Building the Revolution: Mark Eleveld, editor of The Spoken Word Revolution
I got a tip from the Cobalt list on Yahoo in November 2003 about a
benefit at Beyond Baroque in Venice for the Midnight Special
Bookstore (I'm SO glad they're back in business).
The benefit (which was well attended, and not by Lord Of The Rings fans),
showcased poets from the anthology The Spoken Word Revolution
(Sourcebooks), a compilation of poets from old to new school,
academic to slam, classic to street and back again.
Performing that night were Patricia Smith, Marvin Bell, Regie
Gibson, Saul Williams, Luis Rodriguez, Victor Infante, Mike McGee
& Viggo Mortensen. John Condron (www.johncondron.com) generated streams of bluesy
background music as the poets shared
the power of the poetic word.
Emceeing the event was Mark Eleveld, editor of TSWR. With a combination
of verve and gentlemanly spirit, he eagerly introduced each poet to
the audience, performed selections from the anthology,
and graciously encouraged the patrons of the event to support the
Midnight Special Bookstore.
The man who could run, with such enthusiasm, an event as diverse as
the benefit at Beyond Baroque is the same man who (with a great deal
of time and care)has produced a literary collection that has unified the
diversity of the modern poetry scene.
pd: How/when did you first get involved with the poetry
scene in Chicago and with Marc Smith?
Eleveld: In 1991 I took a class taught by Marc Smith at
Lewis University, outside of Chicago. A professor friend
knew I was into poetry and told me to check out this
'new' brand of poetry with Marc Smith. The class was
on Performance Poetry, but we incorporated Sandburg,
Kerouac, Millay, Yeats, Cummings, etc. The final was
performing at the Green Mill.
pd: How did the idea for TSWR come about? What/who
determined the selection process for the poetry that
makes up this anthology?
Eleveld: Long story but...I am probably the world's only
'call-in' editor. I was listening to Milt Rosenberg's
WGN show late at night, and the feature was Kevin
Stein (current Poet Laureate of Illinois) and
Dominique Raccah, publisher at Sourcebooks. Both had
recent anthologies out, Kevin's Illinois Voices and
Dominique's Poetry Speaks, which had sold over
100,000 at the time. Dominique's book includes three
cd's of 'canon' poets reading their own work. Whitman,
Plath, Hughes, etc. No Slam poets represented. Kevin's
book included the 'most' influential poets in Illinois
history--no Slam poets.
The topic turned to how
important it is to hear poets recite their own work,
and that this was a new phenomenon. Kevin was doing
most of the talking. He also remarked that poetry is
going through a revitalization...again, no mention of
Marc, or Pat Smith, or Regie Gibson, etc. So I called
in (I had already read and listened to both books) and
said that I was glad their books were received well,
but disappointed that they didn't recognize what truly
has inspired poetry to become as big (if not bigger)
than the Chicago '20's--Slam poetry. That Slam, in
fact, revitalized the whole of reading poetry aloud.
Kevin said he struggled with this in his book, but
that eventually he came to the conclusion that their
work was good on the stage, but not page.
nuts--I had just received a starred review from ALA
Booklist for Regie Gibson's book Storms Beneath the
Skin; I knew he was wrong and talked about the design
of putting poetry sets together, pleasure to the
audience etc, and further said that the 'famous
professor nobodys' (including Stein) were represented
in his book when Marc Smith was not??? At this point
Dominique spoke up and said she was working on a book
of Spoken Word/Slam poetry at Sourcebooks. I went to
school the next day, gave my students a bad
assignment, and drafted an email to Dominique
overemphasizing my role in Slam. They called for a
lunch. We talked, set up some proposals--received
Marc's blessing--and went into contract. There is a little more, but...
pd: What/who determined the selection process for the
poetry that makes up this anthology?
Eleveld:I used my teacher reviewer 'rubrics' to determine
some fundamental starting grounds. I also determined
early on that this would be an introductory book--not
a definitive collection--mostly designed for people
outside of the community. So I leaned a little some of
the more 'established' poets I had worked with. When I
came up with the lits and read the work, I came up
with a larger three point system:
1. I wanted to document some of the history of the
current movement while these people are still alive.
I always found it ironic that contemporary or modern
poetry classes usually end in the late
fifties...sometimes they sneak in the 60's and beyond,
but that is rare.
2. I wanted to mend some fences between peoples and
'scenes' that might not have been associated in the
past. Having the U.S. Poet Laureate, Guggenheim
President, Iowa Writers Workshop professor, Pulitzer
Prizewinner, Carnegie Professor of the Year, etc.,
next to Slammers, next to Performance Artist, next to
the Youth--an interesting coming together of voices
that have never been paired together like that before.
I always refer people to the opening of the
book--Billy Collins and Regie Gibson (Intro to Poetry
and Alchemy), to complete opposites in everything, and
yet both poems are great, and both poems reflect the
same theme. Also wanted bring Holman and Smith
together, start a theory of how hip hop influenced slam
and vice-versa, get the real story from Jacobus about
how the boxing matched preceded Slam, etc. Mending
fences. Remember, in the 80's slam and Marc Smith took
HUGE beatings in the media. Professors would say such
awful, awful things....
3. I wanted to show that the writing in the Slam scene
is just as strong--if not stronger--as any other
Once I had made my selections, I had an inner
circle of editors, colleagues in the academy, street
poets who I spent days with going over the selections.
Many of the poets in the book made recommendations as
well: Taylor Mali, Regie Gibson, specifically. And we
looked at sales as well. This book would do nobody any
good if it sat on a shelf somewhere, so we tried to
find some names of people we thought would help sell
the book as well. The hope is that this is one of a
long series, that someone picks up the reins and does
TSWR II, or III, or IV. The first thing Marc said to
me when we started this book, "Hey kid, this is four
or five books easy."
pd: What was your hardest task as the editor of TSWR?
the most enjoyable?
Eleveld: I don't know if this was the hardest, but going in as
a relatively unknown person and meeting and
establishing relationships with all of these different
poets. As a whole, they were extremely trusting of me
and what I wanted to do with their work. I did tons,
and tons of research, but I still depended on many of
the poets to fill in the blanks. As I mentioned,
Taylor and Regie were on board from day one...and both
made wonderful suggestions and helped me get to some
people. Jerry Quickly more than guided me through some
introductory discussions and ideas on hip hop, rap and
poetry. Terry Jacobus was great, and Marvin Bell was
great. And Marc Smith. What can you say...I dropped
his name so, so much. Even outside the community, he
has such a strong reputation--even the ones that don't
like the movement or the slams know of Marc, and are
respectful of what he has done. Holman was very kind.
Pat Smith, Cin Salach were fantastic. Viggo and the
director of his press Pilar were very accommodating.
It seemed as if this book wanted to be done, and
people wanted it done...Of course the hardest part of the process was
leaving out people who deserve to be in such a
book...but ultimately those are the limitations of the
medium. Conversely, that is what makes the stage and
the community so important--it doesn't leave anyone out. Again, I hope this is just one of many, many
volumes that can be edited by others and include all
that deserve to be in it.
pd: What kind of responses have you (as an editor)gotten from those who've read the anthology?
Eleveld: Mostly very, very positive. We've been reviewed in all of the major trade papers/magazines, and only really received one bad review from someone who doesn't mention any of the poetry, only the politics of the scene--which is unfortunate. But word on the street had been great. Word in the scene has been great. We just sold out the first 20,000 in less than a year, and are in another run. The book had been adapted in over 14 university's as well as several high schools. I'll tell you though, my biggest critics are my students--my high school students. They are brutal. They don't hold back, and tell you straight out when something doesn't work.
Ultimately,I passed every selection by my students, as well as help proofing, and over 40 percent of the photos come from one of my students. I had very little to do with the design of the book, but at one point the publisher sent me three covers to help choose from. I put them on the board at school, and all three failed miserably. So the students wrote over 200 letters of critique about the cover--and the publishing company took it into account and did a nice job amending.
Now, the students love the book. They love bringing the poets in, having them sign the book, reciting their own work, etc. Just the other day a student showed me his copy where he had Jack McCarthy and some of the other poets in town for some stuff sign it...one poet signed, "Write your own fucking poem", the student just beamed at me and showed me the one he wrote in response. But the book has been received well by different ages, different ethnicities, genders, etc. Very special.
pd: You've gone on record as stating The Spoken Word Revolution is an introduction to the diversity in the modern poetry scene. Politics aside, where do you see the future of modern poetry heading? Is unity of this diversity possible and sustainable?
Eleveld: I don't know. I can see it becoming more commercial...but if it isn't guided by the right heads in terms of it's commercialism I can see that as a deterring effect. I can see people in the scene for awhile looking for a material pot of gold that probably will never be there; so if those are some of the motivations, I can see people feeling exhausted, burnt out, frustrated over their lack of celebrity.
Ultimately (not to be to repetitive), the future has to be forged in the weekly, monthly shows that the Slam format offers. And not to keep jumping on a platform, but if people want a model: Marc Smith has been running his uptown poetry slam for seventeen years, EVERY Sunday to crowds of 150-300...weekly. No matter what happens in the future, that is where Marc has made his largest impact. Live and uncensored. No movie, book, CD, etc., will ever capture the feeling of a live show. They can get close (I think we do a fair job on the CD in the book) but I would take a live show any day. That's where the community is. And the motivations still have to remain relatively unselfish and community centered. I've had many a friend in the poetry world talking about how burnt out they are, or how dead slam is...and students come up to me frustrated, "Slam is dead? Poetry isn't good."Although some people use it for this, and some people get there, Slam is not a forum for celebrity. At the heart of the format is an exchange of ideas and emotions in an artistic fashion which most of or commercialized entertainment does not offer. The book's role is to introduce people to this.
Mark Eleveld is co-publisher at EM Press and a board
member of the Midland Authors Society in Chicago. He
is a freelance writer and book reviewer for the
Kankakee Daily Journal in Illinois. Mark Eleveld did
press relations for poet Marc Smith from 1993 to 1996.
He teaches English at Joliet West High School and is a
philosophy instructor at the University of St. Francis
in Illinois. He lives in Joliet, Illinois.