Another 2015 blog written in 20 mins 15 secs. Don’t judge me xxx
This last week I’ve had the privilege of performing at TWO slams, the very awesome SLAMalgamate in Newcastle and Say Owt Slam in York.
For those of you who don’t know, a slam is where poets have an allocated amount of time to SLAM words into the audience’s heads. This might be through traditional means, such as saying them, but the rulebook is sketchy when it comes to literally slamming huge painted wooden words into people’s ears.
Thankfully, Thursday in Newcastle was the former, as 17 poets tested their mettle by performing an outstanding showcase of performance poetry. It’s always exciting watching a slam and gauging what hits the audience. Some poets try political stuff, some personal, some funny. It all works, but like a rhyming Highlander, there can only be one!
Jenni Pascoe is the fantastic face of Jibba Jabba and SLAMalgamate, but there’s a whole host of lovely faces backing up that lovely face, a scene united together, promoting each other’s events and making the upstairs of the Cumberland Arms feel like everyone’s local. Downstairs, a bunch of folk fans are playing all manner of instruments, and in the other bar posters advertising ska gigs adorn the walls. The Cumberland Arms is cool, this slam is coooool.
So I want to capture that feeling in a little cage, feed it, learn from it and then dissect and recreate. Or perhaps just simply honour.
Say Owt Slam is the brainchild of myself and Stu Freestone. We wanted a night which feeds all the other poetry nights into one space, to raise the profile of the scene and raise the standard. Slams do this by raising the stakes. Yes, poets are being judged, but it’s all fun and friendly, and all the poets know what they’re in for. The slam on Friday featured Dai Parsons, who runs Spokes, and Andy Humphrey from the Speaker’s Corner came down. Also in the crowd was Dave Gough from York Lit Fest. Rose Drew from the Spoken Word would be there, but she didn’t get a ticket in time, and we sold out. Whoop!
A lot of the poets from #1 (from October) and #2 had never been to a slam, much less performed in one. Some had never really read poetry live before! But that charge and that energy makes everything electric. In a city of many unplugged acoustic acts, this York slam really does send sparks. The night was won by Jack Dean, and rightfully so with his understanding of powerful and dynamic spoken word, but many other poets got great scores with more subtle works. In the end, we were all winners, weren’t we?
Well, not quite. Second up was Stephen Quinlan from Manchester, whose poem was a very clear Mancurian “sod off” to UKIP. Like a chemical reaction, suddenly a gentleman (who from them on became known as The UKIP Guy) stood up with an affronted NO as if someone has pitched a occupy tent on his garden, and stormed off. Stephen, ever professional, just carried on and received a high enough score to carry him to round 2.
UKIP Guy showed his disdain at criticism of the controversial (read: vile) party that is creeping up the polls. He’s welcome to do so. I think if I heard anything I’d disagree with, I’d be inclined to vocalise it, to argue with my feet, to show my disdain. If someone read a poem entitled Reasons I Hate Immigrants I think I’d be uncomfortable and angry.
What happened next was totally uncalled for though. UKIP Guy went and pestered Stephen throughout the rest of the night, trying to get a debate going despite the other acts doing their sets. Stephen did an amazing job of keeping is cool. I must admit, dear reader, I didn’t realise until afterwards, as my head was too deep into running and compering the slam, but I should have acknowledged it, and used my privilege and power as White Man On Mic to get UKIP Guy to chill out.
But this is an interesting debate. We called the night Say Owt Slam, a reference to the famous Yorkshire phrase, the ever present need for alliteration plus the acronym SOS. But is anyone really free to say whatever they want? Am I OK with giving a platform to beliefs I disagree with? The poetry scene is often very left-wing leaning, but what if someone came with an ableist, sexist, racist, transphobic or homophobic poem, or one that could be perceived as such?
Well, education is a big part. The power and set-up of a slam or performance means a call-out is difficult in this context, but taking the poet to the side afterwards and having a chat about their intention is always helpful. The other possibility is, in the slam context, the poet will inevitably do poorly. The crowd might not cheer, or even boo. The room will turn against them. The power of a collective feeling will root out unfriendly poetry on this platform.
At least, that’s what I’d like to believe. Art should create debate, who should have got a higher score, who should have won etc. It’s only fair the words spoken also create a discussion. Plus, the general rule it, no can really be censored, can they? You can’t censor someone post-performance. But I also feel there’s a duty to safe spaces, and to totally and utterly call out any horrible vibes.
These are my thoughts, and I’m running out of my 20 mins and 15 seconds. The best thing to do is to keep slamming, keep performing and let the atmosphere channel the vibe of the room.
Oh, and I can’t wait to hear Jack’s poem: ‘Nigel Farage Is A Dick’ which left UKIP Guy feeling nonplussed, but everyone else in the room, collectively, in stitches.
The collective feeling won out.