April 18, 2001
Kennedy Center Millennium Stage
The whole concept of free is amazing to me. On Wednesday a few of my friends and I set out to the Kennedy Center to see a free, and let me repeat free, performance on the Millennium Stage. It is a horrible tragedy that I have been stuck in the Thurston Hall rut all year and have never ventured to the Kennedy Center. It is beautiful inside, and every night at 6 p.m. there is a free performance on the Millennium Stage.
I traveled out beyond the parameters of Thurston to see Marc Smith, also known as the “Grandpappy of Slam,” perform his poetry. Smith is essentially the inventor of “slam poetry.” When he brought it to the poetry community of his hometown, Chicago, in 1987, a new literary movement began.
Slam poetry is a genre of performance poetry with competitive edge. In competitions judges declare winners, although there is no set criteria to determine what makes a good poem. More than 100 U.S. cities host “poetry slams.” Every year a National Poetry Slam draws multiple teams of poets from all over the country to compete in the sport of spoken word. Poems are rated on a scale from zero to 10, and poets are prohibited from using props, costumes or music. They can only use the audience in creative ways to produce extra effects.
When I got to the show, Marc Smith was out mingling with the audience. Half of his band accompanied him, including Dave Flip on the piano and Mike Smith on the guitar. As the music began, Marc Smith decided it would be fun to pair up mismatched people to dance with each other. Everything was going fine until he attempted to get a smug 12-year-old boy to dance with an elderly woman. The boy was less than interested and sat down after only a few minutes. After a few more minutes everyone settled in their seats again and Smith introduced himself. This is how it went:
Smith: My name is Marc Smith.
Smith stood on stage waiting for a reaction, before realizing we had no idea what to do. He informed us that it is tradition for the audience to yell, “So what?” after he introduces himself.
Smith: My name is Marc Smith.
Audience: So what?!
And thus the music started and the show began. Smith performed his first poem about the L Train, Chicago’s mass-transit system. During this poem he grabbed the man sitting in front of me and commanded him to act like a beggar and another man to act like a decrepit elder man who could be seen riding the train. If anything, Smith likes to have an active and participant audience during his performances.
Smith performed a few other funny poems. Themes included breakfast and baseball, as he ventured to describe small children as baby hippopotami. Other pieces were more solemn about his deceased father and what he has written love to be: “a deep and dark lonely.”
The majority of Smith’s poems reflect his childhood and life spent living on the southeast side of Chicago. His poetry represents working-class culture. He brought his show to a close by asking two members of the D.C. Slam team, Phoenix and Isaac, to perform their poems to demonstrate young talent of today’s “slam poetry.”
After watching Smith’s performance, my interest in slam has grown even more. Everyone should go see it at least once before writing it off. And besides, it’s free.