July, 2018: It is a balmy Sunday evening. Despite the commotion at the popular Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Uptown, Chicago, silence follows Marc Smith as he walks onstage toward the tube-lit, old-school signage hanging on the wall.
He switches it off.
“Okay, folks. We’ll take a quick break and be right back with the competition. In the meantime, use the restrooms, grab a drink or two. Because how else can you understand this stuff better?” he asks, a loud and jovial emcee.
This is Marc Smith’s usual way of welcoming his audiences to the Uptown Poetry Slam, the first performance poetry contest in the country, which he started in 1984. When he turns off the GREEN MILL sign, the 70-year-old poet gives a nod to the reason he started the slam format in the first place: To dim the lights on everything else and turn the spotlight onto accessible, relatable, and enjoyable poetry.
Lately, Smith has found that hard to do.
He walks offstage and the silence finds its way back around him. His now slightly bent frame shows signs of wear and tear.
Outside the Green Mill, in the mainstream, competitive world of slam poetry, Smith has become Public Enemy No. 1.
In April 2017, the College Union Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI), one of the biggest national collegiate poetry competitions in the United States, had invited Smith to be the featured performer. In a year when the competition was being held in Chicago, the city that gave birth to the slam format, it was a no-brainer that the so-called “father” of the slam would be the guest of honor.
To say it didn’t go well would be an understatement. Smith, it seemed, decided to use this platform to tell a new generation of slam poets that he disapproved of the way they were treating his baby.
The first of the three poems he performed at CUPSI was called “Speaksters.” It expressed disdain towards the sort of poems being performed at spoken word contests:
All rise and bow and kneel
Another spokesman of mass appeal
Has hopped atop the concert stage
To open up his Holy Rage.
The audience was visibly uncomfortable, and a few stanzas in, some started walking out of the event. Local media outlets like The Chicago Defender would be quick to report on the incident.
The second poem, “Old White Guy Whitey” criticized a poet of color who’d called out Smith on his behavior at a private gathering. Smith was allegedly defending his identity—as a cis-gendered white man—and wanted to make a point about reverse racism:
It was funny.
Funny to be sitting there
It was the last poem that did him in. As he recited, a line of poets started forming a human chain at the foot of the stage. With their backs to Smith, they protested by crossing their arms in an X over their chests as he spoke about how those in “the third world” had real problems, while in “our comfortable homes,” we are “milking the repression of our easy existence, stirring . . . our still free voices into teacup whirlpools of angst and despair.” The poem was called “Detention Center.”
Over the course of a few hours and three poems, hundreds of starry-eyed young poets went from regarding Smith with a sense of awe, to feeling shock and disgust.
“This rebellion will not hold back from resistance even if that stops the show. This rebellion is the show,” wrote the Indian poet Diksha Bijlani, in an impassioned note shared on Facebook after the event. “It’ll be much bigger than the confidence of bigotry it takes for a white cis male to walk into a revolution, and call it his commodity,” she ended.
Soon after CUPSI, and more than a year before its next National Poetry Slam, the organizing body, Poetry Slam Inc. issued a statement expressing concern over Smith’s performance. It also found it necessary to add that “Marc Smith will have no role” in the then-upcoming 2018 National Poetry Slam, held last August in Chicago.
It must have been surreal for Marc Smith—the man who believes that the show is everything, the audience is king, and “the greatest thing for a young artist is to be booed.”
“A lot of the bad things going on in the slam world right now,” he says, “is because everybody is always encouraged to cheer everything.”
Bijlani, the author of the Facebook note, was part of the slam team from India that was attending CUPSI for the first time. Their country’s first National Youth Poetry Slam was held in 2016. As winners there, they had qualified for the now-infamous edition of CUPSI.
A year after the fiasco, sitting at a booth next to the dais at the Green Mill, Smith is amazed to hear that the slam format has traveled all the way to India.
The global success of the form shouldn’t come as a surprise. In the United States alone, there are at least three big national slams other than CUPSI. These are the National Poetry Slam (NPS), Individual World Poetry Slam (iWPS), and Women of the World Poetry Slam. All three are organized by Poetry Slam Inc.It was the last poem that did him in. As he recited, a line of poets started forming a human chain at the foot of the stage.
The best way to get a spot in one of these events is to start off by participating in a local slam sponsored by Poetry Slam Inc. Certified slam venues are given priority to send teams to compete at NPS and individuals at iWPS. Unattached poets can apply for any remaining spots. Being a certified slam venue entails a $125 initial fee that’s renewed yearly for $50.
Smith, who hasn’t been actively involved with the workings of the PSi for the past 15 years, has no patent, no copyright, and no claims to any of these earnings.
Smith acknowledges (with a hint of pride) that poets from across Europe and Asia—like Chris Mooney-Singh of Singapore’s Word Forward, a not-for-profit literary arts company that owns the trademark of Singapore’s Poetry Slam—seek Smith’s help in setting up many of their own national slams.
His continued acceptability elsewhere in the world makes one wonder—was Smith’s status as persona non grata at the 2018 NPS in Chicago, a year after his gaffe, unduly harsh?
“I don’t see him as a racist individual per se,” says Mojdeh Stoakley, the host-city director for the 2018 NPS, who has worked with Smith before. “But did he participate in racism on that day?” she asked, referring to CUPSI 2017. “Yes, perhaps.”
Smith’s blunder could be chalked up to his frustrations at what the slam world has grown into. His lines from “Speaksters,” for instance, which attribute a holier-than-thou quality to the rage of popular poets, express sentiments that find many sympathizers.
“I see a lot of poems that are more about being a survivor of whatever human conditions, than about being triumphant,” says Tyehimba Jess, a 53-year-old former slam poet and winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. “I get it, I’ve written those poems too, but it can’t always be that way. That’s not the entirety of your life, and your body of work should reflect more than that. I don’t think that’s happening.”
Jess spent a large part of his early career as a poet in Chicago. A regular on the city’s slam circuits, Jess was also struggling to make ends meet. In those days, he recalled, he’d work three or four jobs at a time. These included teaching gigs with various poetry organizations, particularly Young Chicago Authors (YCA), the group responsible for the city’s now hugely successful high-school poetry slam, Louder Than A Bomb.
“I see some of these real young poets. They get up there and deeply emote about tragic things that have happened to them. And I see them go back and do that over and over and over. That’s a level of drama that is rewarded [in the competitions],” Jess says. “I just don’t think it’s right that they are encouraged to seek that raw nerve in themselves and pluck it until it has calluses—I don’t think that’s psychologically or aesthetically healthy.” For Jess, the tendency of slam competition judges to reward a sort of studied poignancy in a poem tends to breed the same kind of poem, the same style, and the same “ethic” of poetry.
Criticism of the form has persisted for years. Spoken word poetry competitions have often been lamented as the death of poetry as a medium. It only takes a quick Internet search to find criticisms of the genre: “Poetry Slams Do Nothing to Help the Art Survive,” one article in The Independent is titled; “This is Why You Probably Hate Slam Poetry, According to a Linguistic Scholar,” said Vice in the headline of an explainer-interview that talks about the “slam-voice,” a type of delivery typical of some slam performers. A handful of academic papers lambasted the genre as early as the 1990s. Literary critic Harold Bloom famously called slam poetry “the death of art.”
This hasn’t hindered the proliferation and popularity of various poetry organizations, including the YCA where Jess worked, and the newer Crescendo Literary, led by poets Nate Marshall and Eve Ewing. The former’s mission is to cultivate safe spaces of expression for young people who’ve faced violence and segregation, while the latter tries using the literary arts as a launchpad for community activity and activism.
Kevin Coval, artistic director of the YCA, highlights the “hip-hop aesthetic” as the principle that drives the organization’s poetry workshops.For Tyehimba Jess, the tendency of slam competition judges to reward a sort of studied poignancy in a poem tends to breed the same kind of poem, the same style, and the same “ethic” of poetry.
“For five or six generations now, hip-hop has given permission to young people to create art that is about and for their community, using vernacular and imagery and ideas—essentially everything that comprises a good poem,” Coval says. “Hip-hop is also embedded in the notion of uplifting marginalized voices, to help a shift in the center in a lot of ways. It is about archeological digging in the sense that it is a pathway of self-education.”
This would appear to be a sound guiding principle for the slam format today. Thirty-five years ago, when Smith was “a construction worker with a literary bent,” he wanted to take poetry out of what he refers to as “the academy”—elitist universities and publications—and bring it back to the people.
Smith wanted poetry to be accessible for those who might potentially want to write it. Having attended plenty of bland poetry readings, he wanted to make the genre engaging for as many people as possible.
With the popularity of institutions like the YCA and the national slam competitions, however, the form has become somewhat romanticized in its promise of reward.
In 2011, the eponymous documentary about YCA’s Louder Than A Bomb made modest celebrities of poets Nate Marshall and Adam Gottlieb. Around the same time, videos of successful slam poets, especially in online communities like Tumblr, had viral potential. Likes and re-blogs meant being invited to readings, tours, and performances in front of sold-out houses. Future slam participants would try to emulate the style, tone, and cadence of these success stories, but not always with a view toward polishing one’s skill or technique.
Back at the Green Mill, during the break, Smith gives a weary shrug.
This is his reaction to the noise and cutthroat competitiveness in contemporary slams. “Too many people have started getting big things from the slam world. Now everyone wants to be on TV, everyone wants to be a star,” he says. His balding head—the silver ponytail is now gone—deflects some of the overhead light.
When he goes back up to the stage, he introduces himself to Sunday night slam’s audience. Many of the regulars are in on this weekly routine.
“So whaaaat?” they yell in unison, when they hear Smith’s name. He pauses dramatically.
When he announces the competition prize—a grand sum of $15—the house band does a drumroll. But wait, he says, calling for the music to stop. Today he’s feeling generous. The winnings are bigger, grander, and as the drum-roll culminates in a cymbal-smash, he announces a $2 hike.
“Seventeen dollars to the winner,” he screams, reminding the crowd just how much this is: “In the old days, we only gave out a Twinkie!”