“Fighting words: Checking in on the sass and spirit of the city’s open-mic battlegrounds
Hiss, grunt, snap—become well-versed”
By Benjamin Ortiz, Special to the Tribune

Section: On the Town
Date: April 4, 2008

Eternal poet laureate of Illinois Carl Sandburg said it from the jump of the 20th Century: My city can kick your city’s butt. Just listen to the rusting, hulking lilt of Sandburg’s “Chicago Poems” and you can hear a city set to brawl, a pugilist ready to hit the mark and make his name.

Our city still is ready for a tussle. A mix of ancient Greek ritual, Shakespearean bawdy groundling humor and Wild West saloon burlesque, Chicago’s open-mic poetry spots appeal to a rowdy audience. Sandburg’s boast bears fruit in this poetry scene that has its ups and downs yet keeps its fists up.
April is National Poetry Month, so it’s a good time to check out the spirited events. If you go, be prepared for the “feminist hiss” from women in the crowd in reaction to anything sexist or wielded ironically, and the “masculine grunt” from guys getting Frankenstein-esque about lines that are instantly deemed good or bad. And if you hear stomping while delivering your verse, it’s time to get better or get gone.
Poets like Carl Sandburg, Nelson Algren and Gwendolyn Brooks long ago articulated the essential myths of Chicago as a big-shoulders modernist, a city whose literary ballads to the working class define our profile every bit as skyscrapers set against Lake Michigan do. Through the first decade of the 21st Century, Chicago still stands tall as a square-jawed bard, with poetry like fighting words.
Hailed as the great grand-pappy of performance poetry, the Uptown Poetry Slam has been kicking at the Green Mill since 1987, the work of venerable SlamPapi Marc Smith, a construction worker who started the show in reaction to arrogant academic poetry. Bristling at the idea of having to have a degree or published work to be taken seriously as a poet, Smith brayed Sandburg-like with a big, fat “SO WHAT.”
And that’s how he continues to do the show—every time he says “I’m Marc Smith,” the crowd joyously responds, “SO WHAT!” This and other such rituals surround the slam, like the snapping fingers and pounding feet that let a poet know the end is near, or the “feminist hiss” and “masculine grunt” from the audience that evaluate poetry on the spot.
“I always manage to make it new for myself,” Smith says of hosting every single week. “I consider myself a servant to my audience.” At a recent slam, Smith climbed the bar and scaled tables with signature crowd-busting vocal fanfare, backed by his Rootabaga jazz combo.
” ‘Til I die,” he says about slamming. “[I’ll be] up there in a wheelchair doing the same old shtick.” Smith invokes prairies and penthouses, smokestacks and neon skylines, littered in a long, quixotic free-verse line that feels like it could go on forever.
Competing for stage geriatrics and attitude, Weeds Tavern hosts a slam-style poetry harangue that will probably die about as hard as Smith. Weeds’ arch-ritualized, bluest of Mondays includes zombielike repetition of the bar address plus the frequent, profanity-ridden refrain of just how much they “don’t give a good ***damn.”
Smith admits the zany stuff doesn’t happen much anymore in Uptown, but Weeds Tavern is just the sort of poetry “Twilight Zone” to keep social disorder set to verse—it’s a neighborhood bar without a neighborhood, a pub in search of a people. Like one of its handmade poster-broadsides reads, “Tricky, Turbulent, Tribal.”
Bartender Sergio Mayora holds forth at the reading, where he’s known to do the same two poems (penned in junior high) every week. Mixing aggressively juvenile anti-white protest with the equally adolescent observation that “we all came out of a hole” when we were born, Mayora declaims rapidly and robotically, usually because the crowd is busy rapping out lines from his greatest hits.
Host and Chicago poetry veteran Gregorio Gomez is a literary chameleon who regularly gets around town for Latino-themed readings at more sedate spots, but at Weeds he’s all animal, with off-color jokes, remixed clichés, political punditry and off-the-wall, on-the-fly nonsense rattled out like a repo-lot bulldog howling at his own shadow.
Despite the irreverent performance style, Gomez says: “I stand for hundreds and hundreds of poets who will never be famous. I like to consider this still an underground poetry spot.” Open-mic poets also get their few minutes to shine from out of Weeds’ funky murk, answering the call of its carny-barking muse.
Gomez and Mayora claim poetry has been going on at Weeds since 1984, which would make it the main contender for longest-running series against the Uptown Slam. Back in the day they were buddies with Smith, even doing a few shows together before their huge personalities went in separate directions.
Like their elders, younger poets have cross-pollinated a few shows that carry the torch, especially with their openness to pure entertainment mixed in with the poetry. The ’90s Chicago poetry scene hit a high point with various popular venues, and one of them yielded a slam team to compete against the vibe and verse of the Green Mill: Mental Graffiti.
Ebbing and flowing over the years, Mental Graffiti moved around venues mainly centered in Wicker Park, with a dedicated weekly hipster crowd and more of a hip-hop/urban-DJ atmosphere to match Uptown’s jazz. Now in River West, the series has gone monthly, with a trio of organizers who got their chops in the spoken-word trenches around town.
Joel Chmara regularly pushes the envelope with über-ironic meta-commentary on poetry and the scene, and his self-deprecating Midwestern sort of Bob Newhart-style draws in the crowd. Chmara and co-organizer Tim Stafford work the Chicago social scene in general to draw “both cool people and poets” to Mental Graffiti. “New people we don’t know show up,” says Chmara, “a younger crowd and more of a party atmosphere, including an Arsenio Hall-style Dog Pound cheering section.”
The multimedia PolyRhythmic arts collective has been doing an eclectic weekly open-mic in Wrigleyville for almost seven years, with roots in the old Mental Graffiti. The show—Safe Smiles—feels nicely tucked away from sports-bar-land, and yet the DJ sets, hosting and performances have a raucous, crowd-pleasing edge.
Collective member Drew Perfilio says they like to mix up the show with poets, musicians, clowns, comics and avant-garde madness.
Itself a monument to Chicago’s greatest writers and literary achievements, The Guild Complex fosters the next generation of local poets through various programs, and its multicultural mission reaches out specifically to the Latino community with the monthly Palabra Pura series. Executive director Ellen Placey Wadey notes the need for a venue where Chicagoans who mix Spanish and English can enjoy bilingual poetry, the reason the Guild started the series in February 2006.
With definite community warmth, last month’s Palabra Pura in the back-room lounge at the California Clipper featured local and touring poets, in addition to open-mic readings in English and Spanish, sometimes mixing the two. The roving series moves next to the Center on Halsted, with celebrated poets Lorna Dee Cervantes and Rigoberto Gonzalez.
In Rogers Park, poetry gets paced to the elevated train that hugs the Heartland Cafe and shoots sparks in symbolic praise of restless night. With slightly younger, 18-and-up energy, the wide-eyed literati darken the main dining room and share something between a drum circle and speech-and-drama squad experience.
Here at In One Ear may be our next great Chicago voice, struggling to the head of the sign-up list to get heard.
“In One Ear” open mic
Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m., $3, 18+
Heartland Café, 7000 N. Glenwood, 773-465-8005
Mental Graffiti
Third Mondays, 8 p.m., $5, 21+
Funky Buddha Lounge, 728 W. Grand, 312-666-1695
Palabra Pura reading series
Third Wednesdays, 8 p.m., free
Next event: April 16, Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted, all ages
PolyRhythmic Presents “Safe Smiles”
Tuesdays, 10:30 p.m., $3, 21+
Trace Lounge (upstairs), 3714 N. Clark, 773-477-3400
Uptown Poetry Slam
Sundays, 7 p.m., $6, 21+
Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway, 773-878-5552
Weeds Poetry
Mondays, 10 p.m., free, 21+
Weeds, 1555 N. Dayton, 312-943-7815

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