Michael Wilson

Performance Poet

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To Slam or Not to Slam?

First things first, I am an avid slammer so am I by no means an “objective” voice on the subject of the pros and cons of slam.

Second things second, I do realise slam is not a perfect image, not a perfect way to perform, but what is?

To get it out of the way for the uninitiated, slam is a live poetry competition. There are usually 3 minute slots, in a number of knockout rounds. The content has to be original work and often excludes any singing or props during performances. Poets are judged either by audience members or a panel. Poets who go over the max slot time have points deducted. Most slams prefer performers to work by memory, not off the page.

Slam has its detractors. Those who believe that it isn’t desirable to qualify poetry, to objectively critique art, art is subjective, it is wrong to give it a score.

Against this argument runs the page poetry competitions. These competitions proliferate across the western literary world.  For some reason these do not earn the same critique that slams attract. Art can be judged, it can be critiqued, certain art works are held in hierarchy over others (Turner Prize anyone?). None of these awards are pure, there is almost always an agenda.

A number of creatives who do not join in on the competitive world, there are fantastic poets who do not compete in slams. Slammers, by and large, compete against each other,  Different slams prize different genres and themes and styles. Saying that, many different fads and fashions have poked their heads above the parapet in different paradigms. The most enduring, are poems about identity.

When I began slamming in 2007 there have been different styles and themes that have been more fashionable than others. Back in 2007/8/9 it was rant poetry. Poets got points less for the content and by far more for delivery. The ability for the slammer to “act” mad at this, that, or the other was a style I saw plenty of times in the this period. Although not every slam poet performed rant poetry, the genre won a lot of slams in this period. It doesn’t really feature much these days.

Overall, other than identity, humour has always been a strong thread in slams in the UK. Humour can work well as it elicits a reaction from the crowd, during the poem, and since, in many slams a third of the total mark awarded to a poet is audience reaction, this is a strong genre for success. When I began slamming, and before that, when I attended slams as a punter, a lot of the time the humour was remarkably low brow. Not exclusively, but there was a large amount of it. Slams rely on impact and humour has it in droves (when expertly delivered). To this day humour is still ubiquitous at slams but these days it also tends to turn on a sixpence about halfway through the poem. Starting funny but  then turning serious or difficult or downbeat. This also tends to fare well in slams. It requires good penmanship and delivery and also can be incredibly moving.

The main genre of poetry at slams is still the identity poem. Sexuality, gender, mental illness, class, ethnicity are some of the ribbons of genre you will come across at the slams you can now attend. It has always been strong in slam, but identity is a way for the performer and their performance to sound authentic. Lived experience of these identities are treasured and enjoyed by audiences. Although there is an argument that its pity poetry, and sometimes it can be, instead often it can be these experiences that the performer/writer is sharing with the audience and enriching that’s audiences understanding of the message(s). The more extreme these experiences the more they elicit a strong emotional reaction from the crowd. Let me give you an example: At the open qualifier for the Cheltenham Lit Fest UK All Star Slam in 2008 I performed a poem about my treatments of ECT (Electro-Convulsive Therapy), it got me through to the national final that was on the next evening. My family and I went out to a bar to celebrate on the night of the qualifier, on the way to the toilet a group stopped me. “You’re Electro Shock Boy!” they cried. They quizzed me about the poem, not quite believing, or at least unsure about how authentic the poem was. Was I pretending? To me this seemed very odd, how could someone seriously make up this experience for poetry competition? As a footnote to this point, I refused to take The ECT Poem to slams for over a year after its composition. I was thinking the extreme experience of the therapy would give me too much of an edge at slams. Was it fair? I got over that fact when I realised the poem had a message to share. Slam fits these genres of poetry because it is very much about authorship, slam is a “venue” that attracts self referencing poets. It thrives on experience, lived experience, and puts the audiences deep in the shoes of the performer. Identity will always be a strong aspect to slam.

Egos are something that exist in poetry. Page or stage a poet/spoken word artist, has to have some kind of self belief in order to think and feel that their work is worth “getting out there”, worth being read/heard. Slams are competitions. Many slam organisers and MCs state that the point of the poetry is not the points but the point is the poetry. This is very true, at many slams I’ve seen  competitors trade and swap advice on what type of poems they feel are going down well with the judges and audiences. There is often real bonhomie. However, they are still competitions and slammers want to win, most of them anyway. There are a few slammers who think all they can hope for is a good reading and a decent response, but most want to win and believe they have a chance of winning. This actually improves the slam more than hampers it. If the goal is golden enough, poets will perform out of their skin to win it, whether its getting through to a final, a prize or just bragging rights, the competition element of slam may seem to contradict the belief of art for arts sake but it creates an atmosphere and performances from slammers that light up the stage better than a lot of other events.

The only argument against slam that I can say I can see reason in, is that art shouldn’t be rushed. The slam creates borders, each round is, usually 3 minutes max and most slam poems are probably between 2 mins and 2.30 mins long. But, I can easily argue that page poetry competitions and poetry magazine submission restrictions more often than not, limit poems to 40 lines max. Surely that, in a way, is rushed art. Certainly there is a knack (and probably a science) attached to creating a poem inside 40 lines of length. The same way an exam essay has to be written in X amount of time or an academic wordcount of Y. It seems whatever the criticism, and some of them can be valid, that slam can also transcend these misgivings. It’s all down to perspective.

The last word is from my own experience of performing poetry. I love performing and am still a bundle of nerves before a gig. There is always a kick, a hit, from performance, much like there’s a kick or hit from having a poem accepted by a magazine or anthology, or a manuscript accepted by a publishing house. There is something about performance that is sublime. That sublime element is twofold: one it is live, for the audience it is like watching a play, reality created or represented by a performer in the flesh. Secondly, it is a one take show, every performance is unique, uniquely read, uniquely received. For me though, slam has a buzz that is almost individual to it. It is the tension, the pressure and the one-night-only knack of its performance that is a fine drug to take, and take and take and take. Slams will probably always have its supporters and critics, but each slam contains a journey, not just inside the restrictions of a 3 min max poem, but that through the rounds the winner, invariably takes you on a rollercoaster ride made all the better cause there will never be another gig with that same mix of work ever again.



What Has Poetry Ever Done For Us?

“It’s a dead art form.”

My brother used to say, back, back in the day when I started writing and performing. That was 17 years ago this autumn. HIs tongue was firmly in his cheek but there’s often a germ of truth to these kind of jokes

Truth is, poetry has been niche for a long time. It still is , but these days its much more vital, alive, present than when I began so long ago.

The effect of this rise of performance poetry in the consciousness in the UK and Ireland could be felt at Stendhal Festival this year. Stendhal is a small but very successful music and arts festival near Limavady in Northern Ireland. I was asked to curate the poetry for the festival. Despite a limit on crowd numbers due to Covid (about half the usual capacity) the poetry attracted more of an audience this year than previous years. Poetry/Spoken Word, however you frame it, is punching its weight these days.

Poetry exists in waves, I’ve seen the territory change a lot over the years but for me it gives a platform for proclaiming on stage experiences and confidences that we would feel too emotionally inhibited to say off stage.

There’s a famous quote from W. H. Auden that his poetry didn’t save one Jew from the gas chamber. That isn’t poetry’s brief. It does however, (as Seamus Heaney countered) give spiritual redress. Poetry can create an internal revolution. It, like all literature, shows us that we are not alone. It reflects us all with a battered mirror. It doesn’t lead, it doesn’t teach, it shows us our strengths, our failings, our tenderness, our condition in this world, and every context it is written into and of. Poetry reflects, it distils experiences. It consoles and excites. It can be throwaway, purely comedic or it can be food for the soul. It is, a broad church.

For me, and so many others Poetry is a therapy. As someone who’s work exists on both page and stage, there is an overlap between writing for self therapy and writing for others as well as writing for writing’s sake. If the writing for the self is done well enough it can reach others. There is a strong connection between poets and mental illness. There can be many reasons for this. One of them is that poetry can be great therapy, it can been done in short bursts, it requires no expensive equipment, it has no age limits or constraints, it can be written for self or for the wider public and often, both. It also deals with seasons, circular experiences, things that reflect the experiences of so many people suffering from mental illness. Kay Redfield Jamison (in her book Touched by Fire) argues Bi-Polarity and art go together like a hand in a glove. This is contested. No one can say for sure why so many poets have mental health issues, but the stats are impressive. It can be easy to romanticise mental illness. In reality it is not romantic in the slightest, but poetry can be a great way for many to express their internal weather systems. At times like this, with fake news, cultural dissonance, social fragmentation, we need poetry.

All in all, the Pandemic has been, I wouldn’t say good for performance poetry, that would be crass, but it has though worked well having being moved online the last year and change. Many poets have been published during the Pandemic and published poetry has been expressing itself during these interesting times. On Zoom performance poetry works better than music gigs etc. Through the internet the performances can ape the one to one connection between poet and audience member. There is now a global network of poets that have never met before, who now rub alongside each other several days a week. Gigs once based above a bar somewhere in England, for example, now have regulars beaming in from Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and other countries. The world during Covid has shrunk and poets have been flagbearers for events that now connect folk far and wide on a global scale. The future for poetry events could well still include Zoom and international open mic performers and headliners online at live gigs.

Poetry is alive and well. As long as it keeps connecting hearts minds and souls, it will always be in great health.

Spread the Spoken Word.

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