Tuesday, 30 May 2017

20.17 Blog #16: The Anti-Slam II: Return of the Anti-Slam I

Dear Sir and/or Madam

Imagine my horror upon once more entering the City’s Screen Basement, for the first time since my last encounter with the below-level venue, after swearing I would never return after experiencing a shockingly abysmally shocking Anti-Slam.  And what did I therein discover?  Why, yet another abysmally shocking abomination: The 2nd York Anti-Slam.

First up it seems Mr Raby and Mr Freestone’s act is that they haven’t got their act together, starting the night in a shambles and setting the tone firmly shambolic.  Mr Freestone's choice of music reminded me of a mid-00s emo kid from Grantham, something I thought I'd never hear so long as I saw people with purple laptops.

I’m welcoming of any Nationality, especially white ones, but can someone please send the slacker Canadian, Ford Mulligan, back home?

MC Patri-NAH-chy was a perfect example of feminism-too-far.  If you want emancipation for women, my dear, you’re going to have to be a little less loud and a little more accommodating of my Man Ears.

Arthur Fisher’s poetry was much more traditional, and much more welcome.  I’d happily welcome him into my home, and happily take a meal with him and his welcome, clutching, grasping, shaking foppish safe hands.  What a gent.

Becky must have been one of these Gender Kids I’ve heard about, parading their nipples like this is some 1960s ‘love in’.  Well I loved it not, go back to your Tumble-ers!

Honey Brown’s performance left a lot to be desired, mainly the desire for erotic passion.  I’ve had more sexual stirrings from the kitchen cabinet than her bland brown unboisterous tale.

My nephew is a huge fan of Dan Galeforce, he owns CDs, hats, t-shirts and bed sheets all with the grime Artist’s face on.  I can’t see the appeal personally, give me a good old-fashioned pop tune than this modern ‘grime’, the bane of the wide nation.

Grisilda Wilderbeak’s performance reminded me why I don’t like geese.  Quackers!

Paul Kerr started off very wrong, but then got very right by channelling President Trump.  God bless him, and all who sail in him.

My suspicions were raised when Rosalie Gardner’s poetry was very human.  Almost too human.

Finally, I’ve known some Orcs in my time, I’m no Orc-ist, but, like I always say, No Blacks, No Irish, No Greens.  Sorry Gilbert o'Groat, you can take the Orc out of the Waaagh, but you can’t take the Waaagh out of the Orc.

The judges were no better, Mr Dan Simpson taking up space with his beardy privilege, a mysterious ‘Andy’ proving poetry is being overrun with dim-witted working classness and Ms. Monica Offlebaum who’s spiritualism caused me to spit-ualism.  The scorekeeper looked the role, if only he’d not chosen Lederhosen.

Thank goodness Mr Raby kept everything together.  Good man, that.


A T Slam

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

20.17 Blog #15: Hallelujah! Gigs in Churches

Last week we put on Shane Koyczan in All Saint’s Church.  It was the biggest gig as Say owt me and Stu Freestone had ever undertaken.  We approached it with a DIY effort.  A co-production with Apples and Snakes’ Kirsten Luckins, the three of us organised tickets, hire, seating, lighting, staging and supports ourselves.  So a massive thank you to everyone who came to see the show, caught the supports and clapped, laughed and cried.

The first time I visited the Church was a gig out on by my mate Jamie as Owls Owls Owls featuring ONSIND and Spoonboy and then another OOO gig with Chris Clavin (Ghost Mice).  I booked the Church for Buddy Wakefield, x3 times World Slam Champion.  The audience were kinda small for that gig, in 3 years the number rocketed thanks to the healthy York scene.  But I didn’t really know how to acquire Pas or lighting, Buddy just got up and did the gig.

Earlier this year, we put on Harry & Chris in the space.  Again, with very little set-up, just 100ish people in the Church.  The main reason is we wanted to try and branch out from our usual home of The Basement and try our hand at something under our control  The Church is kind enough to let us come and go as we please, as long as we tidy up and make sure we’re locked up.  Rather than signing away our control to venue bookers and bar staff and contracts and splits, it feels, for a single night, ours.

There’s some problematic elements to using a Church, I’ll admit.  The fact that as an atheist, I know some people feel uncomfortable under the roof of organised religion.  The Church as a whole hasn’t got a great record on LGBTQ+ rights.  But I know this particular Church are a far stretch from the arch-villainy of Westboro.

But I think the reason I like using the Church is the DIY attitude of re-using space.  There are Churches across the UK which mostly sit empty, and it’s nice to reuse them to support gigs, musicians, poets and the community.  Churches were built for all manner of reasons.  Praising God an obvious one.  Sanctuary (what we might now call a safe space) being one.  A place to come together another.

The issue comes from the sanctity-ness of the space.  This wasn’t a problem for Harry & Chris and Gecko, their cheeky and silly patter and poems/songs just seemed like a chilled house show.  But Shane Koyczan’s poetry is full of hope, joy, power and his delivery suitably impassioned.  With that in mind, he was worried that maybe the setting would be a bit ‘Holyish’.  We didn’t use a lecturn from the Church, for example.  The setting of the Church adds layers.  Elements of preaching, of otherwordlyness and of a hierarchy of God, preacher and flock.  DIY is meant to reject these structures, and (as we talk about in the latest Say Owt Podcast) I hate it when poets are put on a pedestal.  Anyone can write poetry, anyone can share it.  We advertised Shane as a superstar, and he is when you crunch numbers, but anyone can crunch hearts.

So I think using Church spaces is highly rewarding, but there are things to consider about the connotations of the space, how audiences perceive performers and how you break down the barriers of performer and audience and power.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Slam Poetry: Crisis of Competitive Open Mics?

The following was delivered as a paper for Huddersfield University’s Open Mic Symposium 6th May 2017

My housemate, Dave Jarman, runs two open mics.  Monday and Tuesday mornings often one of the first questions I ask him is:  “How was the open mic?”  Responses range from quiet to busy, typical to nuts, fucking mint to a bit shit.

York has a very specific open mic culture.  There’s one most nights, usually more than one.  Sunday you can nip from the Fleece to the Hop to Dusk, which runs from 11pm to late.  You see the same faces, it’s a community of people who play in each other’s bands, go to each other’s nights and, inevitable, talk about each other behind their backs.

I’m part of the poetry and spoken word scene, and there’s no better thrill for me to sit down and set the scene to rights with my other poetry mates.  Did you hear that person’s new poem?  That night was ace.  That night was a bit naff.  Their new book is out.  If I hear one more poem about fucking dinosaurs…!

I think this is across the open mic spectrum.  I think inevitably audiences, and performers, have their favourite acts from a night, despite that not being the ethos of the evening.

Western Culture is shaped to appreciate competition.  It’s at the centre of capitalism.  Top of the film and music charts.  Top of the football league. Top of the polls.  We’ve seen it in the Buzzfeed articles of Top 10 Clickbaits you Need To Avoid and we’ve seen it in the binary of 1 Government, 1 Prime Minister, 1 President, 1 Referendum Outcome coming out on top.  

In a slam each poet gets a time limit, usually 3 minutes and judges, usually chosen from the audience, just give each poet a score, usually from 1 to 10 (with decimal points).  The winner receives some form of monetary rewards, either a paid gig, some money or a even a trophy.

As Tim Clare puts it in his essay from the Penned In The Margin's Stress Fracture’s collection:  “Analysing a slam poem’s reaction is refreshingly binary:  either it wins or it doesn’t.”

Tim is an incredibly energetic and playful poet, a regular at Latitude and the Edinburgh Fringe.  He’s not afraid to scream, to writhe, to improvise, to utterly deconstruct genre to manic levels of intensity. 

“Slam exists outside the echo chamber of academia; it’s consumers aren’t expected to recognise abstruse Classical references or reductive, self-indulgent conversations with previous writers.”  It values the opinion of the casual listener as much as the learned expert.  When I allocate judges, I often get this response “I don’t know anything about poetry.”  Doesn’t matter, judge something on your terms, your experience, your perception.  You can’t be wrong.  Just disagreed with.  This is democratising, taking power away from the structured order of publishing and academia and into the audience in the heat of the moment.

The best thing about a slam, is it gives more agency to the audience.  Whether judging or not, everyone is calculating their own private score.  They can debate this afterwards amongst themselves.  You find yourself rooting for a poet over another poet.  The sports comparison only goes so far:  yes it’s a competition but entirely subjective.  It’s not about quantifiable goals.

However, by setting up this competitive and opinion-based structure, it encourages people to disagree with the judges, to discuss who they thought was their favourite act, they should have done a different poem, that wasn’t as strong, if they’d only learnt the poem etc.  At the last slam I compered for a student society, 3 of the 4 entrants had never entered a slam previously.  I put this down to the unusual nature of the event being attractive proposition.

Post-night, you will have a favourite acts, because all our views are shaped to criticise and conclude.

Years ago I did a gig in Bolton.  No one was really in the audience, it was nice but I left feeling like it didn’t serve a purpose.  A chap I was playing with said “it was an answer to a question nobody asked”.  But there is a point to the slam night.  It’s to crown a victor.  I’ve heard it said:  “The point isn’t the points, the point is the poetry” but I tend to sideline this phrase, and ideology.  If it’s not the point to get points, what’s the point of the points?  When you distil a slam night down, yes it’s about fun, it’s about performance, it’s about sharing art but we have a narrative drive from doors open to ending poem.  It means we can keep the night on track, audiences can zone in and out, but they know where the story is going.  They just don’t know who the protagonist is.

In Aristotle’s Poetics, he says: “Tragedies are not performed in order to represent character, though character is involved for the sake of the action.  The plot is the first essential part of tragedy, its lifeblood, so to speak.”

I don’t want to go into too much detail of the various ideas of Propp and Todorov because Narrative theory is a wide spectrum of ideas and perceptions.  But essentially Stories have rules, they have the starting balance, breaking of equilibrium, they have climax, they have resolution.  They have structure.

Aristotle says “The character takes second place” and in the slam, the character is merely a component of the story (though hopefully not a tragic one).  Especially with an established slam, there’s a predictable format:  Intro from host, sacrificial poem to warm-up the crowd, first round, guest poet, second round with top 5 scorers, crown the winner who does a finale poem.

So within this structure we have introduction of the world, the characters, the conflict, the climax and the resolution.  And if even if the audience know the entrant as a friend, here they are transformed as a character within this narrative, a slammer eager to outdo their opponents.

Perhaps there is something refreshing, even liberating, to become part of this predictable structure and become a cog within the slam machine for the evening?  You are no longer simply a human, you are a performer, a slammer, a high scorer, a winner?

Certainly as a character, you have your desire, and drive.  Like Richard III after the crown, Hamlet after revenge, Romeo after love:  the slammer is after a high score and victory.  As play-wright Stanislavski says:  “tell me what you want, and I’ll tell you who you are”.  Play-wright Alan Ayckbourn says:  “No one crops up in a play without a specific function.”  The function of each slammer is, at their core, to win.  Sure, there are other reasons for entering, to boost their confidence, to try new material, out of curiosity, get into the night for free, to impress someone.  But, at its core, there is a specific, quantifiable, understandable, goal for each character in the slam.  No more “answers to a question nobody asked” like my Bolton gig.

Obviously I’m being slightly frivolous to imply that a slam is like a play.  But my adding this layer of a dramatic arc, everyone’s energy is upped.  They have adrenaline, they have purpose, they have a goal.  By openly celebrating the slam as a competition, it allows the poet to embody an aim.  And that, I would argue, makes everything tantalisingly dramatic.

But are slams truly shaking the establishment?  Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Entitlement talk about the monopoly of culture that is a “common denomination for cataloguing and classification which bring culture under the sphere of administration.”

Culture is controlled and defined as something to do in relation to work.

“Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work.  It is sought after as an escape from the mechanized work process, and to recruit strength in order to cope with it again.”

This means that culture has no benefit beyond recharging humans go back into work, continue to slave in the workplace, to then afford some culture at the end of the week.

“Pleasure hardens into boredom because, if it to remain pleasure, it must not demand any effort and therefore moves rigorously in the worn grooves of association.  No independent thinking must be expected from the audience… any logical connection calling for mental effort is painstakingly avoided.”

Ah, but Dialectic of Entitlement was written in 1947, a post-war world where culture was tied to the difficult task of rebuilding a war-ravaged world.  The late 50s and 60s brought counter-culture, and slam poetry owes its legacy to Allen Ginsberg, Gil Scott-Heron and Patti Smith.  Of course slams do call for mental effort from the audience, it actively encourages and enforces this “independent thinking.”

Audiences at slams are not passive. Even if they are not a scorer, the format means they can disagree with the scores and the outcome.  And if someone thinks they could do better, they’re welcome to sign up for the next slam.

The problem with slams is that there is fast becoming a model for how slams work, and who wins.  What kind of poems tend to win slams?

Tim Clare points out successful slam poetry often takes one of two forms:
1.  a first-person identity politics monologue championing the position of an ostensibly marginalised voice
2.  the presentation of a strawmen argument – typically conservative – which the poet proceeds to tear apart, often humorously.
At a slam this week, two of the competitors said their poems weren’t particularly ‘slammy’.

Negative aspects of slams:

·         The poetry that wins has been crafted to hit certain criteria, it’s funny or political.  If a slam is a competition, like any athlete, they follow a certain mode of winning.

·         It puts far too much emphasis on celebrity, the ability to get up and get the crowd on side, regardless of the writing quality of the poem

·         It reduces the poem into a brief 3 minute maximum format

·         It creates a who-to-book formula, the slam-winning poets apparently have a decent CV, and poets who can’t, or don’t wish to, win slams seemingly get left to the wayside.

 ‘Slam Poetry Sucks’, a parody on YouTube by Harris Alterman.  In it, he takes these forms of performance, writing and style and produces a very accurate, if a bit nasty, satire on slams.
A comment on YouTube:

Sums up the entire slam poetry movement, but minus the relentless Marxist propaganda (especially hypocritical, considering that slam poets are invariably privileged middle class students) and interminable clich├ęs and tendency to yell out and overemphasise lines made of cheap political maxims. So it's actually a bit better than the crap I've had to sit through at spoken word events.”- Iain Robb, 2016

So what am I saying?

I’d argue that all Open mics are intrinsically competitive.  The slam format embraces this and, for better or worse, creates a vibe you don’t find at a traditional open mic.

Is that because we live in a competitive society?

Is that an organic space for people to improve?

Arguably in this capitalist society, competition forces wages and working conditions down.  The end result is:  profit.

What is the ‘profit’ gained from an open mic?  I guess the recognition you entertained people.  Maybe future gigs.  In a slam there is the very definitive reward.  Or prize.  Or capital.  We could even see this victory as profit.

On a grassroots level, the poetry scene means that the individual artist owns the means of production, e.g. their own mind, mouth and ability to perform.  But we’re still selling that product, the poem, to the slam audience.

In order to prove our YouTube friend, Iain Robb correct, I’m going to quote a little Karl Marx.  I’m a walking, talking, poetrying stereotype. In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx states:  “These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.”

Obviously Marx is talking about economic competition, but at the same time we cannot underappreciated the comparison with a poet selling themselves at a slam, becoming the commodity, creating a poem from their labour, the “fluctuations of the market” being the whim of the audience, the type of night, the context of the week, the comparison with other poets at the event.

Key event happened that week?  Do your political poem.  Headliner a feminist?  Do your feminist poem.  Everyone doing very serious pieces?  Do your funny poem.

Das Kapital, Marx adds “The labourer is not a capitalist, although he brings a commodity to market, namely his own skin.”

Open mics exist as an open space, slam’s competitive element adds a capitalist undertone of labour for profit, or at least victory.  We poets are not the capitalists, though we produce fodder for the slam engine.

The arts can be commodified so that the end result is owned by the corporation rather than the individual.  Comic books being a good example.  Teams of individual writers and artists create the books, stories and characters but the result is a Marvel or DC product.  The recent wave of poets writing poems for adverts, like Nationwide or Deliveroo or the Jeep Renegade, are the same, the poet’s produce is not their own.

But there is a point that slam poetry has been monopolised.  Has slam poetry become another form of commercial consumption?  To quote my favourite podcast:  Tab A into Slot B poetry?

Slam has hit a popular point, wherein it can be defined, predicted and even rigged so that the outcomes are all a palatable combination of the predictions I have mentioned before.

I love slams, and will continue to promote them.  But I will also continue to redefine, even undermine them.  I want to stop the competitive element turning slams into a commodification of art, whilst at the same time seeing them rocket as an accessible form of inspiring, agitating and divisive entertainment.

There are many ways that we can make sure slams stay passionate and democratic and diverse.  I’ll touch on these in a later blog, so your thoughts would be highly appreciated.


Thursday, 4 May 2017

Tell Me A Story

Tell me a story

History gets re-written, and re-interpreted.  My poet’s sensibility takes history and wants to make it a lesson on our current reality.

Let me try and stick with facts:

13th May 1939 937 Jews escaping Nazi-gripped Germany aboard the MS St. Louis, refused entry from Cuba, America and Canada.

288 managed to make it to the United Kingdom, the rest to the Netherlands, France and Belgium.  If you know your history, you might guess these 254 died after invasion, internment and genocide.

Compared with the 6 million Jewish people murdered by the Nazi machine, this seems a drop in the ocean.  But that’s 254 that could have lived beyond 1945 had they been welcomed.

So the story goes humans crammed into boats.  How can I put into words, in this space, the elation at escaping, only to be told you are the threat to the destination nation?

The fact is, humans remember events in 75-100 year cycles.  The mass wars of the Napoleonic era were a memory when once again the soil of Europe was red and bloody and my Grandpa landed in Normandy. 

On Holocaust Memorial Day, 2017, the Republican Party banned people from 7 countries from entering the United States of America, including Syrian refugees.  As these countries were mostly Muslim so we refer to this as the Muslim Ban, if you want to mince words and say it wasn’t so, fine, but an anti-Muslim agenda is part of the Western Government plans.

On Facebook someone assured me there are no Nazis anymore.  They assured me that the racism that persists will not then permit fascism to exist.

But we remember the world in 75-100 year cycles, and I want to stick to the facts.

If you drag migration into the centre of the political discourse
If you allow right-wing marches in the street to mask incitement of a race war
You allow this wave to rise high under the guise of a free speech
The wave will strike hard against this beach
And the Mediterranean sea is already wetted red
And detention centres will spread

And their cause will be far darker than to simply detain and deport.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

20.17 Blog #14: Better Watch Your Mouth

A few years ago, I did a tour with Jenn Hart, and we bonded over our love for Gravity Falls, Martha (she’s mostly bones) and radical left-wing politics.  She has a new collection out with Burning Eye Books, and I’ll repeat here what I said for the blurb:  “Jenn hart’s poetry is like a ferret.  It can be your best friend, or bite your face off.”

Jenn’s said she wanted her collection to be called ‘Urgh Men’ in reference to Jenn’s dedication to feminism.  Jenn is one of the fieriest people you could meet when it comes to women’s rights and representation.  She’s written highly important poetry in the form of Let Loose, Lucy and put on great gigs and events in Bristol.  So Jenn’s crusade against sexism would make ‘Urgh Men’ a fitting title for this collection.

But there is so much more to this collection than a men-hating agenda (though don’t worry, there’s plenty of righteousness).  Jenn’s poetry is defined by her own autobiographical experiences, and not the outside influence of dickhead men.

Jenn’s collection is her most revealing assortment of poems.  It’s poetry that goes beyond the surface and deep into Jenn’s history, world and personality.  Few poets allow themselves to be so open and human in this world of high-energy slam-style spoken word, stand-up gag poems or easy Things Are Bad rhetoric.  Jenn’s collection is refreshingly…Jenn.

The collection is a series of landscapes which make up Jenn’s world of women’s voices and experiences.  Adelaide Adams is a rolling account of smells, tastes and places, from whiskey to Balham, from cough tonic to the Pharmacy.  You can feel the sawdust in her hair.  So too does Lydia Bennet’s Cottage, a character from Pride & Prejudice, conjure beautiful and sad images of moth balls, chamber pots, geraniums and the plum tree.  There’s a sweet melancholy to these poems, Life At The Manor tells of Jenn’s dysfunctional family of housemates and when that friendship starts to break down.

If Life At The Manor is an sad account of the last year or two of Jenn’s life, 83A Gordon Avenue, Circa 2009 is a powerful anecdote of friendship, a warm piece about adulthood.  04/07/2008 is the exact opposite, a cold meeting between Jenn and a man who is right resigned firmly in her past.

Coral Roads is the perfect end to the collect and a perfect summery:  “I am terrified of being impressed with someone else’s lifetime as they help me cross the road.”  It’s here you realise all her pieces are about friendship, from the fictional characters of her precious novels, to the people in her past, the people in her present.

As a fellow punk poet, it’s easy to understand punk through the male prism of John Cooper Clarke and Attila The Stockbroker.  The easy rhymes, simple politics and scattergun delivery.   But here Jenn is proving that punk also means being honest and open.  Autobiographical.  Raw.

This collection is a magnificent patchwork of people, voices, places and emotions.  Funnily enough, it’s the smells, textures and tastes that really stand-out.  When you read this book (ideally before bed with a cup of camomile tea) you can breathe in this world, all neatly stacked in 31 pages.