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Literary Tue May 22 2012
This Friday Chicago Slam Works presents "Dead or Alive," an event where dead poets (played by living poets) go head-to-head with live poets in a bizarre twist on the traditional poetry slam. CSW Director J.W. Basilo answered a few questions to help clarify Friday's activities.
So, people will be impersonating dead poets?
To an extent, we're doing what we can to embody those dead poets, but not forcing anybody to copy the mannerisms -- the person being Frank O'Hara is going to have a Frank O'Hara-esque energy, but not necessarily impersonating.
Why dead poets vs. living poets?
We've all been indoctrinated with dead poets, and sometimes the stuff you're taught in school doesn't really convey what's going on -- are those dead poets really that much better (than current poets)? Can modern poetry stand up to the canon? What would it look like if you got bonafide performers to read poems written 100 or 200 yrs ago, what would it look like? Marc Smith [founder of the Uptown Poetry Slam] frequently performs Sandburg and Yeats, and all of a sudden it becomes a whole new ball game, he gets it (the poem) in his body, brings it to life.
How will the show be set up?
We're staging a mock team slam, with living poets vs. dead poets battling it out, there will be judges who vote for either Dead or Alive, and the competitive thing is just kind of a wink to slam roots.
The whole idea behind CSW is to try to take poetry and performance poetry and put it in venues it doesn't often get represented. A lot of people think performance poetry can't work in a theater setting or appeal to people who aren't poets, and by putting it in theaters and giving it production value we're not tricking people but saying: "see, if we give it as much energy and respect as a Becket play, we're able to be just as engaging and emotionally important."
This is the second in a series that CSW is doing.
We're trying to do four shows a year, a concept I've formulated or stolen from someone else -- some friends in Germany do a series where they fly people in from ceiling because they have lots of money, and because they care about art in Germany.
We [Americans] invented slams; our national slam usually has about 72 teams, we take over a bar, maybe 20 people come out, some years. Their [Germany's] preliminarily competitions were filling 1000 seat rock clubs. Their finals were in a hockey stadium, with 6000 people in the audience. The slam has become this huge international movement, and still has a huge stigma in US -- even in Chicago where it started. I don't know what it is, it might be that it seems to me slammers in the states tend to be little more self-therapeutic as opposed to engaging the audience and working to engage the audience. I didn't understand all of the words [at the German slam] because my German is shitty, but the feel of it was more like "we're all in this together." In the US it's more like: "here's my pain, reward my pain."
Ultimately, what Marc created is a space that allowed poetry to reach the common man, that everyman can be a part of this, not just those in the ivory tower. There's an honesty in a lot of the American work that comes from the fact that no one wants to listen -- that comes from "I have to be bold, I have to be big, I really have to be vulnerable in order for people to give a shit." It's not unlike the ethos of punk rock -- "I have to be loud, I have to be brassy because people don't want to listen to what I say." The best stuff always comes from struggle; the best comedians and musicians are always the ones who had to bang their head against the wall. If you read a lot of German slam poets, it seems like the stuff that's winning in Europe is way less fierce, less gritty, and less honest than what's in the US. Everything good comes from struggle, even if it comes from: "I've got 50 people in a bar that don't want to listen to me so I have to be good."
Tell me about the poets who will be performing in the show.
The dead poets are: Adrienne Rich, Walt Whitman (who will not be doing "Leaves of Grass" or "Oh Captain, My Captain" -- because of Robin Williams nobody can do that anymore. It's a great poem, but he ruined it.) Frank O'Hara, T.S. Elliott Lucille Clifton, and Audre Lorde. The modern performers are: Marty McConnell, Robert Brown, Adam Levin, Fatimah Warner, Laura Yes Yes, and Fiona Chamness.
Dead or Alive comes to the Vittum Theater, 1012 N. Noble St., this Friday, May 25 at 8pm. Tickets are $18.50, $12 for students. For more information visit Chicago Slam Works or call 866-811-4111.