Poet, Tree, Gift From Chicago

A few days before she left for Japan, we saw Patricia Smith in action at the Green Mill. Poets ahead of her had stood at the mike and declaimed. Smith rose from her table and made the whole lounge her stage. Reciting a poem from memory, she sashayed through the crowd, working us over like a chanteuse roaming a boite.

When she finally arrived at the mike, which she didn’t need, she delivered the poem we had come to hear. We were eager to hear Smith put her own vocal spin on “The Awakening,” because at this point we had one idea about what this prizewinning poem of hers was up to and she seemed to have another.

Since mother morning wiped clean

the chaotic slate of starlight,

the hard winds have forced the tree to beg . . .

“The Awakening,” of course, was about a tree. That’s what all the poems had to be about, under the rules laid down by Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs for the Poem for Osaka Award. And in the long wake of Joyce Kilmer, we doubted that anybody could write a poem about a tree with a straight face.

She rises on her toes and once again

throws her tired, cold body open to her bold,

regretless love, while the lake curls away and

the wind dies to a whisper . . .

The first time we read “The Awakening,” and the second and the third, we thought we heard Smith chuckling all the way through it. Here was rapturous imagery done up to sly excess.

And she has a name for the moan that

worries gently in her hair.

It is called Chicago.

Were you being puckish? we’d asked Smith.

“No,” she’d said. “Maybe I overdramatize a little bit, but that’s a fault in my poetry.” She’d said, “I get a lot of people saying it brought tears to their eyes for some reason, which was never my intention. People tell me it reminds them of Sandburg. They like it because it’s such a Chicago poem.”

Your intention was what, then? we’d said.

“My intention was to come up with a unique angle,” Smith had replied. Spoken like a journalist, if not like Yeats. Her tree would have feelings. Her tree, at whatever risk of echoing Kilmer, would be almost sort of human. Her tree would also be her tree, rooted in the bedrock of her memory.

“When I was a kid I was haunted by the trees silhouetted along the lakefront,” Smith had said. “As I was writing it, I was feeling this was a poem that couldn’t have taken place anywhere else.”

There in the Green Mill, “The Awakening” rolled out of her. There were no winks and nods in her performance. This was succulent language, written with her own voice in her ear, written for its author to perform. We now remembered that the quality of performance had counted as heavily with the contest judges as a poem’s literary merits on the page.

Patricia Smith began writing poetry just three years ago. She discovered the Uptown Poetry Slams at the Green Mill and quickly got hooked on performing there; now she’s a five-time champion and she performs everywhere.

“For a while,” Smith told us, “it was like a fever with me. I could read, listen to my friends read, get seeds of ideas for new poems–it was like a whole other community.”

Smith is an entertainment reporter at the Sun-Times. But she used to be on the city desk, and that news, those headlines, teased a lot of her early poems out of her. She found herself doing poetry the way reporters do the stories they cover, quickly, on deadline, and without much afterthought.

“Usually the last line will come to me and then nothing else and I just leave it alone,” Smith told us. “I drop the line down, and at three o’clock in the morning I’ll get another line, and the rest of the poem will come spurting out. I don’t revise a poem once I’ve done it. I think it came out that way for a reason.”

Smith went to Osaka as an emissary, a Chicagoan bearing a gift of verse. Osaka, you see, happens to be one of Chicago’s eight sister cities. And in mid-July it hosted the International Garden and Greenery Exposition. (Hence the arboreal theme.) Looking for the right “cultural ambassador”–the city’s phrase–the Department of Cultural Affairs struck an alliance with Chicago’s burgeoning poetry movement. Prelims of the Poem for Osaka competition were scheduled at the city’s various poetry venues, and the finals June 10 during Neutral Turf, Chicago’s third annual poetry festival on Navy Pier.

“When I heard of the competition, I started thinking of trees,” Smith told us. “I got a picture of a tree on the lakefront and that was as far as I went.” The city’s poets were slow to warm to the Osaka challenge (though in the end interest ran high, with poets rejected at one prelim going back to their drawing boards then showing up at another), and Smith started talking it up. “I said, if I’m going to interest my friends I should enter myself,” she told us. “So I goofed around on my computer a little bit and said why not write from the point of view of the tree.” Smith finished “The Awakening,” which is 31 lines long, half an hour before she went over to Weeds to read it. The poem took her about 20 minutes to write.

She later changed three words.

Smith prevailed at Weeds, triumphed in the semis at B.L.U.E.S. Etcetera, and bowled over five judges on Navy Pier.

Because Chicago’s cultural ambassador really knows how to sell a poem, we imagine “The Awakening” delighted a lot of folk in Osaka who couldn’t understand a word. But we doubt that the Japanese fully appreciated the phenomenon in their midst. Patricia Smith is a product, first, of the west side of Chicago, and second, of the rebellion led by a local construction worker named Marc Smith (no relation to Patricia) against the torpor into which he concluded poetry had lapsed.

Culture in Chicago is a series of spasms of proletarian heat–now the novel, now the theater, now the canvas; at the moment it’s the poem. Between the slams and open mikes, Patricia Smith told us, there’s somewhere you can go for poetry every night of the week. There’s the Green Mill. Weeds. The Gallery. Edge of the Lookingglass. Estelle’s. FitzGeralds . . .

The night we heard Smith at the Green Mill, every seat was taken. Smith told us this was a small crowd–normally you find people on the floor. The poetry wasn’t elegant; it was raw, conversational, accessible. A bearded fellow from Cleveland was at our table; he got up and read a poem about his sister dying.

Marc Smith had gone to poetry readings in the usual bookstores and libraries and found them dim affairs, “poets reading to a handful of friends,” he says. Smith himself was bursting with poems and he wanted “the regular Joe” to hear them. He imagined a roomful of regular Joes. It wouldn’t bother him if this room was noisy, if now and then things got a little bit out of hand.

Marc Smith sprang his idea of an evening of poetry at the Green Mill in 1986. It begins with an open mike, continues with a guest poet or performance artist, and winds up with a slam (his term). The slams are set up a little like gymnastics, or for that matter, gladiatorial combat. Winners and losers. Thumbs up. Thumbs down.

Marc Smith presides Sunday nights at the Green Mill. When Patricia Smith finished reciting “The Awakening,” Marc Smith asked all of us to give her a big send- off. “She is representing all the performance poets in Chicago,” he said. “She’s our person out there to shake the profession up.”

Then he dropped by our table. “Within the next five years,” he predicted, “you’re going to see performance poetry, slam poetry all over the country.”

We’ll see. This might be like the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll. Purists were horrified. But popular music was reborn.

Putting the Sizzle in the Sun-Times

“If you were a young reader 18 to 30 years old, would you think it was on target?” someone associated with the Sun-Times’s Sizzle project asked us.

Pity the poor press. Its fate rests on attracting this generation that “knows less, cares less, votes less”–to quote a recent Times Mirror Company survey–that won’t read newspapers, and that confronts the travails of a nation on the dip with the attention span of a firefly.

Sizzle, come to think of it, presented two useful articles on the firefly.

Sizzle was dreamed up by Sun-Times artist Bill Linden, who attended the June 25 staff meeting at which editor Dennis Britton asked for everybody’s ideas (Britton also said how important it was not to let circulation slide during the summer). Linden showed up in Britton’s office later the same day proposing a breezy new section to last the season.

Britton took the idea to publisher Chuck Price, who liked it enough to ask for cost estimates. On July 5, Britton told features editor Steve Duke to go ahead. Britton wanted Sizzle in the paper for eight straight Wednesdays beginning July 18. Duke had less than two weeks to create the first one from scratch. (The salesmen had maybe three days to sell ads.)

“I think it’s the fastest I’ve ever worked on anything,” Duke told us. He called in the paper’s best smart-alecky writers and asked them to get busy. The attitude they struck needs a little sharpening, but that may come.

How did you squeeze in the focus groups? we wondered. (Real journalists hate focus groups, but out of desperation, newspapers do them.)

“No focus groups,” Duke said happily. “This was, I guess, in some ways old-fashioned seat-of-the-pants journalism. One guy had an idea. A lot of people thought it was a good idea. And we went and did it.”

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