Just shy of 20 years ago, I went to Chicago to write a story about Marc Smith, the godfather of the poetry slam (and friend of the late Jim Carroll and Patti Smith). I was writing a series of stories about literature and literary events for Cincinnati CityBeat, and I’d found out about Smith and his Uptown Poetry Slam1 a few months before when I’d had the chance to meet Jim Carroll and Hunter S. Thompson.
When I went on that assignment in Louisville, I immediately knew I’d made the right call about my career. You can’t meet HST as you report your first story and then question your life’s vocation. Unfortunately, knowing what I wanted to do didn’t help me figure out how to do it. When my assignment ended, I humped back to Cincinnati with no idea how to go about becoming a writer.
That would all change the night I walked through those doors at The Green Mill in Chicago.
I’d talked to Smith on the phone before I drove to Chicago. He was polite, and gave me all the information I needed for the story, which was just a 400-word sidebar to a much longer piece.2
But I wanted more. I needed to see this thing that Jim Carroll told me about. I told everyone it was for my story, but it wasn’t. I needed to see this thing for my soul. I got in my car, drove five hours to Chicago, bought a bottle of wine at the bar, and waited for Smith to arrive.
He came in and I introduced myself as the journalist writing the story. “You’re going to get the whole experience tonight,” he said as he tapped me to be one of the three slam judges, which meant that after every performance I would have to stand and rate the piece on a scale of 1-10.
While this may sound entertaining, the show goes on for three hours. By the end, the room was wild and drunk.3 I’d never seen so many people lose their minds over words and stories. I didn’t have any idea how to describe this insanity, let alone process what was happening.4
I left the room mesmerized, electric, and pulsing with that feeling that strikes me when the mood falls just right: Drink. Fuck. Fight. Write.
There is a longer story than this, which involves all four of those, but you were promised a short story about an insignificant moment and so here it is:
Had I not met Marc, had he not made me a judge, and had I not faced down the cascading boos, I wouldn’t have embarked on a writing career that has shaped my life. I was forever changed while sitting in The Green Mill on a Sunday night surrounded by a drunken horde of writers who were hanging from the rafters while poets performed their work and awaited my half-cocked evaluation.
For the first time I saw writing the way it resonated in my head. I’ve never read words. I am transported by them, energized by them, and embraced by them. They create pictures in my head, and they sing to me. If movies, and television, and radio, and music disappeared tomorrow my life wouldn’t substantially change because that is what happens for me when I read.
And so I met Marc Smith, and those things in my head manifested in the world.
I was no longer just somebody who wrote. I was somebody who needed to be plugged into that world of writers by any means necessary. No challenge was too big when the alternative was oblivion. Just a few months later, I would quit my job, pack my bags, and set out on a grand adventure that would take me back and forth across the country more times than I can count.
Drink. Fuck. Fight. Write.
For some time, it felt as though that may happen.
I’d traveled from Cincinnati to Austin to San Francisco, where I’d earned my Masters from Berkeley’s famed J-School, and landed a job with Conde Nast’s Wired. Along the way, I had the chance to meet, get advice from, be mentored by, and talk with the likes of Tom Wolfe, Bruce Sterling, Douglas Adams, William Gibson (who told me he didn’t trust email. Google him to find out why that’s funny), Amiri Baraka (post LeRoi Jones), and Michael Lewis (with whom I am legendarily linked with thanks to the 5,000 word drunken email I sent him while working as his graduate assistant).
I was poised to enter the world of writers.
Looking back, it’s easy for me to connect the dots between there and here. After that night in Chicago, I was determined to scale the mountain and join that pack of writers who seemed to exist in a different dimension than I.
But something went wrong.
Along the road, I veered off the highway. I smashed my body and mind with drugs and alcohol, and eventually staggered back home. Worse, I’d burned bridges with abandon, refusing to acknowledge that I was a stupid ass punk who needed someone to knock his shit straight and who should have spent his time writing instead of partying.
What propelled me out of Appalachia eventually hurled me into that wall. Because of that, I never quite reached the apex of that mountain I’d seen so many years ago. Because of that, I learned the good, hard lessons.
Twenty years ago when I was staring down the long road of the rest of my life, I had no idea how to get where I was going. In that moment, I made the decision that reaching it was the only thing that mattered. I trampled, stomped, and smashed my way across the landscape.
Now with my both feet planted firmly on the other side of the Hill of Potential, I’m able to see the world a bit differently than I once did. My life isn’t a race anymore, and my end goal isn’t to win.
Today, I live in a much smaller world than I envisioned so many years ago. I write for small audiences, and I exist in small literary scenes. Yet my days are filled with words for the right reasons, and the songs and the pictures in my mind have returned. In all of that, I am happy.
That happiness gives me the chance to do the small, unnoticed, and insignificant things that escaped me for so long. Mostly I do these privately. In this case, I don’t. This is the thank you note I sent to one of the men who inadvertently changed everything for me.5
I wanted to send you a thank you note because this week I hosted my first literary event at Indy Reads Books in Indianapolis and much of its shape and form comes from you.
I hatched the this idea back in 1995 when I was writing a story about you for a weekly newspaper in Cincinnati. I drove to Chicago, attended (and judged) the Uptown Poetry Slam, and had my life changed.
I wanted to create the community and vibe you’d build in Chicago, but I didn’t quite know how to pull it off.
That was the first year of my professional writing career and thus I knew shit. Still, I carried that feeling with me as a moved to Austin, Berkeley, Cambridge, Cincinnati, and finally Indianapolis, always looking for the right place and time to do something.
Nearly 20 years later with books, magazine gigs, and other writing behind me (and a world of travel), I’ve never encountered the equal of the Uptown Poetry Slam and I’ve never found a way to replicate (in any fashion) what you’ve gone.
When I moved to Indianapolis two years ago, I decided it was time to try. I took what I saw in Chicago and applied it to my world: fiction, non-fiction, screenwriting, essays. (Everything but poetry, I call it.)
After a lifetime hanging around jazz musicians, writers, and attending events like the Uptown Poetry Slam, I launched The Downtown Writers Jam. Our first event had 8 authors, playwrights, fiction writers, and essayists, and 60 people in the audience. It was a small, but enthusiastic crowd and it’s convinced me to continue doing this.
Mostly, I wanted to send you this note because without knowing it, you have shaped much of my conceptual life as a writer. You helped me see writers as a community, as people who gather, and as storytellers who start on the page but leap off it.
To this day, I send people to Chicago to see the Slam, and we reference it in everything we do here. And I wanted to tell you that, and to say thank you.
While third acts are never quite as dramatic as second acts, I have always loved them most because it’s when we get to wrap up all the loose ends. We get to find meaning in what happened.
It’s here that we find resolution in a short story about insignificant events.
- I took my first college girlfriend Elizabeth and her now-husband Brian, who was likely dragged to this event [↩]
- Nobody in their right mind drives 5 hours for a 400-word story. I can’t emphasize this enough. [↩]
- Of all the people who were booed that night, I collected the most. By a long shot. [↩]
- Two bottles of wine didn’t help. [↩]
- This time, I was lucky and received a reply. Marc wrote me a few lines, which included these two sentences: These are the type correspondences that keep my heart and energies alive. So glad I’ve been of some help. [↩]