I watched a trickle of dust filter through the light in the Workman’s Club on an unduly warm October Saturday. Speaking a line of a certain poem, I suddenly existed within, simultaneously, three places on the globe. The locales are wrapped in the fabric of how I percieve performance poetry’s relationship to the page, and to my own journey as a performer along geographic lines: Chicago, with its love of experimentation; Paris and its focus on magical illumination; and Dublin, in the wild freedom of its scene’s naissance.
Green Mill Lounge sits at the intersection of Lawrence and Broadway in the Uptown neighborhood on Chicago’s northside. Attitudes in this neighborhood can be as gritty as its mottled cigarette packs in gutters, as time-worn as the loose bricks in abandoned patches between apartment blocks. The lounge’s façade is a feast of 1920s-era signage. Its sheet of tiny bulbs cackle with a decadent glow, backlighting the neon emerald name in cursive. Green Mill was named in 1910 to rival the Moulin Rouge (“Red Mill”) of Paris. At the time, Uptown shared Montmartre’s predilection for lengthy bohemian evenings; the Gilded Age meets La Belle Epoque. During Prohibition, Al Capone’s favorite booth was directly west of the short end of the bar, past the booths along the north wall, positioned for clear views of both entrances. During America’s Jazz Age, when the lounge’s red-lit cabaret environs were the international toast, Billie Holiday often performed.
Speed forward to 1986. Both Uptown and Green Mill have suffered since the early ‘60s. Day drinking and drugs have long replaced nightlife. So it’s surprising that, under the new ownership of Dave Jemilo, the Green Mill – now a pile of scuffed bricks on a neglected corner – decided to use poetry as a revival tactic.
Construction worker Marc Smith approached Jemilo to organize a poetry cabaret ending with a competition, for the lounge’s slow Sunday nights. Smith was a poetry fanatic, eager to inject theatricality into Chicago’s scene, and he thought the emphasis should be on pageless performance. He became the grandfather of the slam movement. Uptown Poetry Slam debuted on 25 July 1986, with Smith drawing from baseball terminology for the name. Slam layed the groundwork for a style of powerful presence and hip-hop-inspired craft, furthering the notion of “spoken word” vs. recited verse. Removal of the page and reliance on rhythm and theatricalilty created a generation of writers in defiance of the notion of poetry as a staid, academic medium.
The last neighborhood I lived in before leaving my hometown was two miles from Lawrence and Broadway. The years frequenting the Uptown Slam were magical; words and those red shafts of light were dusted with glitter, at least from where I sat. Slam was a quiet escape inward, as the poets flowed everything inside their vessels into an invisible powder keg suspended between the audience and themselves. These types of nights had a markedly different energy than traditional poetry evenings focused on relating — that is, making audible — words on a page. The difference lies in embodiment of the words and the dissolution of barriers between spectator and spectated. The Green Mill became spoken word Mecca, and the orignal format of one-hour open mike, one-hour featured guest(s), then two-hour competition continues each Sunday, 28 years after its inception.
In 2014, fate finds me living in Dublin during Lingo, Ireland’s first festival of spoken word. The festival asked me to perform at its A-Musing showcase at Workman’s Club. Serendipitously enough, one of the pieces I chose to perform was “The Impossible,” concerning time living in Paris. Last spring I lived in Paris for three months while on a year-long European spoken word tour with my own band, a different band in each country. France inspired me to fully let myself go as a front-woman for the first time, swept up in Paris’ swirling, multicolored creative influence, its deeply respected spoken word scene often focused on what stark uniqueness one can add to a milieu. Or rather, on how one can add a cherry on top of any situation, then illuminate the cherry in strobes. There’s a long history of African-American writers finding respite and blossoming in Paris, from James Baldwin up to contemporary spoken word giants Saul Williams and Aja Monet.
It’s fascinating how spoken word has traveled since the days of America’s “Def Poetry Jam” tv show (2002-2007), and how each scene is deeply rooted in sense of place. What was the line from “The Impossible” that gave me pause? “The lights on top of Moulin Rouge, turning lust into a holy aspiration.”
A reviewer of the Lingo show graciously said I “had a sense of both metre and theatre.” Metre, theatre, or communicative urgency in my spoken word were no doubt influenced by those hallowed evenings in America’s answer to the “Red Mill.” There, lust for words sparked many an aspiration. There was a new thirst for presenting and receiving poetry. Now Lingo has capitalized on the scene having travelled full-force to Ireland, land of barroom bards.
As Lingo organizer Stephen James Smith put it, “Spoken word is the recharging of our tradition.”
Many people who’ve been involved in the Dublin poetry scene for a long time, such as festival organizer Phil Lynch, say that only in the last five years have things exploded as they have. There are a multitude of weekly and monthly spoken word showcase nights, though it’s still niche entertainment. Six Lingo organizers dedicated their time for free and worked tirelessly for more than one year to gather Dublin’s prominent showcases and a plethora of individual artists, galvanizing and culminating the emerging energy.
Showcases across three days were Nighthawks and The Monday Echo at Smock Alley Theatre; Brownbread Mixtape, A-Musing, PETTYCASH, and Weekly General Meeting at Workman’s Club; and Milk and Cookies at Roasted Brown Café. Less “underground” poets Paula Meehan, current chair of Irish poetry; and Athenry-based publishing powerhouse, English professor, and slam champ Elaine Feeney featured at Sunday’s “Lyrical Miracles.”
Special projects such as SHOUT OUT! for teen poets and the Lingo Bingo audience participation event, an opening night of Irish major players, and international headliners Polarbear (UK) and Abby Oliviera (NI/SCT) added variety and spice. Of course, as it is church in spoken word culture, there was a slam at the end filled with more energy and gusto than I’d seen my Irish comrades emit thus far. Twenty-four poets there battled and raged for four and a half hours. Oliviera’s strongly delivered politcal laments took home first prize.
Style and thematic matter ran the gamut. Several poets integrated reading from paper into their sets. For example, at the opening-night Lingo is a Go! event at Workman’s, Dublin-based Dave Lordan intoned in somber incantations traditional Irish literary themes of death and uncertainty; “Angel of the Flats” Karl Parkinson, known for his gangly bravado on themes of crime and the artists’ life, alternated reading from his book, deftly maintaining the energy; and John Cummins (see video below), current All-Ireland Slam champion, took his words to the air with a full band. Given Ireland’s history of balladry and the integration of music and poetry so prevalent throughout the scene here, the anticipation for Cummins’ foray was understandable, and his lively integration delivered. At the slam, hilarious storyteller Paul Timoney and shrewdly profound Stephen Clare were final-round contenders, whereas their brand of quirk might not fit in at New York’s Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe.
With all that was on display, what can be said to characterize Ireland’s scene, as it’s been shown to run right up and stand beside its forbears in passion and dedication? It’s the freedom allotted its practitioners to find themselves and their stride. It is the openness of audiences. There are no “hip rules” yet because the scene is burgeoning. In essence, it is ripe for finding itself.
Late during the closing hip-hop party on Sunday at The Liquor Rooms, Smith and I said tender goodbyes. The room around us buzzed with a sense of pride among minglers reluctant to call it a night. He said to me, alive with the sheen of words and their recognition, “I was in your fine city recently. I went to the Green Mill and the Uptown Slam. I was in awe. Floored.” I wanted to tell him not to be overly concerned at the moment – to keep his focus on the grass he’d just watered.
With Lingo, “Spoken word went from underground to overground,” organiser Colm Keegan said. And the field is wide open. Let’s create our own rules.
(c) Clara Rose Thornton