How Homer’s ancient epic presaged the poetry slam.
For Mark Eleveld, MLA’10, and Ron Maruszak, MLA’10, the realization was inescapable: Homer, the blind bard, ancient Greece’s greatest poet, whose epics on the Trojan War and its aftermath founded the Western canon and influenced 3,000 years of literature, was, basically, a slam poet. What else to call a man—a showman and writer—who made his living turning poetry into entertainment, who traveled from town to town performing memorized verses before crowds of listeners? “I imagine that if Homer was alive today, and he had to go hang with a crew, he’s either going to the playwrights or to the performance poets,” says Eleveld. “In my head, it’s the performance poets. They take a hit in academic circles, but they’re closer to Homer than people realize.”
That’s the argument running through a documentary by Eleveld and Maruszak, Poets and Profs: Looking at the “Iliad,” in which ivory tower luminaries like Robert Pinsky and Nicholas Rudall, Herman Sinaiko, AB’47, PhD’61 (who died in October 2011), and James Redfield, U-High’50, AB’54, PhD’61, share the screen with leading lights from the slam poetry world: Taylor Mali, Bob Holman, Regie Gibson, Marc Smith. West Point English professor Elizabeth Samet provides some of the film’s most stirring moments, discussing the Iliad’s lessons—literary, military, and moral—for future soldiers.
Poets and Profs served as Eleveld and Maruszak’s joint master’s thesis. After spending a summer driving an increasingly dilapidated van up and down the East Coast to collect interviews, they finished it just as their final quarter expired. But the seeds for the project were planted almost as soon as they arrived on campus.
In 2005, during their first quarter at the Graham School, Eleveld and Maruszak—high school English teachers, college friends, and cofounders of a small poetry press—read the Iliad. It wasn’t the first time either had encountered the poem, but in classics scholar David Wray’s class they dived in deeper, untangling Homer’s allusions and etymologies, his rhythms and descriptive epithets: “swift-footed Achilles”; “Hector, breaker of horses”; “rosy-fingered dawn.” They also studied the Iliad’s oral tradition, and in Homer’s cadences, Maruszak and Eleveld kept hearing the words of slam poets they’d known for years.
In 1991, as an undergraduate at Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois, Eleveld took a class from Marc Smith, founder of the poetry slam at Chicago’s Green Mill nightclub. The slam is a weekly three-hour open-mike event in which poets perform their compositions and compete for audience approval. “The misconception is that these guys get up there and read some crap off a napkin, or that they go off into these profanity tirades,” says Eleveld. “But that’s not it. That’s not the good stuff.” By the time the class at Lewis ended, he and Smith had become friends, and Eleveld and Maruszak were spending most Sunday nights at the Green Mill’s slam.
Eventually, performance poetry led the two friends to publishing. “You’d see all these poets come off stage,” Eleveld says, “and they’d have poems that people in the audience would come up and ask for.” But their art was oral. “They didn’t conceive of making the transition ... to the page.” He and Maruszak did. In 2000—by then both were English teachers at Joliet West High School, where Eleveld still teaches—they founded EM Press. Their first project was a book of poems by Regie Gibson, a national poetry slam champion from Chicago’s West Side. His manuscript “was literally in pieces,” parceled out among himself and a friend and a girlfriend, Eleveld says. Out of the fragments they helped wrangle a polished, edited book, Storms Beneath the Skin (2001). It sold well, so they kept going, each new project funded by the success of the last. So far, EM Press has published nine books of performance poets’ work and produced several CDs, including an audio anthology of poetry readings by voices as disparate as former Iowa poet laureate Marvin Bell, AM’61, and actor Viggo Mortensen.
Eleveld and Maruszak hope to add Poets and Profs to the roster of releases. Since earning their MLAs, they’ve screened the film several times, including at the Gleacher Center, and they’re looking for a distributor. The documentary combines performances from the Iliad with ruminations on the poem’s vast thematic terrain.
Early in the film, Sinaiko rhapsodizes on Homer’s ability to construct “a whole epic about the shape of a single emotional experience”—Achilles’s rage—within a narrative that also encompasses war, death, love, loss, friendship, immortality, and “on and on and on.” Homer, Sinaiko says, “managed to fold into the structure of the Iliad the whole of human life, focused around or as elements in this anger.”
That kind of “spellbinding” talk, Eleveld says, was what inspired him and Maruszak to make Poets and Profs in the first place. “You wish you could bring guys like Herman and Redfield and Rudall with you everywhere.” As much as the documentary is an argument for slam poetry’s Homeric inheritance, it is also an homage to the filmmakers’ own teachers. Ultimately, they’d like to see it used in classrooms. In the meantime, they’re considering plans for a sequel, about the Great Gatsby, or maybe the Grapes of Wrath. “Or,” says Eleveld, “the Odyssey, obviously.”