I kept hearing his name 'Marc Smith' in poetry podcasts and at readings. From what I gathered he was the creator of the Poetry Slam a form of competitive poetry readings that took America by storm in the 1980's and early 1990's. My curiosity was peaked and I began an adventure to find some answers. During my search I found myself in the land of the Ancient Greeks enjoying one of the first competitive poetry competitions ever recorded. Ovid discussed the story of Apollo and Marsyas in his "Metamorphosis." Marsyas was a satyr who felt that his talent with the lute was greater than any god that played and he challenged Apollo to a duel. Apollo accepted and they took their places on a stage and Marsyas began to play. Marsyas played an incredibly beautiful piece of music with a flawless presentation that exhibited his talents in musical theory and performance. As Marsyas left the stage Apollo quickly glanced over to the judges, the Muses, and smiled. He sat on the stage as if pondering what to do next. He then played exactly, note for note, the same song Marsyas had played except backwards. He walked off stage as the Muses scored them both. Apollo had won and to teach Marsyas to never challenge the gods again he had Marsyas flayed alive.
Well my trip into antiquity still did not answer my question. Who is 'Marc Smith?' I still had no idea who the man was and so I continued my search and found that competitive poetry has been a part of West African culture for many generations. In West Africa storytellers called Griots traditionally worked for royalty and shared with royalty the news of the times and any information needed to govern in the form of songs, stories, and poems. The Griots were required to be contemporaneous and were judged on their abilities to improvise on the spot. Of course the Griots of West Africa are only one example of this type of storytelling that is seen throughout the world. Japan's history is full of competitive poetry, same with China, and troubadors would walk throughout South America sharing stories, songs and poems.
I have finally made it to modern day America, Chicago to be exact. I had found Marc Smith. He was born in Southeast Chicago in 1949.
A socialist construction worker, strongly influenced by Carl Sandburg, Marc started competitive poetry readings at the "Get Me High Lounge" in 1984. Marc felt that the success of his competitions was the perfect way to "stick it to the man," so to speak, and moved the venue to the "Green Mill" in 1986.
Slam poetry became a force to reckon with. We began to see Slam poetry on MTV and in every city in the United States. Hip-Hop music, or Rap, began to see it's own sort of Slam competitions that quickly became a part of the Hip-Hop culture.
A documentary entitled "Slam Nation" covered the Slam movement that was occuring in New York at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the early 1990's. A storm of poetry was leaving it's mark on the culture of America.
Marc Kelley Smith
So how does this "Slam Poetry" work?
The rules that Marc Smith had set forth has the poet reading in front of a panel of local judges. But not only do the judges score the poem and the poets performance the audience takes an active role. The poet is only allowed three minutes to finish his/her poetry on stage within this three minutes if the audience does not enjoy the poetry or performance, the audience can boo the poet off the stage before the judges can make a judgement. This sounds stressful, and to the poet it is, but the excitement that this tension builds helps to add to the performance itself and return poets learn how to work the crowd to avoid being booed. The poet who is left standing with the highest score wins, in most cases a small dollar amount, maybe ten dollars, or the prestige of being a winner.
A Little Story of My Own...
I did my first poetry reading in Carson City Nevada for the Ash Canyon Poets in 1996.
This was not a competition but was the first time I read my poetry in front of a crowd. I read a poem of mine called "The Skull" which was a rhythmic journey into the anatomy of the skull.
In 1999 I moved to Great Falls Montana. I found a bar that had Slam Poetry readings the first Friday of every month and my girlfriend, Jessie, and I would get dressed up in black leather and perform under the name "Jessie James."
The prize was free drinks and I cannot remember how many times we couldn't get ourselves home after the event.
After moving back to Reno in 2002 I began to read my poetry at poetry readings located at local bars and coffee shops. I stopped doing readings for many years but my wife and I are starting back up again and hopefully we will push for more Slam type events to make things a little more interesting.
If you find any Slam events near your town or in the city you live, go check it out, it will be a night to remember.