The Two Sisters
(by Jean Howard)
When I first arrived in Chicago in 1979, the poetry scene was quietly humming series of readings, like the Banyan Press series at the Paul Wagoner Gallery, and the Poetry Center readings featuring “top name” poets like Philip Levine and Galway Kinnell. Although the Poetry Center brought in larger audiences, these series tended to bring in the same small pockets of people for audiences–poets, “poets hearing poets.”
The local performance art scene, on the other hand, was definitely kicking off. Raw spaces and galleries like Randolph Street Gallery were showcasing weekly groundbreaking performance art featuring abstraction, physicality, visual manipulation, lighting, sound texture, pyrotechnics, and other sensory mechanisms. The experimentation that audiences not only were exposed to, but also participated in, left them charged and returning for more.
It was in this environment that I met neon/metal sculptor Tom Scarff, who was well established in the art community, and who at the time was experimenting with dance and movement. Scarff had been showing his neon in the ’60s wrapped within trees, or snaking through sand dunes, and moved his art now into the realm o human relationships. he approached me with the prospect of collaborating on a work called “The Argon,” a performance piece incorporating neon, sculpture, costuming, sound, movement, and poetry, presented a matriarchal society existing in a world created by argon (the gas creating yellow neon). This was followed by “Climax Deluxe,” a collaboration with dancer/choreographer Pat Fischer Selby, a video artist, Bob Boldt, a sound artist, Ted Garner, and Tom Scarff, performed at Frumkin Struve Gallery. It was even more experimental, with the complete performance taking place behind a wall while audience members viewed it from their only access, two monitors mounted on the wall. Playing to a packed house, one of the more important spectators was Marc Smith, an emerging poet also seeking alternative ways to express his work.
Nationally, at this time, the work of Chicago-born performance artist Laurie Anderson was making its presence known to mainstream audiences. Karen Finley, another Chicagoan, would gain a certain notoriety, not for smearing chocolate pudding and other substances over/into her body while performing confrontational poetry about the abuse of women, but because the National Endowment of the Arts pulled its funding of her because of that work.
Locally, other venues were opening up to poets. A few bars offered up poetry one night a week, putting poetry into the bar/cabaret scene and allowing more unorthodox and demonstrative poets to step up. the traditional stagnant reading of a poem was no match for the level of audience engagement possible when poetry was presented as a physical/full sensory experience. For a few experimenting poets, like myself, there was no turning back.
One of the earliest, most primitive nightspots opened to experimenting performance poets was the Get Me High Lounge located in a north side, blue collar Chicago neighborhood. this small, dark, graffiti-walled bar offered a stage with the bathroom located in back, so patrons had to walk on stage during performances to gain access to it. Marc Smith had secured Monday nights, a traditionally dead night at the bar, to showcase the handful of poets exploring performance art. Local neighborhood patrons trying to watch a Cubs game and down a beer would find themselves being assaulted by poets utilizing wild gestures, musical instruments, boom boxes, costuming, and theatrical makeup. Some of the most memorable performance pieces there included Tim Anderson’s performance piece about “butt-fucking in the cornfields” delivered with mid-western innocence and charm, ending in dropped-drawer-exposure, and David Cooper’s “anyone call a cab?” with Cooper storming onto the stage as a perceived cab driver growing more impatient and violent by the minute.
My first performance of “Dollmaker” took place there, a performance piece delving into child abuse and addiction. these were simpler, shorter works. but as venues continued to open and offer space for alternative work, perfomrnace art, performance poetry, and experimental theater often merged and blossomed.
Of course, the performance poets that would become the Chicago Poetry Ensemble and start the
slam at the Green Mill really had their first encounter together at David Jemilo’s bar, the Deja Vu. Again, Marc Smith arranged for a group of invited poets to perform there. this time, they created a collaborative performance piece based on a single concept: the voices of carnival and circus performers. the debut performance piece was called “Circus Chatter.” The audience, to everyone’s surprise, was totally engaged.
The success of “Circus Chatter” encouraged Jemilo to invite Smith to regularly feature performance poetry on Sunday nights at his new bar, the Green Mill, a historic speakeasy that showcased late-night jazz. This weekly opportunity created a great challenge since the Chicago Poetry Ensemble now had to develop a whole evening of performance poetry every week.
It was also an immense stimulus for greater development of work and artists. Inspired by the vital performance art activity in Chicago, and the continued opportunity to showcase work at the Green Mill, a more elaborate body of work began to appear: “Acts of Lunacy” and “Eating Meat” were my solo performance pieces with staging, projected images, and animal sound effects, the latter performed while sitting at a small table, dressed in white, lit only by candlelight, while eating a full, raw sirloin steak. Both poems alluded to imminent danger. Another work, “The Book Burning,” which took place at the Guild Boods space, ended with the audience participating in an actual book burning in the alley outside.
A more elaborate body of work, produced and directed by myself, incorporating dance (Pat Fischer Selby), performance poetry (Marc Smith, Dwight Okita, and myself), theaater (Morgan McCage) projection, lighting, body art, photography (Jeff Crissman), music, and sound, “Tattoo, Taboo” represented the historical, sexual, spiritual world of tattooing, and was received by sold-out audiences at the ARC Gallery. Marc Smith himself directed ensemble performance pieces for the Mill, such as “Dance” and “War.” Many of these were more theatrical poetry productions with elements of performance art alive within them.
This early groundwork and, of course, the rising popularity of the slam, brought in a whole new school of performance poets, some–such as Cin Salach, who collaborated with Mark Messing and others to create the performance art group, The including projection, music/sound creation, kinetics, and video.
The exploratory spirit of performance art and its sister, performance poetry, invites–actually it requires–constnt innovation and change in order to reflect upon the audiences it hopes to engage.
“The Two Sisters” written by Jean C. Howard
(taken from The Spoken Word Revolution)
edited by Mark Eleveld
advised by Marc Smith
About Slam Poetry
by Marc Smith