Dan Sullivan’s first performance at the Mental Graffiti open mike was on April 7, 2003–the day he turned 21 and thus the first night Funky Buddha Lounge would let him in. Host Krystal Ashe knew him from the all-ages slam scene–he’d won the 2002 Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Poetry Award–and scheduled him to perform at the beginning and at the end, right before the evening’s featured poet.

“It’s supposed to be an honor to be able to do that,” says Sullivan, who goes by “Sully” onstage. “And coming in there on my birthday, she gave that to me, which right away was like, that’s love, a welcoming to the community.” Sullivan’s first poem was a fiery piece about the sacrifices artists make for their writing; his second was a more playful ode to the charms of women in hip-hop. In between he took full advantage of being old enough to drink.

Six months later Sullivan and DJ Itchie Fingers have taken over as hosts of the weekly series and monthly slam that Ashe and her cohost, Anacron, founded in 1997. Ashe is moving to the Bay Area and Anacron is pursuing other projects. “I had other people in mind,” says Ashe, “but they were too competitive. He’s competitive, but not so much that it would upset the balance between that and the integrity of the writing.” (The Mental Graffiti slam is known for being more welcoming to new poets than the Green Mill’s Uptown Poetry Slam, where competitions are weekly and where booing is accepted practice.)

When Funky Buddha began hosting the Bears’ Monday Night Football after party this fall, Sullivan needed to find a new home for the series. After looking around a bit he settled on Big Horse, a divey room behind a Wicker Park burrito joint that could hardly be more different from the luxe lounge.

“Itchie and I first started kicking it when we would do open mike across the street at [the now defunct cafe] Square One,” Sullivan joked with the crowd at Big Horse on October 20. “I’d see there was this dark room back here, but I never knew what was going on, and it seemed like going in would be like what happened on Muppet Babies whenever they’d open a door out of the room and there’d be crazy stuff behind it, like a rhinoceros or something. Now we’re the crazy stuff happening behind the door on Muppet Babies.”

Half Irish and half Polish, Sullivan lived in multiethnic Brighton Park before his family moved to Oak Park when he was in first grade. He’s a longtime hip-hop fan–he and Itchie are part of a group called Fly Fishermen and hope to put an album out later this year–but he didn’t get into poetry until his junior year at Oak Park and River Forest High School, when a teacher took him to an open mike at the Guild Complex. He went on to help run the school’s spoken-word club, serve as a guest poet and judge at the Louder Than a Bomb teen poetry slam, cohost a monthly all-ages open mike called Urban Sandbox, win the Gwendolyn Brooks award, and–most recently–issue a CD and chapbook of poems called Transit.

A few weeks after Sullivan made his debut at the Funky Buddha, he tied a veteran poet at a slam and won the chance to participate in the finals. From there he earned a spot on the Chicago-Wicker Park team that made the semifinals of this year’s National Poetry Slam. On Monday, October 27, Sullivan will host Mental Graffiti’s first slam of the season. Sign-up for the slam (and the open mike that precedes it) starts at 7:30; performances start at 8 at Big Horse, 1558 N. Milwaukee. There’s a $5 cover, and you must be 21. E-mail sulliface@aol.com or see www.mentalgraffiti.org for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Saverio Truglia.