Video von Gauthier Bouret
Poetry Slam just celebrated its 21st Anniversary last night at The Green Mill. Let’s talk about you and the audience.
The audience at The Green Mill is really honest. If they like you, they're gonna cheer; if they don't like you they are going to get on you. That's one of the things that made performance poetry work at the beginning. It was an honest response. It wasn't this fake, polite applause as we used to call it where people aren't being honest about their reaction to what's going on - like a dishonest family where nobody is saying what's really going on. That was one of the main things that made it different, you could say if honesty wasn't there. The only place that I know of like that is the Apollo in New York. We're not as brutal as the Apollo, but it was much rougher in the early days.
But I had to start there, I had to encourage. I had to encourage an audience, train an audience to respond honestly to what was going on, because the thing is that an audience comes and is paying money so they want you to succeed. They want the performers to succeed and they're gonna give them a lot more rope than they probably should. People who get brutal attacks from the audience are usually the ones that are very dishonest in their work, they’re very pompous, pretentious…
What was your motivation behind working with an audience?
You have to go back to my start at the Get Me High. I'm completely the outsider to the literary scene. I know nobody. I start going to poetry readings and they are awful. There are still many awful poetry readings, pretentious, pompous, nobody going to them, boring-horrible. And I'm a poet and I want to succeed. And believe me, my ego is the biggest ego around. I call it the insecurity ghost, where you're so insecure you gotta compensate by being the most arrogant, obnoxious person around. So I started to go to poetry readings, started reading and I instantly - because I was an outsider - knew what's wrong is that they're not trying to be like a singer or actor or comedian, they're not trying to perform. Poets don't perform! That was the thing. Poets don't perform! Oh what do you mean, poets don't perform, you're reading up there! Poets don't perform. And I just laughed, I mean, it's so stupid, it's just plain dumb. So I started doing that and I started it at the Get Me High…
The thing in my mind was that if the poet starts to make the audience feel bored – then he's off. There are different devices like if I could sense that he's losing the audience and he would just pause, I’d go: “Wasn't that a great poem?“ Everybody clapping knew what was going on - he was off!
It was a unique time, because the people that would go to the Get Me High were these eccentric intellectuals, people that were too smart to be in an average work-a-day world. They might have to work there, but they were too smart, but they weren't smart enough to be up in real intellectual limbo. I'm real smart, I can't be an average everyday person, but I'm not smart enough to be a great scientist or anything. The audience was smart enough to be at the Get Me High and their hackling was just wonderful. I encouraged them to talk back to the poets. So if you're a poet at the Get Me High, you knew that if you did something, there's a good chance that somebody in the audience is going to think of a rhyme that's even funnier or smarter than what you're saying. That was the rule. If you're gonna hackle, your hackle has to be more intelligent, wittier than the poem itself. And that worked! The Get Me High was so small a place that it was easy to get people going. When I shifted to the Green Mill, all of a sudden I noticed the audience went back to this more passive thing and I had to work on creating these rituals to get that interaction going again.
What brought you to becoming the founder of Poetry Slam?
Well, when I answer that question, when I go to schools, especially when I talk to kids, I tell them this. And this ain't just hocus pocus stuff, I believe this stuff. Each of us, me, and I think a lot of people, feel a destiny inside of themselves. Usually the world around you is pushing that down, they want you to go into the system and do something else and for some of us that destiny is - we don't even know what it is - but we feel that there is some kind of destiny. I remember expressing something like this when I was real young. I didn't really talk. I came from a world and a neighborhood where you didn't let things out.
I remember my best friend growing up and I did take a chance and say something to him like I felt like I had “something”. I don't know if I expressed it very specifically. He said to me: “You know, Kelly, you're just another Joe Schmoe”. Fifteen more years I carried that with me, that I'm just another Joe Schmoe. But I tell kids that this feeling of a destiny in you, believe it, because it's real, There's something inside of us that we can't explain until it blossoms, if it blossoms, and for me that's what happened. I found where I was supposed to be and as soon as I heard one guy clapping I was on my way. And those first three years, man, did I do a lot of stuff. I didn't stop, I knew what I was doing, I knew that everybody else was wrong, I didn't care and I made fun of them. It's like Prometheus with the fire. I knew I had the fire.
I don't know maybe there are some big shots that do stuff and they feel like they did it, but I know that there's something way beyond myself that has guided this whole thing. I've seen it work in everybody's lives and in my own life. Is it God, is it the universe, is it the genes, is it…who knows? But there is a mystery, something beyond us that makes this happen. In my opinion, human beings that think that they’re the ones that are doing all this shit - they're pretty arrogant people. So that's how I got out there.
Tell us about your experiences on the stage in the early phase of slam
In those days, when you got ten people to go to a poetry reading that was a big deal. It was circus theatre. We all had goofy costumes. Oh no, how can you do that? But we had to have costumes because that was different, that sets you apart from the proper poet. I was a dictator as a director: Rob - you're gonna be there, ok at this line you’re gonna move over here. Dave - when he says this line you’re gonna say that line. And they followed. The audience would come in expecting a poetry reading and all this stuff would happen, costumes and multi-voice stuff and people jumping up behind them and they were just loud and I was very, very good. That was another thing that motivated me. I never excelled in anything really. And I was the best. I don't know where I got it. I learned a lot at the Get Me High, because I couldn't stand any one person in an audience being bored with me. If there was an audience with ninety-nine people listening intently and one person yawned, I would think:
What can I do now? I'm failing. I learned it, just like a street musician learns to stop people, I learned it on a stage. And it got to the point where I was really, really good. The ensemble was very good, but if everything was just ok they knew that Marc was “gonna happen”. In many shows at the Get Me High, the Green Mill and with the ensemble, when things were going down, I would just jump in there and “save the day“. It's a kind of an ego thing that I've gotten rid of, but in those days I’d hit the homerun and save the game. I did it just by the sheer force. If couldn't entertain them then I'd scare the living daylights out of them.
It was so new, people now don't realize how new it was, they take it for granted. It was so new what we did. It was so raw new that it was just wonderful for people and full of risks, big risks.
What are some misconceptions about poetry slam?
The biggest thing that bugs me about the reporting over the years is that everybody equates poetry slam with competitive poetry, that ain't it! That's the narrow-minded view of it. It's performance poetry what I did is that I made it legitimate to be a poet who performed and I also said that if you're going to be speaking poetry on stage, you will have to learn that craft and be a professional at it. It is a profession, you learn how to do it. That’s what makes us different than the Beat Generation people. Some of them were natural performers, but they never sat down and said: Well ok, you should use your voice this way...
The whole slam world moves up horizontally as performers. It’s not just some individuals who have the chops naturally. Everybody learns from everybody else. Those young kids last night who were watching the old-timers, you bet that those guys were watching like – oh, he did that, I'm gonna put that in here. Both in the writing and performing, that's something that makes us different than the Beat Generation. What also makes us different from the Beat Generation is that slam is inclusive. It’s not a bunch of elite intellectuals: “I'm gonna cop a different life style, I'm gonna be cool, you know and I'm gonna hang out and I’m gonna have my own lingo, and you gonna come down in a smokey bar, you gonna come down in a smokey bar in a dark thing and you're not gonna have a barret,, you not gonna talk hip like us and you’re gonna be out”. This is like: “Ok c'mon in, even the old guy, come on in”.
Everybody comes in with their own style, their own way of doing things, which is linked to the folk movement. That was very influential to me on the south side of Chicago. When the folk singers came in the Pete Seeger vain, it was the feeling of wanting to connect with all kinds of people. Don’t be in your little corner and that’s what the slam is, less competitive poetry and more a family of poets, an international family of poets. People now are connected all over. The slam is open to anybody who walks in the door.