Uptown Poetry Slam

Gregory Grumpycatt Pickett competes in the Uptown Poetry Slam competition on Sunday, March 16, coming in second place but winning huge cheers from the crowd. Photo by Cat Craft.

Gregory Grumpycatt Pickett competes in the Uptown Poetry Slam competition on Sunday, March 16, coming in second place but winning huge cheers from the crowd.

The Uptown Poetry Slam was founded in 1987 by Marc Kelly Smith, now known as the grandfather of the slam poetry movement. Still taking place at the Green Mill where it first began, the Sunday night event is open to any and all poets who want to sign up for open mic spots or compete in the slam competition at the end of the evening (the winner takes home a measly $10 prize, but the money isn’t the point).

The crowd seems full of familiar characters–like Freddie, who evidently reads there every week–but the biggest personalities are Marc Kelly Smith (the crowd shouts “So what!” every time he says his name) and co-host J.W. Basilo, Executive Director of Chicago SlamWorks. They are fully in charge, hovering in the background, even sneaking onto the stage to cut off a poet who has rambled on for too long.

As a genre, slam poetry is rougher around the edges than traditional poetry. It’s more theatrical, more rhythmic, more in-your-face and there’s a lot more audience involvement. There’s also accompanying music to help set the mood – smooth or energetic or romantic or, as one poet requested at a recent event, “something that revolves like an old phonograph record.”

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