Poetry slams have come a long way since November 1985, when Marc Smith and a handful of others–calling themselves the Chicago Poetry Ensemble–began reading their poetry at the old Get Me High Lounge in Bucktown. A year later Smith moved the readings to the Green Mill on Sunday nights, and the newly dubbed Uptown Poetry Slam took off. Today there are poetry slams across the country, in every city large enough to support a coffeehouse or two. And locally poetry slams are at least as popular as they were in the late 80s, when for a time slam poets were the darlings of the media. They still pack ’em in at the Green Mill on Sunday nights, and a new generation of wordsmiths has come along to replace the Patricia Smiths and Lisa Buscanis of yesteryear. A full ten years ago, Marc Smith and a ragtag group of Chicago poets went to the San Francisco Poetry Festival to face off against Bay Area poets in what turned out to be the first National Poetry Slam. In 1990 it was held in Chicago, and poets from eight cities competed. Now it returns to Chicago for the first time since, and 48 teams of poets from all over the United States and Canada–including 2 from Chicago–will compete in an event that used to take little more than a day but now runs four: two for elimination rounds (offered at various bars and theaters), one for semifinals, and one for the finals, to be held at no less than the humongous Chicago Theatre (the 1990 finals barely filled the Metro). And though the neighborhoods remain the heart of the slam scene, the festival begins and ends downtown: Smith hosts an opening event at the Chicago Cultural Center Wednesday, August 11, from 2 to 4, offering visitors the city’s official welcome. Plus 60 Minutes will be filming two days of the slam–and come to think of it, Mike Wallace wouldn’t make a bad slam poet. See the listings for venue information.

–Jack Helbig

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