Marc Kelly Smith: Guess who’s coming to slam?

Guess who’s coming to slam?

Marc Kelly Smith: "Slam doesn't exclude anyone"

This year, the Grand Slam welcomes none other than the founder of the poetry slam movement, Marc Kelly Smith

"Right from the beginning of the movement, I felt like slam was spreading through the United States, but I never thought it would cross the ocean," admits Marc Kelly Smith, reached over the phone a few days before his visit to Montreal. Nicknamed Slam Papi, the writer and performer, now in his sixties, is understandably proud of the success his creation has had since he launched it in Chicago in the 1980s. "Humans are the same everywhere, you know, and if a phenomenon triumphs somewhere, it’s almost sure that this triumph can be duplicated anywhere else."

Having had enough of the soporific poetry recitals which he’d attended or participated in, the American poet found inspiration in the folk music nights of his youth. "Those are my roots – Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and all those artists who came to the YMCA, schools and community centres to sing and to tackle social issues. In my neighbourhood, it’s those artists who have broadened our horizons more than ever before."

Constantly invited to events around the world, the founder of the poetry slam movement has observed that his brainchild has shown the same strengths and weaknesses everywhere. "The positive side is that slam ends up by creating a community of people from various backgrounds. Slam has given back to a lot of people a place that they missed, sometimes unwittingly – a place where they felt they belonged." And if this "democratic" aspect sometimes pushes slam towards amateurism, Smith doesn’t worry about it. To him, the idea was always to put together a public literary event that could attract anyone. "My ambition was more social than political. From the get-go, I wanted slam to remain totally open to all influences, from Texas cowboy poets to New York rappers. Slam doesn’t exclude anyone."

When asked about the distinction he makes between slam and so-called literary poetry, which is essentially intended for publishing, Slam Papi answers without any difficulty. "Two basic things: first, the notion of performance, of a union between literary writing and public speaking; secondly, the obligation to know how to captivate the audience, and to interact with it. If we expect of a theatre or film actor that he be able to touch viewers, why should it be any different in the case of someone who goes up on stage to read his poetry?"

Much has been made, sometimes in a derogatory manner, about the competitive nature of poetry slams, which amuses Marc Smith. "We developed the whole competition thing as a bit of a lark. But this formula was picked up by others, probably because it was the easiest to recreate. And because journalists have insisted on that aspect of slam, a part of the audience and even some slam poets have started to take this competition seriously. Which mainly showed their total lack of humour."

Slam Papi, who’ll give a conference/workshop at Lion D’Or on September 19, recently celebrated the slam movement’s 25th anniversary. "As years went by, I learned that art was a sacred thing, destined to change the life of people exposed to it. At our 25th anniversary event, I was moved to see folks from several generations who had been affected by the movement."

Grand Slam 2011
Hosted by Ivy
At Lion D’Or
September 18-19

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