An open mic is where you go to read your poetry. A poetry slam is where you perform your poetry or suffer the consequences. Last Saturday, Knox students, Galesburg residents and other Midwestern poets rushed downtown to face the challenge of the slam firsthand.
It was the fifth anniversary of the Rootabaga Poetry Slam, and the area’s aspiring poets and poetry-lovers lined the walls of the Cherry Street Restaurant & Bar’s dimly lit sideroom. However, these were no pretentious bohemian types from literary journals spouting nonsense for a buck. These were just human beings reading their poetry, and that’s how founder of the Poetry Slam Movement, Marc Smith, intended it.
“This is the most well-attended we’ve had [in Galesburg] … It’s nice to have all the college kids,” Smith said.
Smith, aka “Slam Papi,” started the Poetry Slam 25 years ago at the Green Mill Tavern in Chicago starting “a strand of new poetry,” according to his website. This new poetry was raw and unassuming and involved the audience as an active participant in its reading. The movement dispels the image of the poet as the refined intellectual or the overly sentimental romantic.
One of the unique things about the Poetry Slam is that it is a competition, not just an open mic. No poem can last over three minutes, three judges rate the poets from 1-10 and the audience is allowed to respond to the poetry in one of several ways: the “masculine” groan of disapproval, the “feminine” hiss of disgust or the stomp of disdain. The audience can even say a rhyme in time with the poet if the poem is so bad that they can predict it. It’s a tough road, but the winner of the slam wins a cash prize of $200, no measly amount for anyone these days.
The night opened with Slam Papi reading one of his motivational originals, composed for every such occasion, encouraging poets that “if you need to tell the world you got more to you than the world has as of yet allowed you to be, be it.” His excitement was tangible. The crowd was only moderately enthused, perhaps a bit taken by surprise by Smith’s unhindered audacity.
After his energetic intro, Smith let loose the first round. All 13 poets, including students from Knox and Monmouth, Galesburg residents and a number of others from out of state, braved the critiques of a tipsy audience and harsh judges.
During the first round, Galesburg resident George Miller got the first positive response with a poem entitled “I’ve Lived a Life,” a tragicomic account of a life told in 60 seconds. The judges were pleased, giving him low 9s, which was the highest score that round.
Other memorable moments that round came from Knox students junior Mark Farrell, senior Amelia Garcia, junior Tyler O’Neill, junior Monica Prince, as well as Indiana native Steve Henn.
Farrell’s “Poet’s Kitchen” was a comical critique of the role of poets in society, stating that they do nothing but make people “fart out of their eyes.” The poem received some groans from the audience.
Henn, a married high school teacher from Warsaw, Ind., added to the critique with “I Am a Poet,” in which he contrasted himself with numerous stereotypes of the idyllic poet (possessing an overactive libido, being hopeless romantic and a refined intellectual).
After the first round, the judges dropped six poets, leaving seven for the second. Once again, Miller ruled the stage. His poem was yet another critique of what poetry has become, stating that “life is not a poem, it is a clearance sale at Wal-Mart.”
Miller was no doubt playing with the paradoxical themes running through his first reading and his second. He possessed an unmatched energy as he made great use of the space, at one point even standing on a chair next to Professor of English Robin Metz. For a moment, Miller lost his balance and nearly fell onto Metz himself.
After three rounds, it came down to three: Prince, Garcia and Miller.
Prince and Garcia had gained confidence through the first two rounds, and had saved their best for last. Prince’s selection of poems in each round told a story when put together, the first being about the ecstasy of love in a place of comfort, the second expressing the pain of detachment from that love on a plane overseas and the third giving a vividly beautiful description of her life in Senegal, sharing with her listeners her journey towards self-discovery. Garcia added to the uplifting atmosphere with a poem about the pride and security in being oneself.
In the end, Miller took the prize with brevity. His final poem was a simple and lovely ode to his wife. It was no more than five lines long, but it was enough to move the judges to give him 28 total points, beating Garcia and Prince by mere tenths of a point.
Henn, who came with some friends all the way from Warsaw, Ind. solely for the purpose of the slam, felt that Miller’s victory was deserved.
“I’ve been to these things, and most of the time the best poet doesn’t win. This time the best poet did … he commanded the stage better than anyone else,” Henn said.
Indeed, Miller seemed to encapsulate the Poetry Slam spirit: passionate, unassuming and animated in performance. But while Smith felt that the night was an overall success in terms of turnout, he felt that it could have been improved if more of the audience and performers had slam experience.
“Last year we had two or three pros from the Midwest. It would have been good to have one of those that rocked the house to show the young poets what to do … the big thing was there was lots of new people exposed to it,” Miller said.
Despite the newness of the slam to the Saturday’s audience, its international success has continued for 25 years and it does not seem to be showing signs of diminishing. Around 100 cities in the U.S. host yearly slams, and Smith is off to tour France in May, where over 50 cities participate in the event. Smith’s mission is to save poetry, and that is clearly a mission that people around the world, from all different backgrounds, can get behind.