Poetry Slams, Am-drams & Bellyaches
Competition in art: a flawed concept surely? Scottish Poetry Slam champ Iona Lee argues that two separate beings, two lives of experience with opposite tastes and talents should not be graded or pitted against one another. In art there's no correct answer
Poetry can be its own worst enemy at times. I have seen my fair share of performers whose lacklustre delivery has rendered me semi-comatose, daydreaming of dinner. Then I suddenly hear them employ the phrase "cruel vagina", or some such, jolting me back to consciousness, wondering what on earth I just missed. But there is a lot of word being spoken out there, and for anyone to claim not to like all spoken word is like them claiming to dislike music. Just as there are a lot of late-adolescents wearing trilbies and singing nasal covers of Pumped Up Kicks, Jeff Buckley also exists. I would argue that you have to try and find what you truly love in poetry, find the poetry that pins down love like a butterfly and kills it, or the poetry that makes the revolution bubble in your nethers.
Perhaps the most popular, open and public artistic contest these days is the poetry slam. In contrast to the rap battle, poetry slams are somewhat more be-cardiganed affairs; the point is not to be rude about your opponent, but instead solve the problems of the world in three minutes or less. Poetry slams are frequented by enthusiastic types, eager to discuss the important issues of our times, using rhyme, borrowed trans-atlantic accents and trendy beards. Popular among the earnest, the egalitarian and students, slams are becoming an established part of the spoken performance poetry culture.
I suppose I ought to introduce myself. I’m Iona Lee, until March 2017 the Scottish slam champion (basically the Andy Murray of Scottish slam poetry). I have however, only been to three slams in my twenty years: one in Portobello, the Scottish finals at the Tron in Glasgow and the world finals in Paris. So, my success may not reflect any amount of arduous training and it could be argued that I am not the greatest expert on slams, despite being (technically) ranked 6th in the world.
Let me explain for the uninitiated what a slam actually entails, as outsiders can find it confusing. For example, I’m often asked if they involve improvisation; they do not. Also, the word 'slam' implies physical violence and there is none of that, at least at those I’ve attended.
A poetry slam is made up of three rounds where all poets involved have three minutes to perform to an eager audience and panel of judges (made up of either experts or members of the general public, plucked from that aforementioned eager audience). They are then scored out of ten, points being awarded for writing, performance and audience reaction, though these categories can vary from slam to slam. The poets with the highest scores move to the next round and the three highest scoring of this bunch return for the final. Here, they have to pull out their trump card poem to win the title of 'the best'.
Now, there are of course many positives to this particular format. For one thing, a slam can get a good crowd in, and a good crowd is not always the boast of a poetry night. Let's be honest, poetry is not for everyone. My first ever open mic night there was a man wearing a measuring tape as a scarf. While a poetry reading may not be for everyone, it would seem that a group of otherwise socially awkward bookish types doing verbal battle is. People love the competition and the smell of nerd sweat. This was brought home to me at the Scottish final, which, to the horror of my nervous disposition, succeeded in selling out the Tron in Glasgow.
On the element of competition, I can't fully agree. My favourite part of the 'job' of poet, other than all the alcohol, is that I get to enjoy the work of my peers, elders and betters. I enjoy basking in the collective glow of creativity and listening closely to expert wordsmithery. At a slam however, I am just too nervous to pay any great attention. Instead, I start picking holes in others' performances: “My similes are much more effective than his similes, why did he get more points than me?” As fellow poet Marc Livingstone put it: “Basically I'm a bit of a dick, but most of the time I manage to convince myself that I am a nice person and poetry slams remind me that I'm a bit of a dick.”
Herein lies one of my issues with slams – they can become a false arena. What many find admirable about slams is that they provide a platform for marginalised voices. For example, I can guarantee that at least one poem will include the word 'patriarchy' at any given slam. This is of course, no bad thing. I am about as feminist as they come. Germaine Greer is my gal. Isn't it ironic however that on one level we might be requiring our slam judges to decide between pacifism, veganism and a woman's right to choose?
What's more, the arena is seen as a safe space, yet the participants are being gladiatorially matched against one another. To complicate matters, the arena's perceived status as a safe space perhaps excludes people with opinions that might be outside the liberal mainstream.
The structure of a poetry slam also leads to sneaky tactics. You will notice patterns forming: funny poem first to get the crowd to like you; political next to show that you are 'woke'; and finally, picking and exploiting whatever it is or might be in one's private life which identifies one as most marginal and deserving of sympathy. Think X Factor sob story in verse. In fact poets of my acquaintance confess to feeling guilty about exploiting their own experiences because they know that these issues will play the right mood music to evince from the audience and judges alike maximum points, and points mean prizes.
Is it right that this format of competition should put moral pressure on people to publically air their personal laundry? I am assured by older and more experienced poets that slams used to be predominantly humorous, but it seems to me – and perhaps we should blame the X Factor for this – that there's an increasing use of these emotional levers. The trouble is that at the end of the evening you might end up with a room full of people who have been, in effect, told that their personal struggle is less important than that of the winner.
What's more, there's a danger that subject matter becomes more important than the quality of poetry on display. I don't think Bob Dylan would even make it through the first round of X Factor (and if he did he'd be one of Louis'). The format demands an element of theatricality. Consequently, performance styles are in danger of homogenising. I see a lot of new voices who sound as if they might be copying each other's vocal patterns in a way that doesn't always best serve the poetry that they have written.
Here's the thing: I didn't really use any of those tactics, nor those vocal patterns. I didn't know that I should. I would not, nor do I think would others, describe myself as a slam poet, and probably this made me seem strikingly original (although I'm not). So perhaps things are changing once again.
Slams can be an important stepping stone in a poet's career. They afford exposure, the opportunity to rehearse one's tortured poetic demeanour and to network. I am sure that a lot of my success, such as it is, is thanks to my winning the Scottish title. Winning allowed me to go to Paris and meet poets from all over the world and to wander alone in Père Lachaise and have feelings. I am hugely grateful for all of this. Most other poets that I talk to see slams as a bit of fun. And they are. As long as the participants don't take them too seriously, no one is going to end up with anything worse than a bruised ego.
However, slams can also be an important rung on the poetic career ladder so perhaps we should take them seriously. But taking a slam too seriously is like viewing the aforementioned X Factor as truly trying to discover the UK's best singer, as opposed to a bit of fluff and entertainment. It is this dichotomy that jars.
This is a very exciting time to be involved in performance poetry. So, by all means go and see a slam, take part even. Slams encourage poets to deliver their work better, but can restrict the sort of work that they present. So, I would urge you to also go and support broader spoken word nights. Go to the poetry stage at a festival. See the poets for longer than a 3 minute slot; they might have quite a lot more to say after the buzzer stops them.