The famously atmospheric Green Mill Lounge on the northside of Chicago, Ill. is a jazz club that bears the distinction of having been a favorite haunt of the notorious 1920s gangster Al Capone.
It is also the place where the first regular weekly poetry slam was established in 1986.
From there, the idea of the slam — a competition between poets in performance — caught on among the literary set and spread like wildfire. Now, poets meet regularly to bellow, blast and whisper their electric verses in front of enthusiastic crowds and discerning judges at prestigious poetry slams all over the world.
So serious have poets become about their slams that there is even the annual World Poetry Slam, sponsored by the nonprofit organization of slams, Poetry Slam, Inc.
Fifteen years ago, the Island Arts Council began sponsoring Whidbey Island poetry slams locally. That tradition continues, as a healthy mix of poets and those curious to try their hand at wordsmithing meet regularly at the Dog House Tavern in Langley.
April is National Poetry Month, so it is appropriate that the next slam is at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 24 at the Dog.
The indubitable Jim Freeman, emcee of the slams for as long as anyone can remember, conducts the wordy play in his ever gentle and witty way.
“It heals the chaos of my mind,” Freeman said of his affinity for slams.
The Whidbey Island style poetry slam takes less of a competitive approach, and might be thought of less slamlike but rather more like a “poetry hug,” Freeman said.
Though there is indeed judging and the winner does take home a monetary prize, everybody wins something for their efforts from Freeman’s trainload of curious objects.
Previous prizes have included Double Bubble gum, earplugs, bobble head dolls, a vintage magazine and one-hard-to-give-away Liberace album that somehow keeps getting returned to the kitty.
What happens at the local slam is that 12 random words are chosen from the audience. Poets must use at least three of those words in a poem of any style or length within a 25 minute time frame.
Poems are then presented to the audience and several designated judges.
Entrants are judged on the quality of the presentation, the poem overall and the use of the given words.
“A strong performance can win, even if the poem is not so strong,” Freeman said.
Molly Cook, a local poet, writing teacher and slam supporter, said the emphasis is on fun and entertainment. The feeling at a good slam is infectious, she added.
“There’s no antidote for poetry,” Cook said.
Cook and Freeman said that although local, accomplished poets are frequently spotted at the slams, the event has evolved into a family affair where aspiring poets of all ages have joined the fun on a regular basis.
“People come to the Dog for dinner and unexpectedly become poets,” Cook said.
Stumbling upon the event at the tavern has been a common occurrence for many people who have attended.
Even one 11-year-old boy who tagged along with his poetic mother once, never intended to participate.
“He won $40 that night for a beautiful poem he wrote about his grandfather’s hands,” Freeman said.
It was an image the boy remembered when visiting the dying man at his beside in the hospital, Freeman explained.
Freeman and the Island Arts Council have garnered a wider audience recently by offering slams at libraries, schools and at the Whidbey Island Writers Association. And the council is currently seeking venues in Coupeville and Oak Harbor that would be interested in holding poetry slams.
Freeman said he is happy to emcee the slams, but would love to share the reins with other talented islanders for this event.
There are plenty more slams scheduled for this year, including the annual outdoor poetry slam in Langley Park at 7 p.m. Thursday,
Cook and Freeman stressed the fact that everyone can enjoy a good slam; even those who have never attempted a poem in their lives.
Just as the slammers at the Green Mill Lounge predicted 22 years ago, and as the poets who slam now as far away as Macedonia know, slams are just good fun.
“Every slam night is a magical night,” Freeman said.
Poetry lovers take note, the Washington Poets Association presents the fifth annual Burning Word: The Festival of Poetic Fire. The event returns to Greenback Farm on Saturday, April 26.
Also, look for the Island Arts Council’s poetry tent at Choochokam Arts in July.
Patricia Duff can be reached at 221-5300 or email@example.com.
Island Arts Council Poetry Slam
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, April 24.
Where: Dog House Tavern, Langley.
Info: All ages welcome; bring paper and pen; admission is free.
Slam schedule: June 19 and Oct. 16 at the Dog House Tavern; 7 p.m. Thursday, August 28 in Langley Park.