Last night I was guest poet at the London final of the Hammer and Tongue Slam. Anyone who knows me knows my official position on slams is I’m not fond of ’em. This may be because I rarely do well – I’m a bit of a waffler, and I like having time to jaw with the audience, plus I’ve hardly got any poems under the crucial 3 minute mark. On the flipside, as an audience member, I enjoy quality poets being given enough stage time to knock out a decent set, and slams nibble everything down to slivers.
When I’ve got a little bit more time on my hands (ie after this week), I’m planning two fairly substantial posts on performance poetry – one on ‘how to do slams’, and the other on ‘all the shit that isn’t poetry that needs to go right for you to have a good poetry gig’, about venues, promoters, audiences, all that crap. I realise that, coming from someone who has just professed not to be good at slamming, or to particularly like slams, a blog entry dishing out advice on the subject might be seen to lack a certain ‘rhetorical authority’. Trust me. I’ve been dishing out opinions for years on shit I know fuck all about. I will make my BS sound convincing. You will link to it and say ‘ooh, look at this, it is so authoritative and fragrant with merit’ not guessing for a moment that you have been FOOLED. Heh.
At the H&T; slam, everyone performing had previously won a heat, so – for a slam – the standard was impressive. Taking place in the back room of the Green Note Café in Camden, it was rammed. It meant the crowd was warm but restless – there were a lot of numb legs and sweaty faces and though they were pleased to have a distraction from their physical discomfort, as soon as nothing interesting was happening on the stage they became chatty and grumpy. Which is fair enough. As with a lot of slams I’ve seen, there was a hell of a lot of faffing between poets as judges held up tattered scorecards and attempted to add them up. When one of your feet doesn’t have any blood in it and the air conditioning’s switched off, you don’t tend to feel very forgiving towards ropey organisation skills!
In the first round, (apologies if I get the names wrong – I’ve double-checked but you know how it is) Charlie Wright and Josh Niecho, one a rather lanky, spiky, hirsute character, the latter a suited, bespectacled chap, both took the unusual step of reading off the page. I say ‘unusual’ – I mean ‘crap’. There’s no excuse for reading off the page in a slam, unless it’s basically a prop, and you know the poem well enough that you could finish it even if one of your nefarious rivals made it go on fire. Reading off the page negatively impacted on both their performances. Both of them had to keep glancing down at the page to get their next lines, so they’d switch between really giving it some, then breaking eye contact to check the page, then going back to the poem.
I thought Charlie Wright had some fairly dense rhyme patterns that were quite impressive, but it felt like the tail was wagging the dog – I think he’d fallen in love with the sounds of words and the result was a rather long poem that didn’t really go anywhere but had lots of complicated three-syllable internal rhymes. Complex rhymes really suffer from diminishing returns unless you’re advancing some kind of thesis or story along with them. Also, if you’re going to do them justice, you need to know your shit back-to-front, so you can deliver it confidently, crisply, with your breathing sorted out and with feeling behind the words (by which I don’t necessarily mean rage or gushing sentimentality – but if you want wry insouciance or bland indifference, it should look deliberate). Most of the poem was delivered as a supposedly ‘ironic’ rant, but he was too busy fumbling for the next line to actually put some balls into it. He did have one nice phrase though, some Bruce Banner reference like ‘you might not like me when I’m not angry’, which was a nice, sweet touch and got a laugh out of the audience, who I think had been struggling to follow him and were relived to hear something they understood.
I felt for Josh a bit. He did a poem about how he survives on not very much sleep. I think it was an abab rhyme pattern, strict metre, but although it was technically robust, it was essentially a very dull anecdote that didn’t go anywhere, all gussied up and sent to the dance as a poem. There were no payoffs, no reveals that made sticking with it worthwhile, which was a shame because he’s obviously got the vocabulary and the skill to put together a really good piece. Also, he’d made an effort over his appearance, looking rather dapper, which counts for more than you’d think, so thumbs up for that.
The chap who went on first, who I think they announced as Wayne Antonio, forgot his poem halfway through, which was unfortunate, but he hung in there and, after a couple of failed restarts, remembered the next line and soldiered on. It’s worth noting that botching a line or even briefly forgetting your whole poem isn’t necessarily fatal in a slam – indeed, if you deal with it gracefully, and show a bit of a sense of humour, it can even play in your favour. It reminds the audience that what you’re doing is hard, that you’re only human, and, when you rally and power back into the poem, the audience will often cheer you on, feeling as if they’ve just watched you wrestle a personal demon to the mat. Unfortunately, he delivered the whole poem rather quietly, in a halting way that suggested he didn’t feel particularly confident about his material. If that was the case, I have to concur with his judgement – he did a piece that was basically a heap of off-the-peg clichés about how everyone should be free, not particularly well-rhymed, and, you know, not very well performed either. Saaah-ree. Keep at it!
The first round saw three out of the eight competitors eliminated, and yes, it was these three gents who said goodbye. The lesson: learn your material. In this particular slam, all that was required to get to the second round was the ability to recite a three minute poem from memory. Make sure you can walk before you try short-range teleportation, yeah?
The biggest surprise of the first round – for me, anyway – was watching André Mangeot bag the highest score. If I’m honest, I’d raised an eyebrow when I saw that he was in the slam final – I’ve done a couple of gigs with André before, in Norwich, and although I know he’s got some great poems and is a very likable, confident reader of his work, I always thought of him as a page poet, and me as a performance poet.
But he chose his poems really well, and he learned them. When he first got on stage and began to explain the circumstances behind writing the poem he was about to perform, I could see the audience’s attention beginning to sag. People turned away, began whispering to each other. I think he was perhaps the sixth poet on, and what with two of the hosts having done a poem, *and* someone getting up to be a ‘sacrificial’ poet, to help calibrate the judges, the cattle-truck conditions were leaving the audience keen for the first round to end, so they could pull their knickers out of their arse-cracks, stretch their legs, and have a wee and a smoke.
But when he said ‘so this is my life story, in 52 seconds’, they snapped to attention. Really, all the rest was filler, and, for future reference, in a slam situation, that sentence is all he really needs. Maybe a self-deprecating line about liking to think he’s done quite a bit, and how disappointing it was to discover he could fit it all in one poem.
And it’s a great slam poem. Confident, but not arrogant, easy for any audience to understand, but not patronising, it has some funny bits, some interesting bits, and it’s really short. No wasted time! André thoroughly deserved to bag the best score that round, and I learned an important lesson in not pigeonholing fellow poets
Richard Tyrone Jones had a great poem that was essentially a shaggy dog story constructed from silly rhymes relating to ‘celery’. He knew his material well, delivered it confidently, and it was a good choice for the first round of a slam, because it was short, funny, easy to understand, and didn’t tackle any controversial topics that might split the judges. Also, he was pretty down on his timing, so he gave himself a bit of space at the front of his performance just to chat a bit and drop a couple of one-liners to warm the audience up and show he was comfortable. You’ve got to be careful to keep your preambles short in slams, because audiences are generally less patient with waffle – it’s your poem they’re judging, so unless your chat is directly relevant it feels like you’re keeping them waiting.
In the second round, five poets battled it out to see who’d be in the last three. I had a bit of an internal conflict before writing the words ‘battled it out’ there. Calling standing on stage and saying a poem ‘battling’ is ludicrous, really. But anyway.
Again, André chose very well and did a funny-absurd piece about getting stuck in the catflap while housesitting and having his arsecheeks painted blue. This time, his intro was short and sweet – he said something like ‘Has anyone here ever had to break into their own house?’ which got some nice recognition laughs, and then he went on: ‘It’s a bit worse when you’re supposed to be housesitting for someone else, and you’ve lost the keys.’ Then the poem. Nice, to the point, whilst whetting the audience’s appetite.
Another poet in the second round was Catherine Brogan, who I met in Belfast in April, at an open mic. Her mum had handed me a tissue because she heard me sniffling. I think Catherine’s got some good first-person stuff, but – if I may cack-handedly appropriate a footballing metaphor – I don’t think she’s got much depth in her squad. In a slam, choice is your friend, but at the moment all her stuff is a bit one-note – the same metreless tumbling rhymes, the same first-person earnest confessional mode voice. You don’t necessarily have to demonstrate range over a three-round slam, but it’s useful being able to switch between something funny, to something more lyrical or serious, and back again. Knob-gags and personal disclosures are similar in that, if used more than once, they start to lose their power. Also, in the second round, having finished her poem and realising she had some time left, Catherine stuck in a second short poem. The audience are never going to thank you for stretching out your slot to fill the entire time available, and she weakened the impact of her first piece by sticking another, less developed poem in after it, making it hard for the judges to remember how they’d felt.
I wasn’t surprised that Catherine went out but I must admit that I’d expected André to reach the final. Such are the crapshoot vagaries of slamming.
In the final three were MC Angel, Charlie Dupre, and Richard Tyrone Jones.
Charlie Dupre billed himself as a middle-class MC. I’m not sure if that label is intended as ironic apologetic liberal handwringing, but I kind of feel that if you’re going to do hip-hop flavoured stuff, you should just get on with it and let your writing and performance do the talking. There’s no need to start digging your toe into the carpet.
In his piece in the first round, he demonstrated great flow and some awesome breath control. His content was a bit slight but he had some classy bits of verbal showboating that did more than enough to paper over the fact he wasn’t really saying anything. He mentioned several times that he does theatre, and I get the impression that all the vocal warm-ups and delivery techniques he’s learned from that have served him well. I don’t think there was a poet in the room who couldn’t learn something from him.
On the other hand, if I’m honest, I found the ‘MC voice’ he put on a bit distracting – I think it was meant to sound street, but in practice, rounding Ts down to Ds and making some of your vowels a bit breathy comes off more like Frank Spencer. He delivered a lot of lines as if he had a beat behind him, which sounds a bit forced when there’s nothing but dead air. Part of the beauty of being a poet rather than an MC is you’ve got control over your pauses, and you can tweak the flow and respond to the audience.
As it turned out, in the first round he’d led with his best poem, a solid piece which I reckon would see him confidently through the first round of most slams in the UK. No small achievement. But his second and third poems were weaker, baggier, and delivered in exactly the same voice. Like Catherine, he still doesn’t have much of a range of voices to choose from. His final piece, a poetic rendering of Webster’s godawful revenge clusterfuck ‘The Duchess Of Malfi’, felt like an exercise in technique. There were some well-constructed lines in there, but, y’know, an xaxa rhyme scheme and a strict chronological breakdown of a play were never going to be happy bedfellows. It felt like the kind of joylessly workmanlike piece a ‘creative practitioner’ might take into schools to convince kids that Webster is fun and relevant, because look – somebody’s written a rap about it! But anyway, bad choice for the last round – you need something with either a humorous or emotional payoff, and this, while cleverly constructed, had neither.
Richard Tyrone Jones did a so-so poem about having a verruca, which the crowd seemed largely indifferent to, then finished on a series of limericks. He claimed they were ‘increasingly filthy limericks’ but, for Richard, they were relatively tasteful. It was a nice decision, though, as it gave him lots of quick punchlines, and, by then, the audience were quite knackered and thankful for some short, straightforward poetry. However, his material was suffering from diminishing returns by this stage. Every poem he did in the slam was a high energy absurdist piece yelled at the audience in a mock highbrow voice. At some stage the judges are going to start seeing you – rightly or wrongly – as a one-trick pony and your scores will suffer accordingly. It’s certainly not a strategy likely to earn you the killer blow in the last round.
MC Angel came on last. Angel is a good mate of mine, and I reckon she’s awesome, so I had been rooting for her all the way through. In lots of ways she’s well equipped to slam – she’s got a strong roster of short poems, some funny, some serious, with plenty of lyrically impressive bits, she keeps her language simple so no crowd are going to be left scratching their heads (or worse – and more likely – bored), her flow and delivery are expert, and she always looks totally at home on the stage.
She was on last, which is always a good place to be in a slam. If you get to go on last in a final, then basically the judges’ voting choice is simple – it’s a referendum on whether they think you should win or not. It’s a clean, binary decision, much more tangible than the vague numbers they’ve been having to assign to their aesthetic judgements all evening, and they make it fresh in the afterglow of your roistering performance. The whole crowd are amped up, because the entire contest rests on how you do. So usually, unless you stack it majorly or drop some weird-ass conceptual piece or racist screed, you’ll win.
MC Angel had started with a gag poem about casual sex with exes in the first round, so in the second and third she went for her more heartfelt pieces. Sometimes that’s a move that can boomerang – if the judges think you’re being cheap or manipulative, there’ll often be a scoring backlash, even if the crowd seemed behind you. But Angel has got a sincerity that comes across to audiences. One of the things I admire about her is her zero tolerance policy on bullshit. Honesty and genuine self-awareness carry a lot of clout on stage, because they’re rare, and tough to fake.
So yeah. She
won. Obviously I am hugely biased, but so what. I got really excited and banged my fists on the floor. Slams can be a bit random, but I reckon MC Angel deserved to win, and I was made up for her.
I take my hat off to all the participants though. Watching the slam, it was easy to forget what a challenge it is to stand up in front of a packed room full of strangers, and come out with something interesting and original enough that they’ll not want to do anything but listen to you. Everyone who took part managed that task, and looked pretty calm while doing so. No mean feat.
So yes. In any case. Those are my humble (unsolicited) opinions. For what it’s worth.