Snap, snap. Fingers click and smoke rises above beret-lidded heads in a dimly lit space. There are profound statements, drugs, Jack Kerouac…or so it goes in my Beat daydream. Missing the opportunity to throw on a turtleneck and hop in the car with Sal Valentine, crisscrossing the country is one of my great misfortunes. One might argue, however, that the descendants of the Beat Generation are active today. New York may claim the original hipsters, but Chicago is home to the poetry slam.
The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood boasts a noteworthy history for many reasons. Al Jolson and Sophie Tucker performed here; Al Capone hung out here; and in 1986 Marc Smith moved his newly created Uptown Poetry Slam here to its permanent home.
The Green Mill’s dazzling neon sign catches the eye among the marquees of Uptown’s other nearby venues. Step inside, and one feels Capone might actually stick his head out from the Prohibition-era passageway purportedly located behind the bar. Whether or not he would fit is debatable, but the Green Mill’s interior is a throwback of the best kind. The elements are as follows: long wooden bar, ornate detailing, jazzy atmosphere, vintage light fixtures and over sized frames, and an imposing golden statue in the corner. The sum of these parts elicits nostalgia both comfortable and cool. The bartender sports a dress shirt and tie, leaning on the bar next to a vintage Schlitz lamp. A live jazz band plays. The lights are low and the space is neither fussy nor musty.
Three companions gather on a Sunday night and pay the $6 entry fee to attend the slam. Two of us have never been to a poetry slam but already we’re impressed with the ambiance. Bonus – one of them plans to read a piece for the first time. At sign-up he is qualified as a “Virgin/Virgin” for his first time at the Green Mill as well as his first live reading. Chicagoan Marc Smith created the poetry slam concept in 1985 as a weekly performance poetry event with an open mike portion, featured performances, and slam contest. Contest judges are chosen from the audience, and tonight’s prize is a lofty $16.
Rather than Smith, our hosts are a troupe of Chicago poets, men and women in their late twenties. They are hit or miss; sometimes startlingly eloquent, comical, and exciting to watch. At times they grasp too desperately and appear more foolish than funny. My favorite pieces include one man’s ode to a blue-collar neighborhood greasy diner and the story of a woman’s Chicago wanderings while on mushrooms.
I am anxious for my friend performing, he is saved for last. Admitting no apprehension, he struts capably to the stage, but I know better. Audience members are encouraged to voice their discontent with finger snaps, stomps, and hissing. Readers have access to support from the band and he instructs them to play something with a bluesy feel. He starts slowly, repeating a mantra in each stanza and then picks up momentum. Halfway through he takes command of the mike, more vocal, spelling out the repeating word in a syncopated rhythm flowing in tune with the baritone pluck of the cello. By the end the audience has caught on, spelling out the word with him. Unlike the kid who walked onstage with his laptop, my friend endures no hissing.
Perhaps I feel nothing will top his performance, but by hour three my poetic enthusiasm is waning. It is Sunday night after all. The slam competition involves audience scoring, intermittent readings by the hosts, tallying, and me weighing the pros and cons of another beer. I am amused, however, to find the poetic element extends to the restrooms, and the scribbles inscribed are much more original than most stall artwork.
If you have any inclination toward incorporating Capone or Sinatra-esque vibes into your night you cannot pass up the Green Mill. I will definitely stop to soak in the Prohibition-era flavor the next time I’m on my way to a concert nearby. I appreciated my first slam experience and it was made most memorable by knowing one of the brave open mikers. Check it out with some friends and force whoever draws the short straw to perform. Oh but leave your beret at home, ya dig?
Green Mill Cocktail Lounge
4802 N Broadway St
Chicago, IL 60640-3667