New video ‘UFO’ by Robert Garnham
I’m suddenly all in favour of poetry slams (now that I’ve won one)
A couple of years ago I decided that I’d had it with poetry slams. This wasn’t because I kept losing, though I did crash out of the preliminary round of the Cheltenham All Stat Slam coincidentally the week before I made this decision. It was more a creative decision. I’d found that I was writing poems just to fit in with the whole slam ethos of a quick three minutes of ranting. And doing slams around the place, I’d seen a lot of ranting.
I cut myself off from the slams, and quelled the need to do slams. I was asked to judge a couple of them, the Exeter Poetry Slam and the Poetry Island Slam in Torquay, and judging them was even more nerve wracking than being in them. The need for consistency and objectivity mixed with the emotional side of seeing people perform and knowing that they were heading for a low score, knowing that I was about to completely shatter their evening.
It’s not that I had a bad record in slams, either. The first slam I entered was the Exeter Poetry Slam about five years ago, and I joint won it with Daniel Haynes. I came second in the Bristol slam the next year, and second at the mighty Swindon slam. A team I led won a team event in Exeter, and then I won the Spokes Amaze slam, also in Exeter, coincidentally at the same venue as the Exeter Slam and the team event. And in Edinburgh myself and another poet won a slam against a team of comedians.
But a moral idea asserted itself, that poetry and spoken word are art forms and cannot be judged or given points as in a sporting event. Every spoken word piece is a valid piece of art and the circumstances of its performance, audience, composition and meaning are different under so many conditions that it’s almost impossible to see it as a constant piece. Art should not be judged, i told myself.
Moving away from slams the last couple of years was one of the best creative decisions I’ve made, as it allowed me to concentrate beyond the slam format. Consequently I wrote short poems, long poems, comedy pieces, songs, mimed pieces, musical and prop pieces, without even thinking each time as I sat down, hmm, how will this go in a slam? It also allowed me to look beyond writing for a youthful slam audience and more for the regular poetry-loving gig audience member. No need to shock or preach, just to entertain and to write humorous or thought provoking pieces.
Lately there has been a glut of slams in South Devon as a means to find slam champions for a bigger event at the GlasDenbury Festival. As a judge at one of these events, and as a special warm up act at another, I was able to see that these events meant a lot to the competitors, and that they were hugely entertaining. For reasons which I’m still not sure, I put my name down for the Totnes Slam, then spent the next few days worrying that it was the wrong thing to do, whole obsessively timing my poems and practising, just like the old days. And wouldn’t you know, I won it!
So now I’ve completely changed my mind again and I want to get slamming again. The only difference this time is that I have more pieces in my back catalogue, and if a piece just happens to fit the slam ethos, then that’s fortuitous. I’m still going to be writing outside of the slam conventions, but yes. I’m back.
Slams are all right.