On poetry slams in the age of Zoom – and an idea for a new kind of poetry slam!

This week I took part in an online poetry slam, and as ever, I was blown away by the quality of the performances and the sheer poetic talent of those taking part. By the wonders of Zoom, participants in many parts of the country, and further afield, poured their heart out and took the audience to the darkest places of the human psyche, taking in every part of lived experience along the way, from death, to rape, to misogyny, genocide and personal angst. They did so using language and imagery which stayed with me long afterwards, painting pictures using words which imprinted on my imagination the emotions of what it means to be human. The slam was won, rightly, by the performer who’d performed the best, written the best, and absolutely nailed the format.

I was lucky enough to get out of the first round with a poem using humour to tackle the weighty subject of homophobia. My strategy, however, had been then to revert to a couple of comedy poems. However I knew that the mood of the night was to embrace the deeply serious, and that comedy poems certainly wouldn’t cut the mustard, so I did a semi-comedic poem about death in the second round, my hand kind of forced by the dynamics of the evening. In the event, I was incredibly happy with my performances, and happier still that the strategy I’d picked would probably work well at another event.

But then I got thinking: Just when did poetry slams in the UK become so serious? My performance career now spans three decades, (okay, so I only performed in two years of the 2000s, and we’re only one year into the 2020s, but who’s counting?). And when I started slamming all those years ago, the one certainty was that audiences, judges and fellow competitors alike were up for a laugh. If you could write well and with humour, and perform it well and with humour, then the chances were that your chances were good. And this is something I’d always admired about the UK slam scene. People like AF Harrold and Jonny Fluffypunk were winning slams all over the place when I first started, and it felt wonderful being a part of such a very welcoming scene in which comedy was rewarded and regarded well in an art form, (poetry), which I’d always seen as snooty and stuck-up. The fact that comedy poets won slams also felt like the whole scene was somehow ironic. Sure, I’d been on the internet and watched American poetry slams, which were all about identity and big themes, where the serious poet, or, god help us, the poet who turned on the waterworks, was acclaimed as the winner. While over in the UK, AF Harrold was winning slams with poems about cats being better than dogs.

Sure, there were serious poets. Of course there were. At my very first slam, in Bristol, I made it to the final with my poem about beards and was (rightly) beaten by Steven Duncan, who did a wonderful poem about the black experience from Windrush to the present day, taking in racism and police brutality. But it was still a fifty fifty shot that a comedy poem would do the biz, and probably around fifty percent of the poets at the slam were comic poets.

And yes, I managed here and there to win the occasional poetry slam. It always felt ironic doing so. Because I’ve never seen what I do as poetry, and a poetry slam seemed the ultimate American and trendy thing to take part in. The fact that I could do so with poems about jellyfish and badgers and, of course, beards, seemed to drive a truck straight through such pretensions.

Naturally, over the last year and a half, most events have moved online, and one could argue that in so doing, they have made them more accessible and democratic. Online events have opened slams up to people who might never have been able to get out to events in far flung corners of the UK. (And to think, once a month I used to go to Bang Said the Gun in London just to take part in their weekly slam). With this increased online community, it seems that the American idea of what a poetry slam in has, stealthily, increased and encroached on the more traditional UK version. Obviously, I’m not saying this is a bad thing. It’s just the nature of these events, and the world has definitely become a more serious and, one would argue, less equal place over the last few years. Various movements have rightfully given voices to those who before might not have had a voice, or encouraged them to do so with bravery and gusto, and the poetry slam is the ideal place where this can occur. From Black Lives Matter to the #metoo movement, people are finding the courage, the depth, or the anger to draw attention to issues, and this is a wonderful thing.

So what is the point of this essay? Well, here’s my big idea. Understanding that the poetry slam genre has evolved, yet also feeling nostalgic for the days when comedy was almost an expectation of the poetry slam, I would like to propose a brand new type of poetry slam: a comedy poetry slam. While the rules and format would be roughly the same, there would be one or two tweaks. Such as: Yes, you are allowed props. Yes, you are allowed costumes. And yes, you can sing, or dance, or incorporate music. Judging criteria would be the same – performance, audience reaction and writing – but there would be scope for laughter and this could be taken into account. (This is another reason why, I believe, comedy performance poetry doesn’t work in the Zoom age in which everyone has their mic muted). In such a way, this will help poetry slams become entertainment again and reward those who experiment with the three minutes that they’re given. It’s time to draw attention to the performance aspect of spoken word, (after all, it was still called performance poetry back when I started, with the emphasis on the performance), and marvel in the inventiveness of so many fertile minds.

I’m suddenly all in favour of poetry slams (now that I’ve won one) 

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.