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Marc Kelly Smith

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Marc Kelly SmithBeatrice Biggio (BB): We have the pleasure to be able to interview Marc Kelly Smith, the so-called Slampapi, the father of slam poetry, we would dare to say a mythical figure of the art of spoken word and the creator of a totally revolutionary way of performing poetry. Slam Poetry is now almost twenty years old, Marc, how did the idea of bringing competition into poetry readings first strike you?

Marc Kelly Smith (MKS): Well, that’s a good question… Slam Poetry actually began before there was a show called the Slam and it was myself and the people who followed me in Chicago that began performing. At that time no one performed poetry, no one even tried, no poet tried to put any passion or art into their performance. We started doing that in a place called the Get me high jazz club on a Monday night show which became very successful. I formed a Poetry Ensemble, we did ensemble work, very much like what happens here at Absolute Poetry Festival, with music, costumes, interactive voices combined. It became very successful and we wanted to start a second show, so we went to the owner of the Green Mill jazz club and asked him for Sunday nights. He gave me the show and I called it the Uptown Poetry Slam. In the first few weeks of that show, we always had like a half hour at the end of it when we ran out of material, so, on the spot, one night we thought of doing a competition. There had been some competitions in Chicago afore that, with poetry, we tried the idea and it worked that night, so then every Sunday night we started ending the show with this competition. The prizes at first were cupcakes, you know, and it ended up being ten dollars, it still is ten dollars actually, “the winner gets ten dollars” “Ooohh!!!”. It was never meant to be a serious competition, that’s how it started. As the concept of an entertaining poetry show started to move around the country, they always kept a competition with it, you know, it’s an easy story for the media “Oh, it’s a poetry competition…” It’s hard to explain the rest of it, the performance aspect and the audience interaction, but competition… And that’s how it started to spread.

Marc Kelly Smith sul palco

BB: And that’s what you said many times, I’ve read, competition functions as a trigger to get people interested, but it’s not necessarily a good thing, not always, is that true, is that how you feel about it?

MKS: Absolutely true! Whenever a show becomes just the competition, a couple of things happen: the poets start taking themselves too seriously, a kind of a bad spirit develops in the room and the audiences start going down, it becomes once again the poets reading to other poets. The thing about the Green Mill and other slams that have used the original concept is that we have a real audience. For 22 years I’ve been attracting 200 to 300 people every Sunday night, over 50.000 different people have seen my show in Chicago, and that can be said for Timo Brunke’s show in Stuttgart, Rayl Patzak and Ko Bylanzky’s show at the Subztance in Munich, Chris Mooney Singh’s show in Singapore, the shows that have the idea in their head of combining poetry with all the different performing arts and they’re also having this competition in it as just one more component of it, those are the shows that are thriving across the world.

BB: That brings me to my next question. There’s also another interesting aspect of slam poetry, which is the breaking up of a tradition where the poet is there to be listened to. You threw the poet off the pedestal and into the audience, and many times you said that it’s the poet who has the responsibility to get the audience to listen to him, so this seems like exactly the opposite concept of traditional poetry…

MKS: I haven’t been able to make that point here in Italy yet as there’s so much to say about it, it’s such a big concept it’s hard to get it sometimes but that is another of the main principles of what I did, that turned things upside down and worked. When I started, you went to a poetry reading, it was all: “I am the professor who knows all about poetry and if you don’t understand what I’m saying, well, there’s something wrong with you!” or “I’m the mystic, I’m the mystic poet, I’m on another level and unless you sit in the lotus position and Ohm! you’re not going to understand me”. And when they spoke their words, they didn’t try to communicate. This is communication, whenever anybody opens their mouths on the stage, it’s an attempt to communicate. What we did at the beginning, at the Get Me Highs, we learned how to communicate, we made it our obligation to communicate. If the audience was falling asleep it was our fault, not their fault. There’s a poet in America, Wendell Berry, who probably wouldn’t like the slam, I don’t know, he might like it, but he said a very wise thing. He said: Poetry is not to glorify the poet, it’s to celebrate the community around the poet. And, you know, in so-called third world countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, South America, they never lost this tradition of the poet being the servant to the community. I was amazed when I started to find out about the world to learn that, for instance, in Pakistan there’s still a little village where they have one night where everyone sits in a circle around the campfire and they read their poems and the classic poems to keep them alive. It’s a community thing. I think you’re the first reporter that’s ever asked me about that.

Marc Kelly Smith

BB: Well, that’s strange, because it’s so striking, it’s what makes it so different from other kinds of performances… and speaking about differences and the language of poetry, the idea of mixing different kinds of media seems to have been there in literature well before somebody even tried to stage it, I’m thinking of Burroughs with his cut-up technique which was later used in music as well, do you think there is a line of continuity in all artistic forms , of tradition in a way, paving the way for the next open minded artists who will also work by putting things together, a tradition that performing poets may be developing while not necessarily being aware of it? And, going back to Burroughs, he introduced a paradox at one point by saying that words should be cancelled as language is a virus contaminating the real nature of man… do you think that applies to poets or are they spreading the virus of language to share experiences and feelings therefore reassessing that same nature?

MKS: Boy, that’s a topic for our time! I’m not a smart guy, you know, twelve year old kids know more than me, but I can see it in my world… What’s happened in the slam world is that, in the States and now around the world, there are poets who have become extremely expert at communicating, and many of them grab ideas from the media that they know are going to succeed with the audience. They don’t come from their experience, they don’t even come from their beliefs, and they communicate them so well, just like our politicians who have learnt to communicate so well ,that the people are taken in. We all understand that it works in politics, we are all skeptical of the best politician that’s speaking to us, we’ve all learnt that, but when artists start to do that to me that’s the most outrageous thing that can happen, because art is sacred, and if you don’t live and truly believe what you’re saying, that’s bad art, that’s dangerous and that, to me, that’s a virus. I can agree with that… Would the world be better if we didn’t… you know, I think the Buddha would tell us that the world would be better if we didn’t talk. But there’s something else that also happens, I know as a performer: I can perform, do a good job, people look at the technique and they’d find it great, but the moment for me that’s important, as a performer, is when I start speaking something that becomes so honest and so vulnerable that there’s something that starts happening between us. The feeders, feeder people know this all the time, it’s called the “feeder moment”, when all hearts and all minds come together and it’s some kind of cosmic thing. You know, maybe someday scientists will figure out what’s going on there, but there’s something that happens and that transcends any propaganda there could be. Propaganda falls when that happens, because I think, yes, words can be the virus, but when someone speaks to people, and they are speaking so purely truly, that can dispel all propaganda. I hope so.

Marc Kelly Smith

BB: Well, I am the audience and I can say that’s totally true… When that moment happens you know that what’s being said is honest and true and it’s coming from that particular person, not just the poet, through the craftsmanship of poetry, of course…

MKS: Sure, those kind of moments happen in our personal lives all the time, when somebody is so perfectly honest with us, and we remember those moments for our whole lives. What the artist does, or at least the performance poet does, he does that artfully, by art, to find a universal truth and duplicate it again in a live audience, though he doesn’t really duplicate it because a live audience is always a new thing.

BB: You have worked as a construction worker early on in your life, that brings us back to some of the subjects that have come up during this year’s festival: work, unemployment, the difficulties for young people to face a flexible therefore unstable job market… And the common craftsmanship of poets and the workmen of Monfalcone’s shipyards. According to your experience, do you still think artists, spoken word performers, musicians ought to be craftsmen rather than…

MKS: … just inspired privileged guardians of literature? Absolutely, that’s what’s made slam performance poets different from… like Ginsberg, for example, playing like… you know, smoking a little dope and playing… Performance poets are craftsmen. They keep learning more and more about this craft of performance. They don’t just rely on their natural melodious voice or their natural ease of speaking with people… This is something you learn, hell, I’m basically a very shy guy, you know, I’ve never had any training, I learned on the spot, performing in front of people, I know when to rise my voice and when to get softer, I know that that’s a craft. It’s the same thing that a writer would tell a young writer, you know, if you’re gonna wait to be inspired, that’s fine, but I’m Stephen King and I go and I write every day, I’m David Sedaris and I work it out every day, you know? I do too, I write every day and I used to rehearse every day, too, but I got old and started being lazy. It’s a craft, just like musicians playing scales and learning more and more. Yes, it’s a craft, you keep working at the craft and at some point, sometimes, you’re lucky and you find that thing that has to be said. And when you put that in your craft, then you have something of real value to give to your audience and your community.

BB: Do you think a poet, a performance poet is best at his craft when he or she is also aware of the limits of tradition within his poetry, I mean both in the case he or she is using all the different new inputs or even if he’s performing totally bare before his or her audience, do you think his performance does benefit from the awareness of traditional heritage (rhyme, accent, structure)? In other words, to be able to express themselves in total freedom, do these craftsmen of poetry need to be well aware of the limits set by the tradition of that craft?

MKS: You see, the unique thing about the slam is that it is both a professional and an amateur arena. I hope it always stays that way. So at any slam show there’s going to be somebody who has just started writing, who’s getting up on the stage for the very first time because they need to express themselves. It’s the place to start up. And they’re right there on the stage with somebody who may have just come back from Broadway, being on a Broadway stage. That’s a very unique thing, too, to have a very welcoming atmosphere for people starting out and people who have already achieved a great deal. Unique to the slam, I think. So, yes, let the person get up on the stage and start. They might not know anything… They’re going to know by the time they get off the stage whether they’ve got something or not, you know? And if they do, then yes, all the slam poets should read deeply, they should learn all the technique that there is. As an artist, you want to have as many choices as you can, you don’t have to use them all, but you have in your toolbox all these choices, both in writing and in performance. I always say… When professors say: “Oh, that’s slam poetry, that’s no good…”, I tell people that I believe performance poetry is a higher form of art. And I say that because as performance poets we have all the choices, when we create a text, for communicating, we have all the choices for creating a text in that form of communication and we have also all the choices for performance communication. You put them together and you have a higher art form, I think because you have more choices. A classic example is like when I teach kids I say, ok, let’s take the text “I love you”, ok? So the text says I love you, we all know that, now let me show you the choices of “I love you”, and of course for the same three words there is an infinite range of expressions. Same three words, but we apply another art form to it and the communication is richer. And it’s not left up to the person who reads it to make that choice, it’s the artist’s choice to communicate it. Sometimes the professors and the scholars are very frustrating in their ignorance. It seems so logical and so clear to me, and I’m not a smart guy… The art form came from the oral tradition, when it was put on the play page the audiences started dropping off and now that it’s being spoken again the audiences are coming back. It makes sense.

BB: I’m curious about the role of the EmCee. How he or she may turn the fortune of the slam show in question? By doing what exactly?

MKS: You know, it’s an interesting thing, in Italy everybody that’s interviewed me has asked about the EmCee’s role, and I’m wandering…

BB: It’s Lello’s fault!

Marc Kelly SmithMKS: Probably… I don’t know. The EmCee is… What we have to understand is that competition is a theatrical device. In every competition there is, you have a referee. The EmCee is not only the host that keeps the show going, he’s the referee, you know. Boy, I’d love to know what’s going on in Italy, but I’ll tell you my experience of how I approach it. Every show is different, everybody approaches hosting a show differently. My approach with the audience was always to be the person who… I’m lucky, because I’m gifted with the true sense of how an audience feels. So you know, when I’ll get up on that stage tonight I know I’m not going to connect as well as I do because of the language, I will feel that and I will have to brace myself to think that I’m not… “You’re failing, Mark, you’re failing!!”, because I can sense that, I can sense when the connection that happens with the audience is not there. So when I start hosting the show, when there’s a competition to host, I try to always think of what the audience was feeling and then vocalize it for the audience. Say for instance there was a poet that was just boring the hell out of everyone, the audience of course will let him or her do what he’s doing, and if someone doesn’t say out loud the truth of it, it can become very dishonest. So over the years, I’ve been the guy who in a little sarcastic way spoke what the audience wasn’t going to say, just that, just a line or two. And then the audience feels relieved, thinks:”Yes, I’m not crazy, that guy was off some other planet!”, you know? The slams that don’t do that are in trouble. What a good slam show has, not only in the competition but in the show itself, is an honest audience that’s going to give the poet on the stage pretty honest feedback of what they get. When you don’t have that, you’re like in a dysfunctional family, you know the family where somebody’s beaten up somebody else and nobody says anything about it, that’s… we all live in it, why go to a show for it? That’s another principle of the slam that’s very important, that you have honest feedback from the audience.

BB: Just one last, quick question. Can you tell us something about what you’ve seen of the Absolute Poetry festival so far, what sort of atmosphere did you find here?

MKS: Well what’s great for me and what is unique to the places that I’ve gone is that there are many places where the music is being combined with the poetry, everybody seems to have their poetry band and everything, but what struck me about the Absolute Poetry festival was that the exploration of all these different combinations of the performing arts and media together reminded me of Chicago back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, people were daring and trying stuff. To me that’s so wonderful, that combination of the voices and everything, and you know what? In America somehow people stopped doing that. There are certain pockets, but it didn’t spread, partly because of this serious competition thing in some circles. So I applaud the Absolute Poetry festival and Lello Voce to put the emphasis on this combination of the arts and then also bringing in the more traditional people at the same time, so the crossover happens. There’s a festival in Australia, on the Sunshine Coast, that does the same thing, it brings in these people that are daring and pushing the envelope of how to combine words with other performance. That’s what’s struck me. Man, when Lello’s band was up there playing I wanted to get up that stage and start jamming with them, it was just… Let’s go, you know? That kind of thing stirs an audience, you know? And I’m pretty used to it, I’ve seen all kinds for twenty-five years, you know, when you charge me up, not that I’m a parameter, but, man, that was good. Another thing that struck me about it is hey, look, Wednesday night, there’s 200 people there! Believe me, you can go to some very prestigious poetry festivals and and maybe Friday and Saturdays it’s full house, but on a Wednesday night there’s nobody there. Very good thing, and good that it’s in a place that maybe doesn’t get lots and lots of culture, and it’s a place of ordinary people. I’m an ordinary guy, my audience in Chicago is ordinary people, from the homeless to the scientists, plumbers, cops, everybody, that’s my thing. My thing has always been I want to reach a general audience, I don’t want the art audience, I want regular everyday people. That seems to be what’s happening here too.

BB: It’s been a great pleasure, thank you very much.

MKS: It was great for me too, I enjoyed the interview, thank you.


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    Di pożyczka bez bik i zaświadczeń | 18 Settembre 2015, 21:58

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