Sunday Night Poetry Slam at the Green Mill

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Mark Smith runs a tight ship at the poetry slam held on Sunday nights at the Green Mill. That’s not to say the weekly poetry slam isn’t a loose, anything goes event where all sorts of inspired, unplanned for things can happen at any given moment — it is, but Mark, after twenty-five years at the helm, knows how to guide the proceedings so that the flow of the evening has direction.

Having spawned countless imitators and international competitions, the slam at the Green Mill, the brainchild of the legendary Mr. Smith, was the original poetry slam, the first of its kind anywhere. From its inception, the slam has been built upon a rowdy mix of blue-collar and intellectual aesthetics. There’s a lot of audience participation built into the event, much of it of the “Please don’t pick me. Please don’t pick me. Please don’t take me… damn, I got picked,” variety. In this case, the result is a multifaceted: creating an environment of collective participation, putting the soon-to-bare-their-their-souls performers at ease, and settling the rest of the audience into a sympathetic frame of mind. The three judges, who score the poems on a point system with magic-markered napkins held up in unison on Mark’s “Un, Deux, Trois” count, are chosen at random from the audience. The announcement of performance order is made by another randomly chosen attendee (I happen to have been chosen for this duty, and the great part is that the audience has to repeat the name, in unison, in exactly the same goofy accent or bizarre delivery as the original).

The energetic and engaging master of ceremonies encourages unrestrained expression whether it be crude, beautiful, politically incorrect, sublime or confrontational. Mr. Smith also encourages unrestrained audience reaction to what they see and hear: swearing and hissing are just as common as applause and hoots of approval. He keeps a sharp eye on the proceedings and a sharp tongue on the microphone to make sure things don’t get out of hand. Or maybe to make sure things get very close to out of hand.

Before the slam proper takes place, there is sure to be some live music or a reading by an invited guest, and then, by way of introduction, Mark sings the same song he’s sung every week for thousands of weeks in a row: “Writing Poetry,” a humorous ode to nervousness and pretense set to the tune of “Making Whoopee.”

Then comes the main event, the actual poetry slam. The rules are simple: no poem may last over three minutes, and judges are free to score poets/poems by their own criteria. After each poem, judges award between one and ten points (somehow, the lowest possible score is minus infinity). The audience is also welcome to voice their agreement or displeasure with the judges and their scores. No matter how great a job Mark does as a host — and after twenty-five years you can bet he is solid — the quality of the poetry is always up for grabs. Of the five poems I witnessed on a recent evening, only one was a bona fide killer. The rest ranged between okay and clunky. Of course, this is all part of fun. This is nonprofessional entertainment held for drinking patrons in a raucous bar. The audience is encouraged to snap their fingers when a poem is subpar or if the time limit has been exceeded. It is the poetry slam’s version of the “boo,” and carries just as much, if not more, nerve-shaking critique. I know of one performer who vowed to finish a performance through a riot of snapping fingers, though it had already started just halfway through his poem. Finally, mercifully, the end came and he jogged off stage, past the Galaxy 200 jukebox by the rear exit door, and headed, rattled and crying, straight home. “It was my own fault,” he said. “It was a love poem. I should’ve known better.”

John Paris

About John Paris

Born in Cincinnati, raised in California, John has lived in a lot of great cities -- Montréal, San Francisco, Boston -- but now calls Chicago home sweet home, and has done so longer than anywhere else. Leaving the hills behind, he has found comfort in the flatness of one of the largest grids in the world. Neighborhoods divided into quadrants, divided into city blocks, divided into equal rectangular plots would seem to be a recipe for a grim, constricted civic culture. Not so, says John -- we Chicagoans are blessed by our situation. As inhabitants within the template of boulevards, and streets, and avenues, we dance on a perfect dance floor. The swirling, tumbling activity of circular pegs amused by square slots is the real creative genius of this fair city. Onward circular pegs!

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