Sandin / analog image processor heritage invideo from studying under Drew Browning ( from the University of Illinoisat Chicago ), and and was also influenced in performance artby the Neoteric Ensemble / Horses Performance Ensemble heritage through associates in college in DeKalb, Illinois. He andCindy Salach both maintain direct connections with members ofthe NeoFuturist Theater, and have slam poetry experienceextending back to the earliest Get Me High Lounge readings.

Ben Talbot worked with the Jellyeye ensemble to produce filmfor the media/percussion opera "Avalanche Ranch" and with Live Bait Theater for their production "Memento Mori" in 1995. He also collaborated one-to-one with Sheila Donohue.

Second generation slammers and parallel universes

A significant branch to the NeoFuturist Theater ( performers of "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind" ) grew from slam poetryafter a the first wave of poets graduated through the Green Mill experience. The most important figures here are Lisa Buscani, long-time slam rival toPatricia Smith, and David Kodeski, another potent contenderfrom Chicago who has been on the city's National Slam teamtwice. Both Buscani and Kodeski came from the east to settlein Chicago theater, Buscani from Toledo, Ohio and Kodeski from Niagara Falls, New York. Buscani was one of the NeoFuturists' founders.Kodeski joined sometime later ( after 1992 ), whenBuscani left and then began to cultivate the "Big Goddess Pow-wow" shows with Paula Killen.

Bob Holman recalls New York's first NeoFuturist encounter. "In the winter of 1991 [ Feb. or Mar. ], at the second grandslam held at the Cooper Union, we were visited by LisaBuscani, the first known appearance of one of the Chicagoslammers in New York. She took the stage fearlessly in a1500 seat hall, and sent the audience into anotherdimension."

Slam's connection to Live Bait Theater is double strength. The theater's associate director is Edward Thomas-Herrera, twice himself a Chicago team national slam competitor and a Loofah Method collaborator in two shows. The NeoFuturistsmade Live Bait their home when they were just starting outproducing late night shows therebefore moving into their own theater in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood.

Still more connections with slam in the performing arts grew as other shows and revues embraced slam's feral aesthetic and applied it to their respective performingarts. The Big Goddess Pow-wows are clear examples of this effect. So is "Millie's Orchid Show", which became a vehicle forpresenting performance art in an entertaining, disarming, theatrical, but pointedway. The Orchid Show was put together by Brigid Murphy who emceed it in the redneckcharacter of Millie Mae Smithie, and while the shows played originally in small clubssuch as Lounge Ax, they expanded to fill the Park West, one of Chicago's mostprestigious concert theaters. Murphy began as a student of dance atColumbia College in Chicago and was streaming herself into the performanceart circuit with shows at Randolph Street Gallery, but early on she also saw fit to collaboratewith Marc Smith on performances at the Green Mill. As a result, there has been frequent cross-over between Green Mill and Orchid Show audiences and featuredartists. Kodeski and Thomas-Herrera themselves performed in an Orchid Showas recently as February 1996.

"Thax After Dark" was produced by poet Thax Douglas who beganreading in open mike sets at the Get Me High Lounge and Green Mill in 1988. Douglas styled himself as a queer, catty, scruffy, and somewhat nerdy enfant terrible. He lived in the costume of his signature persona: plastic frame glasses taped together at the temples, pilled acrylic sweaters, and dingey pormotional baseball caps.He competed often in the slam when he first discovered his deadpan performance voice, but healso discovered that his style and writing never found much favor with the Green Mill's slam judges, the audience, and eventually the host.He invoked a classic post-modern appropriation of anything he could get his hands on, from William Burroughs to Pier Paolo Pasolini to Andy Warhol, while still making the literary moment his own. This, for the Mill's audience,was a bit too far into the artist's life. However, Douglas never apologized nor doubted hisinstincts.

Instead, he stuck to an intellectual tack and eventually built an audience of his own drawnlargely from an urban underground of fellow artists and bohemians, people outside themore working-class and white collar crowd from which the Green Mill prospered. After Dark shows were renowned for their incredible rosters of writersand fringe personalities on the margins of discovery. Douglas also invited performance artists to join in his shows in an effort similar toBrigid Muphy's, albeit with little of Murphy's vaudevillian context.

It was not uncommon for a Thax After Dark show to present over twenty different artists. Most featured a literary element in their presentations if they were not themselves poets.Evening shows started around 9:00 pm, but often would extend well past midnight.He also spearheaded the crossover from the ( then ) virginal Wicker Park music sceneinto Chicago's clubs elsewhere in town, introducing young writers to youngmusicians along the way. At the outset, Douglas produced eventsin Club Lower Links at 954 W. Newport, including that club's very last show ona wintery Sunday night. After that, he moved to theOrchid Show's original haunts, the Lounge Ax, in 1993.

copyright (c) 1996 Kurt Heintz