The relationship between taverns and writers (and other artists) has long been established and celebrated. It has also been derided, mostly by people who don't go to taverns.
The tavern — or bar, saloon, gin mill, dive, pub or whatever you want to call it — has always been a place to find culture in its various forms. Early settler Marc Beaubien chose to enliven his Sauganash Inn with his fiddle playing and ballad singing. That was in the 1830s, and ever since taverns have been wonderful spots for music and words.
One of the more recent arrivals in such events is "LitMash," a first-Monday-of-every-month event that mixes, as one of its founders puts it, "poetry, comedy, storytelling, music and creative nonfiction into one action-packed slam competition."
"Very seldom do these spoken-word scenes actually cross over or cross-pollinate," says poet J.W. Basilo, who created and produces "LitMash" with Don Hall of WBEZ-FM. "For the show I try to book people who have unique voices. There are a vast number of them out there."
"LitMash" featured six performers March 3, each given six minutes on stage. Wonderfully eclectic in personality, topics and substance, the six were judged by five audience members chosen at random. After an intermission, two finalists performed for the modest monetary prize. Entertaining and thought-provoking, "LitMash" takes place at the Haymarket Pub & Brewery, a fine restaurant/saloon/brewery handsomely carved from what was once the popular Barney's Market Club, at the corner of Randolph and Halsted streets. That place was famous for its slogan, "Yes sir, Senator," which gave it a smoke-filled-backroom reputation. Since its rebirth as Haymarket late in 2010, it has become a cozy home for literary endeavors such as the Drinking & Writing Brewery, which "exists to preserve the spirit and devotion of the hard-drinking writer and to uphold the rituals of their creativity and passion for the written word," its founders say on drinkingandwriting.com. It is also the local outpost for the national storytelling operation called The Moth (themoth.org), hosted by the aforementioned Hall, and the site of many book publishing and signing events.
Such things are good for tavern owners, who are ever interested in bringing in crowds because crowds buy booze. The writer A.J. Liebling noticed this. He was here in the late 1940s and wrote a series of articles for The New Yorker, later collected in book form, that would become famous for giving the city its "Second City" moniker. He observed: "A thing about Chicago that impressed me from the hour I got there was the saloons. New York bars operate on the principle that you want a drink or you wouldn't be there. If you are civil and don't mind waiting, they will sell you one when they get around to it. Chicago bars assume that nobody likes liquor, and that to induce the customers to purchase even a minute quantity, they have to provide a show."
But he also wrote, "For a city where, I am credibly informed, you couldn't throw an egg in 1925 without braining a poet, Chicago is hard up for writers."
That is certainly no longer true. On any given night there is some sort of spoken-word "show" taking place here, and you can discover the depth of the scene from listings in such publications as the major dailies, the Chicago Reader and Newcity and such websites as chicagoslamworks.com or literarychicago.com.
I give credit for this current word boom not merely to the human need for self-expression (especially in these increasingly icy times, dominated by texting) but to poet Marc Smith. It was more than a quarter century ago that he started something called the Poetry Slam, a competition among poets of varying skill and style. Its concept has spread to hundred of cities across the globe and is going stronger than ever Sunday nights at the Green Mill, an old and wonderfully old-fashioned joint on Broadway Street a few steps north of Lawrence Avenue. Basilo acts as co-host of these Sunday slams. He is also executive director of the Chicago Slam Works, a not-for-profit organization that dedicates itself to live literature and performance poetry through performances, education and outreach.
"LitMash" began six months ago, and two of the performers at the most recent show were poet Tumelo Khoza and storyteller Monte LaMonte.
"I was aware of the scene here," says Khoza, who arrived in Chicago from her native South Africa last year and works as an au pair. "But it was so much more than I expected."
Says LaMonte, a local performer, "I'm a failed comedian. I tried my hand at that and I was miserable. And then I got into storytelling. When I step on stage now I love it. You are able to discover your voice here and create your own opportunities."
It is that sense of self-discovery that fuels many of the people who get up to speak their minds in taverns. Though there are often some modest cash prizes available to performers (the Uptown Poetry Slam offers $10 to its weekly winner), most say they do not do what they do for money.
As the great British poet Robert Graves once said, "There's no money in poetry, but there's no poetry in money either." It is something more that motivates the performers, something richer and more valuable. I was once told this by Sheila Donahue, a talented poet and veteran of the Green Mill slams: "In most bars people don't have anything really to say to one another. But the slam mixes people together, lets them get to know each other. There is a sense of community."
So explore. Another new "face" on the scene is the monthly storytelling show "Story Sessions" at City Winery (storysessionschicago.com), and you might also try "Mortified Chicago," April 12 at Schubas (getmortified.com), part of a national reading series. There are dozens of other choices.
Though not everything you'll hear will be good, some of it will be great or moving or fall-down funny. I guarantee that it will beat most of the recent conversations I have been hearing in taverns around town, all of which begin with, "Hey, how 'bout this weather?"