For all the talk about Chicago having a “second city” complex, Chicago has always shined in the realm of performance poetry.
Writing about that scene as I did in this week’s On The Town section took a little detective work. Some of these poets and communities were hard to find because they didn’t have fleshed out websites or buildings with addresses in the phone book, and it was important to me that the story not focus exclusively on the founders of performance poetry who have already been well covered by journalists. Talking with poets such as Kendria Harris, Brenda Matthews and Morris Garrett, for whom poetry was a way of life, gave us a more complete picture of Chicago’s poetry scene.
Chicago’s slam poetry movement started over 25 years ago in Wicker Park’s Get Me High Lounge with a group of artists led by Marc Smith. The competitive element of slam poetry separated it from beat poetry of the 1950s – that and the different community of practitioners separated from earlier poetry performances by space and time.
No one in Marc Smith’s group knew expected that slam poetry would become the household name it is today.
But since that beginning, a performance poet has been called to perform at the White House, Russell Simmons presents Def Jam Poetry has aired on national television, and thousands of kids have gotten up on stage and called themselves poets. Not bad, for something that started with a couple of writers experimenting in a local bar.
Salm poetry performances aren’t even the same as they were during the Uptown Poetry Slam of the 1980s. The lines between traditional poet and performance poets have begun to blur. Performance poets can now make a living off of teaching and performing. And Chicago’s scene, in particular, has evolved, producing independent communities of artists who have diverging interests and aesthetics, but share an eagerness to advance the art form.
And though the poetry found at Soul Restoration on Chicago’s South Side might be different than much of the poetry found at the Green Mill, that might be a good thing for Chicagoans.
It means for any of you with even a casual interest in performance poetry, there is an open mic, slam, or show waiting for you to stop by.
-- Naomi Nix
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