In the slam laboratory
A rotary phone and an antique cash register rest on the counter behind the bar. The faded handwritten labels on the jukebox look as though they’ve been around since the days when the men and women who came here sported fedoras and white gloves. Behind the stage, the neon sign that reads “Green Mill” is unlit. It’s another Sunday night at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Chicago, and a poetry slam—no, the Uptown Poetry Slam that has become part of the Mill’s mythic past just as much as gangsters and moonshine—is about to begin.
I’m here because I expected to find the same Green Mill poetry slam I remembered from the last time I attended, in 1999. Back then it seemed hip, edgy, and slightly taboo. I remember hearing intimate, provocative poems about things I didn’t find in the poetry I read in school: sex and abuse, shame and rage. It felt raw, visceral—maybe even naughty—and somehow very important.
I’d flirted with the idea of getting up on stage myself, but watching slam felt like enough. Watching slam accomplished precisely what art was supposed to do—reflect and make sense of intimate, personal experience—and in doing so, slam made me feel more authentic, and less alone. Over a decade later, I returned to Chicago and once again found myself craving an artistic experience that challenged me in a way the latest blockbuster or bestseller could not. So I came back to the Green Mill.