All out Slam That's What Poets from around the Globe Will Be Doing at the National Poetry Slam Championship

By Vitello, Barbara | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), August 6, 1999 | Go to article overview

All out Slam That's What Poets from around the Globe Will Be Doing at the National Poetry Slam Championship


Vitello, Barbara, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Barbara Vitello Daily Herald Staff Writer

Slam Poetry is nothing if not democratic.

It takes the form of free verse, haiku, sonnet, limerick and styles yet undefined.

Its faces include men and women, African Americans and Asians, Caucasians and Hispanics, Ivy Leaguers and eighth grade drop-outs, gay people and straight.

And next week, they converge on Chicago by the hundreds when the National Poetry Slam Championship returns to the city where it was born.

Marc Smith, poet and host of the famed Uptown Poetry Slam at the Green Mill, originated this literary equivalent of a boxing match in the mid-'80s as a competitive counterpart to open mic poetry readings.

In the years since, slam poetry (also known as spoken word or performance poetry) has caught on not only around the country but around the world as well.

"The beauty of the slam is that it embraces all," says Reggie Gibson, the defending individual national champion and a member of the Green Mill team. "If you win, you've won regardless of age or experience."

Alternating between heartfelt, heartbreaking and humorous (often within the same piece), the slam frees poetry from the ivory tower and releases it to the masses who determine the champ.

So with slam's heavyweight title on the line, we discuss the state of the art with Reggie Gibson, Maria McCray and Dennis Kim, three of eight local contenders set to slug it out in Chicago next week. May the best poet win.

The 'aspiring poet'

For Slam poets, competing in the national championship is like a journey to Mecca. For Reggie Gibson, the journey is a bit shorter this year.

As the reigning individual champion, Gibson wears his slam title easily. That's because he knows that when the competition begins any one of more than 200 poets competing for individual honors in the National Poetry Slam may rise up to take it from him.

"I'm not so arrogant or headstrong to believe that I'm the best poet," says Gibson, 32, who instead thinks of himself as an "aspiring poet."

What Gibson understands, perhaps better than anyone, is that on another day, in another place, another poet could have earned the title he holds.

"The pressure for me is to be the best I can be," he says. "To walk away with the respect of the poets, that's what I'm looking for."

He's not alone. When it comes to the slam, respect is more valuable than prize money, which is minimal. All told, it is somewhere between $500 and $1,000, says Gibson, and for many poets, that doesn't cover travel expenses let alone the unpaid time they took to compete.

Frankly, no one gets rich writing and performing poetry, but for these pilgrims, it's not about the money, it's about the journey.

Gibson, who inherited his lifelong love of language and writing from his grandparents, didn't get serious about the journey until five years ago.

He knew about the Uptown Poetry Slam at the Green Mill, but "as an African American, I didn't think I'd be culturally understood," says Gibson, who nevertheless accepted a friend's invitation to join the Mill's 1996 national finals team. He says the experience hooked him for life, which is no surprise, considering it is rooted in oral traditions, which, as Gibson explains, comprise much of African American cultural legacy and that of Gibson's own family as well.

"Westernism has convinced (people) that if it's not literate it has no value," says Gibson who thinks that is untrue.

"I respect academic poets for what they've done," says the poet-in-residence at National Lewis University and author of the poetry featured in the film "Love Jones," "but before it was written, it was spoken."

Where oral traditions date back thousands of years, the written word is a relatively recent phenomenon.

That is not to say that traditional poetry has no place today, although some performance poets claim otherwise. …

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