Slam Poetry: A Blue-Collar Chicago Movement

Audio Slideshow: Listen to poetry slam founder Marc Smith and the participants talk about the competition.

By Tessa Fegen, Kellen Winters and Vince Floress

As first-time slam poet Robby Q steps center stage onto the dimly lit arena, it isn’t difficult to notice that he has his reservations.

“I’m nervous big time,” he mutters into the microphone.

But with some quick crowd reassurance, Robby Q proceeds as he looks onto a rather multi-faceted audience who anxiously awaits the delivery of his debut performance. Among them sits Marc Smith, who may just be the biggest critic of them all.

Smith is the founder of the slam poetry movement, which ultimately helped him earn his the nickname, “The Slam Papi.” He runs the popular slam at the Green Mill a jazz club in the North Side Uptown neighborhood, in a three-hour show every Sunday night.


The first hour is open, starting with the “virgin virgins” as Smith calls them. The virgins bravely approach the stage with hopes of delivering a successful first reading. The second features professional and other well-noted poets within the area, followed by the slam competition itself.

Contestants who participate in the slam competition are expected to recite their work with the upmost sincerity, and are then judged on a scale of one to ten by randomly selected members of the audience. On the line is a whopping ten dollars to the winner, and waves of cheers rather than a slough of boos and profanity.

Audience appreciation for an act is shown by either snapping their fingers, meaning they liked it, loud claps, meaning they loved it, or boos meaning they hated it.

The atmosphere is truly original as The Green Mill is an old prohibition bar still reaping the same, old décor where Al Capone once hung out with his posse in the 1930’s. The dark lighting, deep red booths displaying rips from year’s prior, cherry oak bars and graffiti’d bathroom intensify the sense of nostalgia one experiences upon entering the bar.

Marc Smith, founder of the Poetry Slam, relaxes in a booth at The Green Mill.

Slam history started in 1985 at a place called the Get Me High Lounge in Wicker Park. The place was a little small for the audience Smith wanted to entertain, so he set out for a new setting. On July 20, 1986, the first poetry cabaret show took place at the Green Mill.

Slam got its name from Smith’s childhood memories of watching Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks hitting a grand slam. Slam dancing was also around and quite popular.

“We developed a philosophy of cheering and booing opponents so you get a grand slam or get slammed to the ground,” Smith said. “We also wanted to incorporate the name of the town, so, Uptown Poetry Slam. That’s how it all began.”

Smith describes slam poetry as “performance poetry.” In a typical poetry reading, poets do not move their arms or raise their voices.

Though audiences found readings an incredible bore, poets refused to perform, which didn’t make much sense to Smith.

“I found people who had a flair or natural ability and we all learned how to do new things and try new things just to keep the audience from being bored. We performed, memorized and did all the things other performing arts do and that is what made the difference.”

“The second part of the definition. Slam is a certain type of poetry show that’s highly interactive. We make the audience the big part of the poetry reading. Prior to that, the poet was the great scholar, or the mystic and the audience was supposed to accept whatever they said. We reversed that. The audience here is permitted, in fact, encouraged, to say, hey! What the hell are you talkin’ about?”

Smith maintains that the heckling isn’t “mean-spirited,” but is part of the slam culture and presentation.

“The rule is simple, if you heckle, your heckle has to be more intelligent than the poet on the stage,” Smith said “It’s in good fun, but it’s a control on poets that forces them to communicate efficiently. It’s their obligation to effectively communicate to their audience.”

“The third part of the definition is the competition. This part of slam is the easiest thing to spread and for people to understand but it’s not just competition,” Smith said.

According to Smith, it’s the wide demographic of performers, their own personal styles, and its ability to create a very personal impact that make slam poetry unique in comparison to any other art forms.

“The magic of my show is that it is never the same,” he said. “Every night there is going to be something different that happens. From 21- to 80-year old-performers, from heartfelt soliloquies to hysterical rhymes, it’s different.”

Performers like Marty McConnell, said it was the love of the game that kept her coming back for more.

“I sort of got roped into doing the slam, which dragged on for 10 years longer than I planned. I sort of stumbled into it backwards, but now I can’t get out of it.” McConnell said.

The most important thing about the poetry slam is that it provides an arena that changes lives. It has changed thousands of lives across the world. It has been the “aha, ok I know what I am doing now moment,” Smith said.

“To me, that is the most important thing about art,” Smith said. “Art is not a museum piece; all the arts are there to effect positive change in human beings.”

Interactive Map: Location of The Green Mill in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood:
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