On paper, I should be a fan of slam. Slam is supposed to be the democratisation of poetry, knocking down ivory towers, bringing poetry by the people to the people. But is it really? A poetry slam may put backsides on seats – but could it be killing off a generation of talent known to slam as losers?
In the US, the first National Poetry Slam took place in 1990, in Fort Mason, San Francisco. The event featured teams from Chicago, New York and, of course, a home team. ‘Nationals’, as it’s commonly called by the poets hoping to make the trip, has been held every August since and has grown to include teams representing cities in every state in the nation as well as Canada and France.
So what is this phenomenon? A poetry slam is a competition at which poets recite their work. The performances are then judged on a numeric scale (often from one to ten) by previously-selected members of the audience: although formats vary and in the UK there’s often an X Factor-type panel of “expert” judges instead.
The resounding success and public recognition of slam poetry in the US meant it was only a matter of time before slam would arrive in the UK. And it did in 1994, at a small London venue called Farrago headed by dedicated promoter John Paul. “Farrago Poetry are the UK’s SLAM! Poetry Pioneers, organising the first poetry slam in the UK in February 1994, The London SLAM! Championships, easily Europe’s longest running and setting up the UK SLAM! Championships in the same year,” screams RADA-based Farrago’s poetry website. And this is indeed the longest running slam poetry event in Britain. But there are others in Bristol, Liverpool, Aberdeen, Manchester, Belfast, Cardiff and many more. Even literature festivals are on board. BBC Radio 4’s 2009 Slam Championship featured many of the best UK slam poets, and there can now be no corner of the UK that is unaware of poetry slams. Promoters have fallen in love with slam poetry and so have the media. Slam seemed to pick up where performance poetry and spoken word left off:
Welcome to slam poetry. The words are expressed forcefully, reminiscent of the way heavy rap is delivered. The accompanying body motions speak of time spent on the street, of attitude and of a “listen to me, I have something to say” demand. (Mark Coyle, BBC Scotland)
[…] it has given spoken-word poetry polish and attitude. If rap has always had the attraction of being on the outside, slam, with its urban eloquence, has now emerged as rap’s bookish little brother. (New Statesman 2002)
In 2005, I presented the UK’s first televised national poetry slam on BBC3. One moment sticks in my mind: the moment the audience turned feral. I watched from the wings as they crucified a Northern Irish poet while she read her poem. They laughed and jeered throughout her reading and egged each other on until it was barely possible to hear. What fun they had shooting her down. As she finished her reading she stood catching her breath on stage as the four judges raised their score cards. There is no way they could not have been affected by the audience reaction. In the eyes of the audience she was a loser and in the eyes of the judges she was a loser, too. Yet from the point of view of poetry she won hands down. However, this was not an event for poets. This was not an event where the poets mattered. This was not an event for the poet nor the poem.
This is an excerpt from my article in the present Summer issue of Poetry Review 2010