By Selena Fragassi
“I think a lot of people are storytellers but they just don’t know it,” says Bill Hillmann, founder of the Windy City Story Slam. The only event of its kind in Chicago, the Slam operates under the assumption that “everybody’s got a story” by hosting monthly competitions where four-to-six participants take the stage to share their unique narratives and one walks away, by audience approval, with the night’s honors and a $50 door prize.
This weekend, the event reunites the past eleven winners for a one-year anniversary event at Metro that will award a heavyweight belt to the all-city champ.
Hillmann, a former boxer and Columbia College graduate student, first got the idea for the event after leaving a Green Mill Poetry Slam in late 2007. “I wondered why there wasn’t a similar venue for storytelling and prose writing,” he says, recalling the lack of support he received in his own writing ventures from a city that turned him towards boxing at the age of 15 before he took up the love of paper and pen.
“I’d always been considered a bad kid. In my Edgewater neighborhood, it wasn’t too cool to get good grades or read books. I was 20 years old when I first read a novel completely,” says Hillmann, now working on a book-in-progress called “The Last White Hood.” “I didn’t realize people wrote about stuff like that, sex and violence and adventure, and that it could be considered real art, real literature.”
Fast forward to years later and Hillmann recounts, “An artist friend of mine, Stephan Wozniak, really believed in my ability to tell a story and had been encouraging me to tell stories at the art events we’d been throwing together.”
Wozniak would later became curator of the Story Slam, which also honors other art forms like short films and music, and is just one of the many characters in the Story Slam’s own legendary tale.
While working out at the Windy City Boxing Gym, Hillmann was approached by fellow boxer, and brother of actress Robin Tunney, Marty Tunney, who complimented Hillmann on his boxing style. Discovering that Hillmann was a writer, Tunney invited him to a White Sox game where he introduced Hillmann to his friends, Scottish author Irvine Welsh (“Trainspotting”) and local scribe Don DeGrazia (“American Skin”), who would become a mentor to Hillmann and help him shape the event that would affectionately dub him “The Godfather.”
The first event held at the Slam’s home, the Quennect 4 Gallery in Humboldt Park, brought in twelve people, mostly friends and family. But through word-of-mouth, fliers and DeGrazia’s help in steering big names like Poetry Slam founder Marc Smith, Welsh and author John McNally, the event grew to the hundred tally mark, reaching an all-time high of 400 at Welsh’s event in October.
“It’s really a testament to the event that on a Tuesday night, 100 people that would come and stay until two in the morning to hear people tell stories,” says DeGrazia.
According to him, stories often take a crime-and-punishment feel-from journal logs of Chicago’s most notorious drug dealers to stories of exoneration from life sentences, gruesome murders or just grade-school bullies. One former Slam champ is Jantae Spencer, a former student of DeGrazia’s who won after offering a story about a girl who had been beaten by her boyfriend.
“It’s one of the best readings I’ve ever been involved in-the realness of it all in your face, standing up there, pouring your heart out,” says Spencer. “It’s one of the only places you can hear stories from different people, different walks of life, and get different perspective on important issues.”
“There’s no censorship at these events, which can alienate people,” says DeGrazia. “Sometimes it can cause tension, but at least people are able to hear different sides. They’re real stories from the streets.”
Seconds Hillmann, “I feel like the Windy City Story Slam opened the door to the common man and has given a swift kick in the balls to stuck-up elitists in the literary world.”
And if the Slam has taught the elitists anything, it’s that theirs is a formula that works: 2009 is already turning into quite the year as the Slam heads to Philadelphia for a national competition, debuts at the Edinburgh Fringe Fest and works on an anthology, DVD and continues talks of a documentary. On the short list, the event hopes to spin monthly themes in the coming months that will focus on legendary Chicago boxers and trainers, blue-collar laborers and big bosses, immigration stories and tales of war and peace.
“Every month, we will open a door to a world many have never seen and allow people from that work to take in their own words and tell their own stories,” says Hillmann. “The funny thing is that we tell the story of our lives over and over to our friends, our lovers, our families. And usually the best storytellers in a family are the elders because they have had many drafts of the same stories. That’s one thing I like about being a writer and storyteller-we tend to get better with age, unlike boxers. And you get hit a lot less also.”
The First Annual Windy City Story Slam All-City Championships will be held January 24 at Metro, 3730 North Clark, (773)549-0203.