MARC SMITH'S CROWDPLEASER: A LETTER eX REVIEW
Prologue to a review by C. J. Laity
I know, some of you might be thinking, C. J. Laity doing a review of Marc Smith's book?--uh oh!
It is true that I have been an outspoken critic of the Poetry Slam in the past, and though my views might have mellowed tremendously over the years, there are still some aspects to the idea of poetry as a sport that I would disagree with.
Just let me say, however, that reviewing a book is a different thing entirely. I never go about reviewing a book with favoritism or grudges in mind. I attempt to look at the poetry in and of itself, absent of the politics which might surround the author or publisher or even myself. So that is how I am going to take a stab at reviewing Marc Smith's Crowdpleaser--simply as honestly as I possibly can.
The Book . . .
Let me start off by looking at this book as a physical object.
It is square in geometric shape. And it is glossy. The images of Marc Smith on its front and back cover as well as inside are not very flattering. That I don't get. Smith is a much more attractive man than the images let on. The illustrations by Michael Acerra are nonetheless talented pencil scetches of a performance poet in motion. The back cover lists quotes from the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Pretty impressive for a book published by a local small press.
Crowdpleaser is a "Limited Edition" published by Jeff Helgeson's Collage Press (copyrighted 1996 and 2000). It is being distributed by Dave Gecic's Puddin'head Press. This I think is waay cool. Marc Smith is a national celebrity of sorts, and I'm sure if he wanted to he could have gone to some publishing company outside of Chicago to publish his first book of poetry, some big name New York label perhaps. But he chose instead to help support local small press entrepreneurs. I can remember years back when Smith refused to get published at all. His poetry was only meant for the stage. It was like pulling teeth trying to get some of his performance poems on the pages of local zines and periodicals. Now that he's finally decided to give it all to "the audience that has filled the Green Mill Lounge on Sunday nights for the past ten years," he has chosen to stay local. This is an important statement he is making considering all the poets who have left and who are leaving Chicago. It seems the growing trend is to become a poet in Chicago, then once established, move to New York or somewhere else. This is even true for the majority of the original Letter eX staff members. So cheers to Marc Smith on that one.
The book contains introductions to the poems by Smith himself, which enlighten us on the history of each poem and how it was / is performed on stage. These introductions give this book the feel of an autobiography, and in a way, I guess it is just that. I am not going to concentrate on the introductions for two reasons: one, because I want to look at the poetry without the influences of the introductions; and two, because the introductions are very entertaining and you should experience them for yourself (it would be like telling the highlighs of a movie and then recommending you go see it).
So let's move on. . .
The Poetry . . .
Crowdpleaser opens up with a poem called Any requests? It is a tight poem, a complete poem, a poem with a strong sense of voice and narration. It has a strong awareness of audience (and I don't mean just in its subject matter). In it Smith jabs fun at the performance arena, comparing himself to perhaps a carnival performer with:
Bristles on my fingertips!
A red sable brush in my mouth!
An artist at the edge of an ever-changing universe
Marking each lap of his dangling gyration
With a jittery brush stroke smear
Poking . . .jabbing . . . stretching
The highly elastic fabric
Of his brutal imagination
The poem works as a poetic introduction to a book written by someone who is considered the world's greatest performance poet. Gratefully, the next poem in the book works as a second introduction, this time to seemingly a different book, a book designed not only to catalogue the poetic history of one of this city's greatest literary go getters, but a book designed as well to serve as something to support that city and it's poetry community:
When you ask how high is this mountain
With a compulsion to know
Where you stand in relationship to other peaks,
Look down to wherefrom you came up
And see the rope that's tied to your waist
Tied to the next man's waist,
Tied to the next woman's waist,
Tied to the first man's waist,
To the first woman's waist
. . .and pull the rope!
(from Pull the next one up)
And then, hinting that this book is going to be perfectly designed in the positioning, the order of the poems, the third poem serves once again as an introduction: this time to the man himself, Marc Smith.
Ground Zero contains such a perfectly captured voice, that while I read it I can imagine Smith sitting at the table of some panel discussion, breaking the rules, disobeying the accepted and expected position of standing at the podium with a long memorized speech, instead just sitting there, talking--talking--in his own voice, all the Chicago da's and ain't's included, just being himself. That's the voice of this poem.
Runnin' the last fifty yards at low altitude
Toward their face-filing detente
Inside the checkerboard mullions
Which I crash through
The poetry in this book is the poetry of a city. Mostly of the beauty within that city. Of the kindness of the hearts beating inside the people of that city. Of the hustle and bustle as well. It is refreshing to see city poetry which does not paint a picture of an urban nightmare. It is rewarding to see someone celebating Chicago in this manner:
There is a brilliance and a death in each note
That reverberates off the string
Into the wind, into the breath of the wind;
Like a sigh that precipitates upon our perceptions
Unnamed, unsolved resolution;
Resolution building like white cumulonimbus clouds
Above city skyline stone and steel,
Above platforms and pedestrians,
Stone walks and fountains,
Above pigeons and passers-by to be.
Very beautifully worded indeed. The poem Something is a good example of a Marc Smith poem which transcends from the performance poetry medium. It's a poem (like the poem Sandburg to Smith Smith to Sandburg) which works well on the page, which seems meant for the page.
The order of the poems in this book seems to travel through time, through the time lived by Smith; the poetry changes as this time goes by. For example, the first half of this book is more the "Crowdpleaser" stuff, but toward the end of the book, almost as if Smith is reflecting as he grows older, the poetry becomes more personal:
My daughter sings her song
As tacit as volcanic ash.
Passions coiling into a chest-hugging fist;
Time's tight-wound wallop --
She belts it out!
And oh my,
How the gone notes of melodies past
Smoke the mirror
And mesmerize my secret glare.
(From Watching secretly fromt he stair)
(Kind of puts a lump in your throat, don't it? As does:)
I wear my father's coat.
And it seems to me
That this is the way the most of us
Make each other's acquaintance --
In coats we have taken
To be our own.
I'm going to have to stop right here, because I found myself really enjoying this book from cover to cover. I found myself at the edge of my seat at times, realizing that I was discovering Marc Smith's poetry for the first time. I found myself holding my breath and gettting excited and wanting to applaude just as I might want to after a performance by Smith. And I want you to have that same experience as you read this book, so I think I've given enough (hopefully not too much) away as it is.
Crowdpleaser is a hellava book. I think it's one of the finest books out of and about Chicago that I've ever come across.
You can get your own copy for $12.50 from Puddin' head Press, PO Box 477889, Chicago, IL 60647, 708-656-4900, firstname.lastname@example.org
MARC SMITH SLAMS POETRY STARS
During the Poetry Trends Panel Discussion, which was part of the recent Chicago Public Library Poetry Festival, Poetry Slam founder Marc Smith spoke out against poets who think that they are "stars."
Here is an excerpt of his speech: "In the Slam world, we said that you people out there are the most important thing. We gave you permission to react to the poet. We considered the audience to be the most important part of poetry.
"Because I grew up on the southeast side, and I happened to be in an area that was completely integrated--the Slam has always been an open door for all kinds of people. We didn't think that this should be the plan; it just turns out that way. So the Slam started a trend a few years ago that's kinda worked. There's not a big audience for Slam poetry. Lots of different people involved. And poets learn how to perform, and how to perform well.
"Now I'll get to the trend part of it. That all happened. And believe me, at the beginning, everybody, including probably some people at this table, criticized the Slam. I had all kinds of flack for years. I love it. 'Cause it means you're still controversial. The minute they stop talking about you you're in trouble. What's happened because the Slam has gotten so popular and so much attention. . .as soon as young people see an image out of TV, or listen to a mass produced image of something, they try to copy it. Now people, instead of coming fresh to a Poetry Slam with their own ideas, with their own experience, with who they are, they (copy) from somebody they see on T.V. or somebody else who is a big time performer, and they're not themselves anymore.
"And I see, in my small little part of the poetry world, poets not trying to be artists and considering what they do as sacred, as some kind of holy thing, that brings some new fire to people. I see them as people trying to become rock and roll stars, or big celebrities. That's not what the Slam was about. Unfortuantely, part of my world has turned into that. I don't know for one how to turn it around. You don't want to discourage poeple, at the same time, it's a disease in our society. Everybody wants a big star. Believe me. When I started. . .being a poet, you had no, no assumption that you were going to make any money or anybody was going to pay attention to you. But now, with hip hop, the Slam, you can become a star. Another American celebrity star. To me, that's the most disturbing trend in poetry around right now."
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Note: As Letter eX fans know, nobody is immune from our sometimes harsh pen. Here we take a look at the father of Slam poetry.