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Poetry: Deep in the Heart of Chicago
Nina Williams

Spoken word legend: Marc Smith
Home to some of the most talented actors, painters, writers, and musicians, Chicago is also home to a series of extremely gifted and innovative spoken word poets. But what is spoken word?

Spoken word poetry is defined as a type of literary performance art encompassing poetry, stories, or lyrics. "It happens out loud sometimes into a microphone with people gathered. Page poetry happens locked away in your room with candles burning and you get to sip wine. They're just different experiences," says Robbie Q. Telfer, fellow Chicago Poet and author.

The poetry "slam" started in Chicago in the mid-'80s with Marc Smith and his dream to fuse two genres of art--the art of performing with the art of writing. Still host of the Uptown Poetry Slam today, Smith believes that "we're at the start. Everything goes in waves." If you want to experience this latest wave, you're going to have to venture out of your house, but where do you go? There are a variety of venues across the city in the heart of some of the most interesting neighborhoods.

The famous Green Mill Pub.
A good place to begin is The Green Mill located near the corner of Broadway and Lawrence. This space is over one hundred years old and it shows. There are two peeling paintings adjacent to the stage and the bathrooms could definitely use a facelift, but the decor isn’t as important as the ambiance.

The Uptown Poetry Slam is split into three parts. The first is an open mic where poets and performance artists present their latest work. The second showcases a featured performer and the third consists of the slam competition. This is where you are judged by three random audience members on a scale of one to ten. And just like any contest, the person with the most points--wins.

The prize is an arbitrary amount of money designated by Marc Smith himself. The competition aspect of the slam isn't to be taken seriously though as it's all in good fun, but this is an excellent way to unleash your latest creation in front of an audience of your peers. That is, if you aren’t too afraid. But you shouldn't be--the audience at the Green Mill is relatively kind to new poets. You can catch the Uptown Poetry Slam every Sunday night at 7:00 p.m. Get there at 6:30 if you want a good seat.

Performing at the Butterfly.
Another venue to check out is the Butterfly Social Club located in the River West area. It's next door to the Funky Buddha Lounge, a laid-back, loungy dance club.

Doors open to a small, but modern space only to be greeted by a huge white butterfly statue standing in front of the DJ booth. A projector showing random videos hangs above the bar. On Mental Graffiti nights this spot gets packed with fellow Chicago performers and listeners.

Co-hosts Dan sully and Tim Stafford, who are also players in the spoken word poetry group, Death from Below host Mental Graffiti every third Monday of the month. "The reason I co-host is because (Mental Graffiti) is an event that helps usher new people in," Tim Stafford said.

The night is split between an open mic, a slam, and a featured poet. It costs five bucks to get in. It would be wise to arrive about a quarter to eight if you want a seat, 7:30 p.m. if you want to sign up to perform.
Mental Graffiti provides a platform that is not only super laid back, but is also fun. The audience is rather supportive and jokes around with the performers. This is a great place to perform or listen to inventive pieces of poetry.

The Chopin Theater
There is also a production going on once a month in Wicker Park at the Chopin Theater, a lovely space across the street from the Polish Triangle and the Division Blue line stop. It is called The Encyclopedia Show and it’s co-hosted by Robbie Q. Telfer and Shanny Jean Maney. The show encompasses visual art, music, and spoken word among other things.

It is a one of a kind show where invited writers and performance artists showcase their work within structured boundaries. They must write on the assigned topic and they have a time limit in which to perform the piece on stage.

"The Encyclopedia show is a monthly show where we invite ten to twelve people to write on a topic that we assign them. In that show, you get five minutes. I took the idea from three shows in town--The Uptown Poetry Slam with Marc, Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, and the Dollar Store Show. Two out of three of those shows are not poetry shows," said Robbie Q.

The Encyclopedia Show should be experienced by all because there is nothing like it on the Chicago poetry circuit. It is definitely unique.

Kynshasa Ward, Chicago public high school teacher and fellow Chicago poet and musician recommends Wordplay, a teen-oriented open mic for young people. He says, "It's an all-ages open mic so a lot of high school students go. It's held on Tuesday's during the school year at Young Chicago Authors on Division and Milwaukee." There is an open mic and a featured reading series. Wordplay begins at 6 pm.  

In One Ear at Heartland
Ward also suggests an open mic set called In One Ear at the Heartland Café in the Rogers Park neighborhood. The show starts at 10 pm every Wednesday and runs well into the night. Get there at 9:30 pm and head to the back room just past the store for the sign up. Here’s what you can expect: a crowded, restaurant style space adorned with pop art and hanging blow-up world globes.

The night is split into two sections--an open mic followed by a featured performance artist. It is here where you'll find tons of collaborative performance art including dramatic dance.

The performances take place on a small stage housed in the corner. There is soundproofing foam attached above, probably to keep out the neighboring noise from Chicago's very own Red line train, which passes through about every thirty minutes. The closest stop to the Heartland Café is Morse in case you don’t have a car.   

There is one last show to check out which is said to be the longest running poetry show in Chicago and it’s at a bar called Weeds. You can check out this free show every Monday night at 9:30 pm.

These are some of the places you should check out if you're interested in learning about or becoming a part of the Chicago poetry scene. 

So what's next? Marc Smith says "in the next few years, Chicago is going to be the place to gather. There's just so much talent. There are some really dedicated young people that want to try new things. I mean, that's kinda the secret."

So what are you waiting for? Take a night or two to soak up some of the best local talent in the city. Whichever poetry shows you choose rest assured that the performers will show you exactly what this Chicago scene is all about.

Listings associated with this Feature:

Butterfly Social Club Heartland Cafe
Chopin Theater Weeds
Green Mill

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