Poetry spreading across social class

Rootabaga Poetry Slam connects Knox with community

April 29, 2010

The space between people diminished as nine o’clock approached and the final, late-coming patrons trickled into the intimate space between the wine-bottle lined walls. Students, professors and people who traveled from several miles away engaged in polite conversation, waiting for the raucous poetry to begin. This was the fourth annual Rootabaga Poetry Slam, in conjunction with the Carl Sandburg Festival, and the competition was surprisingly fierce.

“[Slam poetry] is the remarriage of the art of performing with the art of poetry,” said slam poetry founder Marc Smith, who facilitated the event at Vintage Tasting Room last Saturday night. “It’s probably going to end up the most important literary social movement of our time.”

Smith developed the slam 25 years ago in order to make poetry more accessible to working-class people. Beginning in Chicago and the Green Mill Theatre, the movement has since spread to several countries around the world.

“His poetry belongs to the people,” said Professor of English Robin Metz.

Metz, a friend of Smith’s, has participated in the slam poetry scene for several years and attended the competition on Saturday night. This event, in addition to others, helps connect the Knox community with the outside arts world.

“What I love is for people to see the other poets that come out of the city,” said Metz. “It’s so educational for our students to see poetry bigger than they’re used to.”

Last year’s champion, Gregory Pickett, commuted from Chicago in order to participate. As he sat conversing with aspiring Knox writers, he disclosed his own philosophy on the art of poetry. “What’s true to me is not necessarily true to another. The most important thing about poetry is telling the truth as it is relevant to you,” he said.

Junior Amelia Garcia slammed for the first time on Saturday and advanced to the second round.

“I only started writing recently,” said Garcia, a political science major at Knox. “I just like being around poetry and poets.”

Sophomore Mark Farrell wrote the poem he planned on slamming earlier that day.

“I’m not really a slam type of poet but I’ll try to make it work,” he said.

Smith arranged all slam participants and chose four judges randomly from the audience. He then announced the three rules of judging: stop the poet after three minutes, listen and rank on a scale of 1-10.

“What makes the slam different from other poetry is that this audience is always in control,” said Smith.

Smith initiated the slam with an original verse detailing the experience of riding the EL [elevated] train. His performance engaged audience members so much so that every person in the room became a part of the poetic delivery.

The slam itself consisted of three rounds in which people of all educational backgrounds participated. Though there were critical eliminations, the environment was both supportive and motivational for contestants.

Freshman Kaitlyn Duling, a first time poetry slammer and Knox student, received sustained applause for her pieces “Galaxy,” “Overboard,” and her literary riff on Hallmark. Duling earned the third place prize of $50, Pickett came in second with a prize of $100, and college professor Aaron Enskat received the grand prize of $200.

The performative nature of the poems, the poets’ intense passion and the intimacy among the patrons created an entertaining and thought-provoking night.

“Here’s all this great literature, we put the life back into it,” said Smith.

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