The leaders of the slam poetry movement are often heard proudly announcing that they have rescued poetry from the stuffy halls of academia and returned it to the masses. While that may work as a sound bite, it's a self-serving claim designed to inflate their importance. Claiming that slam poetry is the savior of the form is preposterous. Poetry may have been neglected by the masses, but it was always among them, sitting there in a black turtleneck and a beret, banging on a set of bongos if you believe the stereotype. Slam poetry just moved the poets out of the coffeehouses and into the rock clubs, and let them say dirty words (oooooh!).
Chicago-based poet Marc Smith not only alleges that slam poetry saved poetry from the high-minded, but that he founded the genre. While the first statement is patently false, Smith has every right to make the second one (and he does, about 20 times in his press kit alone). In 1987, he started the highly influential Uptown Poetry Slam at Chicago's Green Mill Jazz Club, creating a haven for those poets who never put away their dog-eared copies of Jack Kerouac's On The Road. The weekly sessions were raucous affairs that combined aspects of 1950s beat poetry, performance art, and old-school rap battles, with Smith taking a prominent role as a sort of ring master and performer. Through his countless cross-country tours, the poetry slam phenomenon spread to the point where many cities have three or four each night. If Smith isn't the father of the poetry slam, he is at the very least its Johnny Appleseed.
Ten years into the game, Smith is still one of the best. With his almost all-black attire and long, graying ponytail, he cuts a striking figure onstage, looking not a little like surf guitarist Dick Dale's long lost brother. His gruff, South Side Chicago bark enhances the musical nature of his words, and his energetic performances are the combination of performance art and punk rock that most slam poets aspire to achieve, but rarely ever accomplish. Although Dallas has its share of talented slam poets and spoken word performers--Clebo Rainey and C.J. Critt among them--Smith's performance is a good opportunity to see one of slam poetry's finest.
Slam poet Marc Smith performs at Club Clearview, 2803 Main, on Friday, May 29 at 8:30 p.m. Call (214) 939-0077.