Poets who cause the prigs to curse in verse, or worse

NATIONAL CLOSEUP

April 27, 1992|By Cynthia Mayer | Cynthia Mayer,Knight-Ridder News Service

CHICAGO -- Give Chicago a teacup, and it will hand you a mug. Give it a crepe, and you'll get back a Polish (that's sausage). Give it poetry, and God help you. You'll get the slam.

That's poetry slam, as in in-your-face rhyming chanting spitting howling take-it-or-leave-it Bud it's your choice poetry. And while you're at it, have an Old Style (that's beer).

Poetry slams, begun in Chicago in 1984 as a kind of attack on the priggishness of traditional poetry readings, are slowly becoming one of the city's more successful cultural exports. They've hit Boston (carried there by slam "champion" Pat Smith), New York, San Francisco, Atlanta and Ann Arbor, Mich.

That's because poetry slams pit poets against each other in a kind of gladiator sport, as spectators swill beer and smoke cigarettes and either applaud or snap their fingers in disgust. Poets are given a chance to read one poem each and are then scored like Olympic divers, by judges picked from the audience. The winner takes all -- about $10.

In Chicago, slams have been drawing crowds of 150 on Sunday nights for eight years. People pay $4 to get in.

"My idea was to knock the pretentiousness out of poetry," said Marc Smith, their intense, ponytailed creator. "My theory is all the great poets belong on the stage."

But, while everyone admits slams are bringing poetry to the masses, the form is dividing poetry communities. High-brow vs. low-brow, TV age vs. reading -- call it what you like, established poets don't like them.

"They're geek shows, Gong Shows," said Paul Hoover, a Chicago poet now editing an avant-garde edition of the Norton Anthology of Poetry, the king of anthologies.

On a recent night at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, a dive once frequented by Al Capone, Marc Smith is working a crowd of about 150 into a loosened, slightly inebriated state -- perfect for slamming.

Tall, with a black ponytail and dark socket eyes, Mr. Smith prowls the stage like some kind of demonic Phil Donahue, alternately reciting poetry in a snarl and whisper, and skewering those poets who get carried away with their own self-importance.

xTC "I never take a shot at someone who can't take it," Mr. Smith said.

But he has a few favorite tags: First-time performers are "virgin-virgins." Depressing poems are "suicide hot line specials." One woman who read several depressing poems was nicknamed "the Grand Dame of Doom."

Tonight's slam begins when Mr. Smith introduces the three audience judges and gleefully announces that they have no qualifications.

Contestant No. 1 is Dan, a young, curly-headed Tom Hanks look-alike. He opens the action with a daringly depressing poem. It begins with a "dull, dreary gray day," whines on to say that "depression has reared its ugly head again" and laments the "biting sting of lost love."

"Throw me a rope, and I'll put it around my neck," he concludes.

It's a fitting offer, because the audience is banging on the tables in disgust. The judges seem to agree with the audience: They award the young poet 9.2 points, a paltry score.

Next up is an academic-looking man in a tweed jacket nicknamed "Old Thatcher" with a poem about death -- a brave move in a room full of people in their 20s and 30s.

"I met a man with eyes like my father," he reads slowly. He wins handily, with a total of 19.15.

Then comes the lone female contestant, Francine. She opens with a suicide hot line special. "In the cold darkness I sliced my veins," she reads. "Alone . . . I grasped at the cold of my prison. . . . Through the torture and the bleeding, I knew that my love would never leave."

The judges award her 25.9.

But then up steps the evening's champion, veteran slammer Dave Baez, a jockish young Chicagoan who takes the stage in an Escher T-shirt, jeans and a serious case of self-confidence.

He goes with his heaviest artillery: a staunch, rocking, hometown cheer for Chicago's El trains.

Praising the trains and their human cargo, he comes up with the first startling imagery: passengers who are "monologuists muttering in a dark corner of the wrong play."

He wins big applause and even inspires a drunk to take the stage. His score is 26.07, the highest.

Collecting his $10, Mr. Baez walks back to the bar. "A couple of Old Styles," he tells the bartender.

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