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It’s Slam Time!

Green Mill
The Green Mill

Silence fills the room as all eyes are on center stage. A poet is under the hot spotlight as the jazz band plays music of the poet’s choice. The clanking bottles at the bar disturb the atmosphere as the poet prepares to perform. The poet begins, and when it’s over the crowd cheers. It’s open mic night at the Green Mill – the birthplace of slam poetry.

Every Sunday the Green Mill is home to one of the many poetry slams throughout Chicago. But only the Green Mill can say it started it all. Marc Kelly Smith has been hosting the event for over 25 years. It all started back in 1986 when Smith approached Dave Jimilo, the owner of the Green Mill. Smith told the owner he knew how to make slow Sundays busy. Jimilo gave Smith the green light and turned over Sunday nights for the poetry competition.

Smith has since been recognized as the founder of the poetry slam by  PSI (Poetry Slam Inc.) and has appeared on 60 minutes, CNN, NPR’s “Whadda Ya Know,” and a PBS television series “The United States of Poetry”.

Smith started writing poetry at the age of 19. He said he was a slow reader but had a natural talent for writing. He gets his inspiration from the world and everything he feels passionate about. His first love is poetry, which is why he started the non-profit Slam Works.

“Let’s face it,” Smith said. “I’m going to die one of these days, which is why I started a non-profit organization to help keep the movement alive after I’m gone.” All proceeds go to preserving and expanding the Chicago legacy of slam poetry, said Smith.

Smith hopes one day the Slam will be held in the Steppenwolf Theater in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. Poetry Slams occur all over the United States and poets even compete in other countries like Singapore and Russia.

Back at the Green Mill, where it all started, Sunday nights always bring a crowd. The room is packed and people are scrambling to find a spot without disturbing the audience. Strangers are forced to share booths and the room feels cozy with over 70 people. The night kicks off with open mic where anyone can perform. For first timers, the crowd goes wild as the “virgin poet” speaks.
Smith calls people who have never performed at the Green Mill “virgin poets” and people who have never read poetry in front of a live audience are called “virgin virgins.” The crowd can completely control the night. If they love the poet’s work – they shout, stomp and clap. If they don’t like what they’re saying, they snap your fingers or dom as Smith calls it, the feminist hiss, especially effective in dismissing sexist remarks. Guys in the audience can also grunt if they feel like a female poet is being sexist.

Michael Trainor has been performing at the Green Mill for a year. It all started when he heard about a great guitarist who performs on Wednesday nights.

the green mill.
the green mill. (Photo credit: shil)

“After he was done playing, the host mentioned upcoming shows. The slam interested me because I write poetry. I thought I’d check it out, and I’ve been coming ever since.”

Trainor has been writing poetry for 11 years, and for the last year Smith has been guiding him.

“I feel like with the regulars [Smith] takes them under his wing. He tries to nurture them, but is hard on them too. He wants to help our craft and see us progress. He’s more of a teacher to me,” Trainor said.

While some visit the Green Mill to perform, others come to listen. Anna Rhoads has been coming to the Green Mill just over two years.

“What keeps me coming back is the fact that this is the kind of place where you feel like it’s special to be here. Something unique happens every time I’m here. You’ll never see the same show twice, and that means something,” Rhoads said.

Smith likes people to be themselves when they come up to read. His advice for people who want to perform or write, “Be honest, write something vulnerable and true. If you’re not being honest, you’re no better than a politician,” Smith said, laughing.

Anybody can slam on Sunday night. Hopeful performers should arrive early and tell Smith they want to try it out. If they’re feeling lucky, performers can sign up for the competition at the end where three audience members will judge the poems–just don’t expect the crowd to go easy. The winner goes home with $10, though Smith never seems to have a ten-dollar bill in his pocket– so the prize is usually $20.

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