Wednesday, May 01, 2013

An Up-Close & Personal Q&A with Poetry Slam Founder Marc Kelly Smith

Marc Kelly Smith, founder of the original Uptown Poetry Slam in Chicago, recently answered some questions posed by Frugal Poet's Guide to Life. Starting in the summer of 1986, Marc has held the slam every Sunday night at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge on Broadway near Lawrence. The slam concept has since gone international, with slam events held at venues around the world.

Over the years, Marc has graciously invited my husband Carlos Cumpian and me to be featured readers at the venue, most recently last month when I read from my new chapbook "Omnivore Odes: Poems About Food, Herbs and Spices." Marc himself even performed a couple of times at my place of work, making a sensation at our company's lunch-and-learn employee events.

Frugal Poet’s Guide to Life: Before you started the Uptown Poetry Slam at the Green Mill, you used to hold readings at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago. What was the difference between readings at Get Me High and the Green Mill? What do you think was the key reason the Uptown Poetry Slam took off so spectacularly?

Marc Smith: Actually, once the Monday night show at the Get Me High took hold it had some spectacular nights itself. I started the Get Me High show in November 1984 and ran it like the old-style poetry readings for several months and got frustrated by the self-centered behavior of the poets participating. I quit doing it for a couple months in summer and fall of 1985 and then was pestered by Butchie the owner to start it up again in the winter.

When I restarted the Get Me High show in the winter of 1985/86 I did so with a new philosophy that the audience was the most important element of the show and that the poets should (and must) be in service to the audience. No poet was allowed to belabor the audience with self-centered blathering. Poets were allowed to read no more than two or three poems and if those poems sucked the audience was allowed to let them know how bad they were.

It was at this time that I also realized that performance was the key to the successful communication of a poem to an audience in a public setting. The art of performing had been ignored by poets in the later 20th century, indeed, it was a taboo to most poetry circles to dare to perform poems. I knew that there was no sound reasoning behind such a position and encourage (sometimes demanded) that the poet learn how to perform poems rather than just muttering them on stage.

Of course, there were some individuals in Chicago like David Hernandez and Mary Shen Barnidge who had been performing their poems for years. I sought them out and brought them to the Get Me High as featured guests and examples of what was coined “performance poetry.”

I do not claim to be the one who came up with the idea of performing poetry. Poetry as you know began as a performance art long before the human species scratch a written word into a clay slate. What I did do was to focus a new collective attention to the art of performing poetry and to announce to the world that it was as important an ingredient (performing) to effective communication of poetry to a public audience as the writing of the text is.

And despite all the criticism leveled at me from the old guard poetry establishments then and now I think I was right.

Frugal Poet’s Guide to Life: As a poet and worker in Chicago previous to the slam, did you everdream that life as an impresario might take front and center?

Marc Smith: Very few people believe me when I tell them that I’m for the most part a shy person. I learned how to be at ease on stage by struggling with stage fright and the demons of insecurity and low self-esteem. My success as a performance poet and impresario is a testimony to the fact that performing is an art form like any other that can be learned and mastered.

Frugal Poet’s Guide to Life: What role does drama and theater play in your life?

Marc Smith: I love the stage and the theater. I have had roles in a few stage productions and love the ritual nature of rehearsal and performing the same actions and lines over and over through the run of the play. The same, yet totally different every night. And for shy Marc (unlike nightclub performing) I get to disappear backstage after the performance and become almost anonymous to the public who just a few minutes before saw me (and applauded) in the footlights.

Now that I am a little more financially secure (and older) I would love to do more and more theater production. And if I stop being so lazy, maybe I will. ##


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