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.
I went 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 scene.
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.