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Supporting Jollyboat, Knaresborough: 22nd June

Brig-Aid Fundraiser, Fruit, Hull: 23rd June

Slam Dunk, Hastings: 28th June

Word Club, Leeds: 29th June

Verse Matters, Sheffield, 5th July

Say Owt @ Deer Shed Festival, 21st July

Say Owt @ Great Yorkshire Fringe, York: 25th July

Working Title, Lancaster, 26th July

Nerd Punk, Edinburgh fringe @Banshee Labyrinth 19.50 13th August

Poetry Jam, Durham: 4th October

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 clichés 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.


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