Review of “An Incomplete History of Slam Poetry” by Kurt Heintz http://www.e-poets.

net/library/slam/ By Tim W. Brown Getting lost in the hoopla surrounding the PBS series “United States of Poetry” are Chicago’s contributions to contemporary performance poetry. The driving force behind the program, Bob Holman, admits he owes much of his success to a handful of Chicagoans, Marc Smith in particular. It was Smith, of course, who first coined the phrase “poetry slam” to describe competitive poetry events proliferating nationwide. Fortunately, there is a spot on the World Wide Web which fills some gaps in the story, “An Incomplete History of Slam Poetry,” by videographer Kurt Heintz. About forty double-spaced pages when printed, “An Incomplete History” is the most complete history of the slam phenomenon I’ve seen. Heintz traces the slam’s origins to the late 1970s, when poetry, performance art and punk rock converged in Chicago, mainly in the persons of Jerome Sala and Elaine Equi. During the early 1980s, several poets impatient with the academic scene, including Smith, bounced from venue to venue experimenting with ways of popularizing poetry. Then the Green Mill Jazz Club offered them a regular gig. Heintz gives a date of July 20, 1986 for the first poetry slam. It became an instant success with poets, and, judging by the large audiences attending, with the general public. Slam poetry had its detractors, too, whom Heintz lumps into the academic category (an over-simplification -- others besides poetry teachers were critical). The dispute, played out in the pages of Letter eX, Chicago’s poetry newsmagazine, pitted poets who valued craft in writing against slam poets who defended a bardic stance. It was a bitter feud, lasting until 1994, when Smith declared it over at the Asheville Poetry Festival.

The slam quickly spread to other cities. By 1989, Holman was featuring slams at the Nuyorican Poets’ Café in New York, and in 1990 the National Poetry Society held the first National Slam in San Francisco. (The Chicago team, featuring Marc Smith, Patricia Smith, Cindy Salach and Dean Hacker, won.) Nowadays, Heintz observes, poetry slams are held regularly “in better than twenty North American cities,” plus England, Australia and Europe. In his introduction, Heintz explains the rationale for publishing his findings on the World Wide Web rather than in print: “As the threads to the story fanned out … the story grew too large and branching for me to conveniently publish through any means but the Web.” The medium serves him very well -- the photos and hypertext links reproduce the connections among places and personalities much better than linear text. Heintz acknowledges that after experiencing a poetry boom, the Chicago scene is showing signs of running out of gas. However, you can expect renewed interest in poetry here, given the recent tenth anniversary of the Uptown Poetry Slam. In his conclusion Heintz assesses the slam’s considerable legacy: “it gave poets everywhere in the 1990s something to talk about, and that dialogue has since spread to what was otherwise becoming an uninvolved and unengaged literary public.”

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