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Uptown Poetry Slam comes to Evanston SPACE

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Marc Kelly Smith had a great idea in the early 1980s: make poetry readings more palatable.

He had thought, “Why is this artform that I have been writing and reading most of my life presented onstage like an academic exercise?”

His solution, Uptown Poetry Slam, was started at the Green Mill in Chicago in 1986 and has spread across the country and overseas. You’ll understand why it’s so popular when Smith brings the show to SPACE at 1 p.m. May 26 in Evanston.

There will be three sets.

“It starts with an open mic,” Smith said. “Anybody can get up there. There’s a one-poem limit and you’d better not go over three minutes.”

The second set will be performances by two guest poets, Eleonora Fisco, an Italian spoken word artist, and Andy Karol, a Chicago-based performance poet. “It will be Eleonora’s text that’s been translated to English,” Smith explained. “Andy will present it in English. Eleonora will present it in Italian at the same time — interlaced.”

For the final set, the audience will participate in “The Dumb Rhyming Word Game.”

“I come up with a theme for the night,” Smith said. “Anybody in the audience can write a poem on the spot with that theme. We get three words from the audience that they have to use in the poem — and rhyme.”

The Futz Band, a jazz band, will perform at the slam.

When we spoke via Zoom, Smith was in France hosting a festival and conducting a workshop. “Slam is big in France,” said Smith, who goes there a couple of times each year.

He noted that the Uptown Poetry Slam ran at the Green Mill every Sunday night after he started it there in 1986. “Before COVID, it was the longest-running weekly nightclub show in Chicago,” he said.

The Green Mill Uptown Poetry Slam went on hiatus when it was shut down because of COVID, but restarted two years ago as a monthly show every third Sunday afternoon.

Smith reported that there are shows modeled after the Uptown Poetry Slam all over the world. “Probably a thousand different cities have it,” he estimated. “To give you an example of how big it got, I was at the 2014 German National Slam in Hamburg. The final night of the competition, 5,000 people attended.”

Smith said the goal from the beginning was, “Don’t bore anybody. We learned the art of performance poetry which borrows from all performance arts. We’re lucky that we can incorporate dance movements in the presentation. Just about anything.”

Emily Calvo has been involved with the Uptown Poetry Slam since 1993. “I’m a poet but I’ve also helped Marc promote it when we had the national poetry slams,” Calvo said. She also helps coordinate and organize special slam projects.

Smith credits Calvo with convincing him to restart the Uptown Poetry Slam.

“I know so many people value it so much,” Calvo said. She is one of those people.

“Number one is community — the connection we build with other writers,” Calvo said. “It also inspires my own creativity and keeps me writing as a poet.”

Myrna Petlicki is a freelance reporter for Pioneer Press.

Uptown Poetry Slam

When: 1 p.m. May 26

Where: SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston

Tickets: $14

Information: 847-492-8860; evanstonspacemusic.com



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