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?