VoiceBox Radio & Grizzly Pear

Two very exciting events happened over two very exciting consecutive days:

Last Tuesday I was lucky enough to be invited on to VoiceBox, a spoken-word radio show on Burn FM, hosted by Elisha Owen and James Dolton, who, unlike Troy McClure, you may actually recognise from previous poetry posts. I was one of two guests alongside James Grady, a fantastic musician and comic performance poet. VoiceBox has hit upon a great structure, and Tuesday’s edition took in live and studio-recorded spoken-word tracks, live performances from Mr. Grady and I, some on-the-spot writing, and a fantastic debate spawned by their ‘contentious question’ of the week, which this time concerned the benefit(s) of slam poetry to the wider scene: a particularly relevant one considering my last post!

You can listen to both last week’s show, and the first edition which featured Jenna Clake and Mark Watson, on the VoiceBox SoundCloud page.

The following day saw the first 2012-13 instalment of the formerly low-key Writers’ Bloc open-mic night, now re-branded, re-booted and re-kicked up the proverbial arse as Grizzly Pear, with a swanky logo (well, a logo), and a pro head-liner for each event. I’ve been thinking up and organising this night for quite some time, so I was a little nervous and frantic as kick-off approached. But cometh the hour, cometh the silly fluorescent braces, and everything went swimmingly. On the night, I likened the experience to watching a child who you’ve raised and trained compete at sports day, the result of which is totally beyond your control. But in truth I was very much in a position to mess things up, as compere/host! I could’ve inadvertently poisoned Clayton Blizzard with an underdone Mexican Burger (before the Bristol Pear mobilises its lawyers, I’d like to say that the burger was fine), I could’ve killed someone with a loose electrical cable, I could’ve mispronounced a poet’s name, or done a (further) disservice to the Eminem song I was already bastardising! But, alas, the evening was a roaring success – described by one review as “dynamic, varied and thoroughly entertaining” – and I was genuinely overwhelmed by the positive responses from the audience during and after the event. Bristol-based folk-rapper Clayton Blizzard rounded off one of the most consistently high standard open-mics I’ve ever seen with a brilliant, humorous and profound set.

I’d like to extend my thanks to everyone that came and supported the event, from legends of Writers’ Bloc’s recent history (Sean Colletti) to legends of the academic Creative Writing circuit (Luke Kennard); from legends of the Birmingham spoken-word scene (Lorna Meehan) to legends of the current Writers’ Bloc cohort (too many to name). You know who you are, and so do I, plus where you live, more to the point. Joking aside, it was enthusing to see so many more unfamiliar faces than familiar ones at Wednesday’s event, which suggests that the poetry and spoken-word community might actually be expanding as quickly as I hope it is, to include people other than my immediate friends and course tutors!

I’ll see you at the next one, won’t I? Good. It features the apparently-unbeatable UK-wide Slam Champion Vanessa Kisuule, and it’s happening on Thursday 25th January. Whack it in your diary. Not write. I said whack.


Cheltenham All-Stars & “Slapathy”

Brace yourselves for cynicism:

I am bored of slam.

Not forever, irretrievably consigned to the land of slam apathy (or Slapathy), but temporarily fatigued by it. Not by the concept either. The concept is a great one, if a little tricky for new-comers to grasp. “How can you objectively rank poetry?” they cry, incredulous. The point is, you can’t. Of course, there is a difference between good and bad poetry, but it isn’t a discreet and explicit system. And that’s why slam is essentially a gimmick. The gimmick works and is wonderful and fun when: a)  the slam poets involved are good, b) the audience are knowledgeable, c) the judges are experienced and professional, and d) the judging method is tried and tested. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Often a judging system has to figure itself out in the course of a slam, which gives rise to the infamous phenomenon that is ‘score creep’, where poems towards the end of a slam are given increasingly higher scores, almost completely regardless of how good they are. If the judges are not pre-appointed, but instead plucked from the audience (as with Saturday’s All-Star Slam at Cheltenham Literary Festival) then not only does ‘score creep’ occur, but so do all sorts of other injustices. If the plucked-at-random judges are experienced poetry connoisseurs then this isn’t such a big issue, but they invariably aren’t, so poems can appear strikingly original when they are in fact shameless and bastardised rip-offs. Comic poetry, for example, always scores highest on the ‘audience reaction’ side of the marking because it is one of the few styles that produces an audible response. People don’t often make a sound beyond emitting a tiny sigh or shedding a silent tear when a poem is profoundly moving or devastating them. There is nothing wrong with comic poetry. Doing it well is bloody hard, and it is in no way inferior to a “serious” poem (when done well). Done badly, however, and I think it tells of artistic and/or performance insecurity. It is a cheap way to notch up those fickle points, and to protect yourself from the vulnerability that comes with offering a good, genuine poem (comic or serious). In fact, the best comic poems are ultimately serious, and the best serious poems have moments of very necessary comedy. Like the jesters in Shakespeare’s plays, if you will. In fact, the best performance poetry is often inseparable into categories as crude as this: just as the standard of poems isn’t discreet, neither is genre.

This is what I mean by a seamless fusion of humour and integrity. Some jokes (or indeed one juicy extended comic metaphor), yes, but some purpose beyond the jokes, please! My poem of the day was “Body” by Thommie Gillow, which unfortunately isn’t on YouTube, so here is a video of her performing “A Poem About a Shoe.” You’ll see what I mean:

Audience response also generally increases if a poet raises their hand to their ear in a faux-rock-star fashion and/or jumps on and/or off the stage, in a similarly foppish way. If this is one part of a brilliant poem, in which the writing has been prioritised and the physical action and performance only serve to enhance the experience of the words themselves, then great. Sadly not, in most cases. Like last Saturday.

Now, this is all very well, but I’m only saying all this because I was unceremoniously dumped out in the first round of Saturday’s Slam, right? Well, not really, no. Naturally I was disappointed not to progress any further, but not because I wanted to win; simply because I enjoy performing poetry and entertaining people. But even had I marched triumphantly through to the final, there were plenty of worthy poets, like Thommie, who did not. My problem with the almost randomised way in which the scores, and thus the participants in the next round, are determined is that it deprives audiences of genuinely great art in favour of direction-less rants (it is offensively easy to bash MPs/bankers/”chavs”/police/any-other-group-the-media-tells-us-we-should-aim-our-one-dimensional-polarised-hatred-towards in an uninformed, frankly arrogant tirade, that can only be called ‘poetry’ in the loosest possible way because it lazily employs childish end-stopped rhyme). The concept of a slam – “competitive poetry” – is an enticing one, and it gets the audiences in. That’s the point. But to keep the audiences, I’m sure they need more than the aforementioned slush. Performance poetry as a whole genre stands to benefit from people won over when attending slams (which are only a tiny fragment of the performance poetry scene) so I think slams, their organisers/judges, etc., have a responsibility to the spoken-word community and their audiences to give them the best stuff.

Team slams, on the other hand, are a little different, as every poet performs a pre-designated number of times, irrespective of standard, and audiences get to see a representative fragment of their work and judge for themselves. Which means that, even if some gross scoring injustice(s) occur(s), they can make up their own minds as to what they liked and what they didn’t, and not be deprived of what they liked in rounds 2 or 3, and so on. This didn’t stop the Student Writers’ Performance Challenge at Birmingham Book Festival from being a little personally disappointing, as one of the judges made a very pointed comment about all-singing all-dancing poems that where relatively content-less, which can only have been a reference to the team made up of James Dolton, Elisha Owen and myself, but that’s by-the-by: the concept itself is probably a more full-proof one. Re: that specific judge, for my own self-respect, I wish to add that if she’d like to read any of my poems on the page to scan for content/meaning/purpose, then I’ll happily send her some.

And just a brief disclaimer before we all move on…I had a nice day on Saturday in Cheltenham, and the Monday evening before that at Bacchus Bar, Birmingham. Sara-Jane Arbury and Marcus Moore are lovely, friendly people, and magnificent hosts, and my lamentations are much broader than their slick and fun Spiel Unlimited slams.

And breathe. Phew. Sorry about that.

Here’s a picture from Saturday’s All-Star Qualifiers of me in a funny hat, to clear the air. (N.B. the hat is NOT an implicit admission of deficiencies in writing or performance technique. It’s just a funny hat. Promise.)

Cookie Monster writes the poems, I just read ’em. Like Ratatouille, I guess?

New Spoken-Word Show on Burn FM, plus other new dates

A quick post to tell ya’ll about VoiceBox, an exciting new spoken-word show that begins this Tuesday on Burn FM, the University of Birmingham’s student radio station. It’s on from 9-10pm. Hosted by James Dolton and Elisha Owen, two of the most beloved rising stars of the West Midland’s spoken-word scene, each week the show will feature one guest from within the University, and one from the wider scene. This Tuesday they’re kicking things off in fine style with James Grady and Bohdan Piasecki, respectively the University’s and West Midland’s most irreverent word-smith and most popular promoter. Bohdan‘s monthly Hit The Ode is one of the region’s highest quality performance poetry nights. Week 2 features Jenna Clake, an excellent page poet who made her performance debut at Word-Up recently, a new(ish) night run by the show’s other guest; Mark Watson. Definitely worth a listen. I’ll be on the show on Week 3 (23rd October), alongside a leviathan of the British poetry world, or so rumour has it… More details when I have them!

In other, more immediate news, tonight I’m appearing with James and Elisha at Birmingham Book Festival‘s Student Writers’ Challenge. It’s at the Bacchus Bar in the Burlington Arcade in the city centre from 7:30pm and should be a great gig. On Saturday, one of the country’s biggest slams is taking place in Cheltenham as part of the Cheltenham Literary Festival. I haven’t actually qualified yet, but whether or not I make the final is almost immaterial, as the night is guaranteed to be a stonker (a positive stonker!). It again features James, as well as Lorna Meehan, who are great friends as well as great poets, plus the rest of the star-studded line-up (another way of saying I don’t know who’s in it yet!). The audience for the final will exceed 350, so is essentially the Champions League of British Slam Poetry. I can’t wait!

For details of when where how (to book) who why (you know why), etc. see the Live Dates page.

Word-Up and Bristol Poetry Festival

This is just a quick note about 2 very exciting, and very different, gigs I did recently.

The first was Word-Up, a relatively new night at the charming 6/8 Kafe in the centre of Birmingham (incidentally, the home of the best hot chocolate in the West Midlands, no lie). This was the fourth edition of the monthly open-mic evening run by Mark Watson and Ro Caldwell, who have been kind enough to continually invite me to read there throughout the summer. Festival after festival after festival after insert-other-commitment-here always seemed to get in the way, but on Friday 21st Sept. I was finally free. The downstairs basement space they use is somehow simultaneously both barren and industrial, and homely, and rather suited the eclectic mix of performers on show. Personal favourites were James Dolton, Jenna Clake (whose spoken-word debut was bewitching and marks her out as one to watch) and Elisha Owen, plus some hilarious guitar-accompanied satire from Joe Sale. All of these guys are on Twitter and elsewhere online, and are well worth your time. Unbeknownst to me, I’d been given the final slot of the night so ended up serving as a kind of accidental head-liner  This was a fantastic experience, and I really felt at home with my own poems (including the awkward bits in between), in front of a very generous audience.

Sunday 30th Sept. saw me make my Apples & Snakes debut proper (discounting the innumerable times I’ve annoyed the Hit The Ode audience on the open-mic!). I was the West Midlands contingent in the Next Generation Slam at the Arnolfini in Bristol. I was delighted when I found out about this gig, and wasn’t disappointed when it came round, as it was without doubt the highest quality poetry slam I’ve ever been in (in terms of the poetry at least, and not necessarily the seamlessness of the score-keeping! Thankfully the poetry is what matters).

Although I’ve seen them read before, it was the first time I’ve seen Vanessa KisuuleHarry Baker and Jack Dean in a slam. Sunday was a great day generally, as (alongside finishing 19th and 1st U23 in Bristol Half Marathon that morning) I, and the rest of the A&S team, had a performance workshop prior to the gig with Anna Freeman, whose set at Shambala was a festival highlight. Meeting the other A&S poets, only one of which I’d previously heard of (I’m ashamed to say) was also fantastic, and although we’d workshopped earlier in the day, hearing the work a second time with the brakes off was bloody brilliant. Hats off to Indigo WilliamsRowan McCabeBen Lawrence, and Carrie Wilde. In all honesty I did not expect to beat an all-star Bristol team containing the respective World, European and UK festival-wide slam champions mentioned above, as well as the talents of Lydia Beardmore and Emma Ward, both of whom featured in the 3-strong Brizzle team who won silver at Jack’s UK Slam Champs in June. But beat them we did! And after several slightly shambolic recounts, I was also awarded joint bronze with Lydia! Indigo duly took the individual win (she was great) but I’d also like to show my particular appreciation for Vanessa (whose opening 4-minute-long poem served as something of a fuck-you to the whole slam conceit anyway!), Rowan (whose dulcet Geordie accent did nothing but make beautiful words beautiful-er) and Jack.

Mr. Dean’s second offering was definitely my poem of the night. I’m told that there’s a recording of Sunday’s slam, but since I don’t have it yet, you’ll have to make do with this video of him @ Farrago:

Indigo Williams