Slamming Across the Divide
A big thank you to Claire Askew for organising Wednesday night’s this collection friendly slam and running it so smoothly. I had a really good evening, even though I was knocked out in the first round. Yes, I was a bit disappointed to fall at the first hurdle — especially because I felt I read well and the poems I chose were the equal of any others in that round — but you can’t argue with the arithmetic.
Maybe I didn’t move around enough or was too serious to gain enough ground in the early scoring, but I was never going to choose funny over serious now, was I? I did consider reading “Tae a Lousy Piper”, which I’ve no doubt would have gone down well, but I wanted from the off to present something that reflected the core of who I am as a poet.
For me, the stand-out poems of the evening were Colin McGuire’s “Wrap the children in white”, Mairi Campbell-Jack’s “The Book of Antonyms” and Stephen Welsh‘s newspaper poem in the last round. Colin’s poem set me in mind of some of Neruda’s work, with its combination of surreal imagination, incantatory impetus and political edge. Mairi’s poem seemed to me to mark a significant and exciting step forward in her writing, and I was really impressed with how well she read. Stephen had cut up a Sunday Herald report of the weekend’s protests in London and blanked out certain portions, creating a beautiful, strange, quirky, lyrical, powerful poem — perhaps not so much found poetry as released.
Hearing those poems alone would have made it a worthwhile evening, but there were others. I particularly enjoyed “Scotland as an Xbox Game” by Andrew C Ferguson — just the sort of witty, imaginative examination of the hame nation that appeals to me. Dave Coates also read good work but unfortunately joined me in the junkyard after the first round; that’s just the risk you run at these things. And I liked the sci-fi poem that Russell Jones read in the second round.
A word on the scoring system: one of Claire’s innovations was to have the poets score one another on content, delivery and overall feeling, with 10 points available for each criterion. In many ways, I think this was a good approach. The main problem was that, with 16 people in the first round each reading only 2.5 mins and very little time left between each, you were forced to make a fairly snap judgment. That may be fine if you’re used to slams — at some events, the audience does the scoring — but I’m not, so it took me a little while to get into this rating business. If we do it again, I’m sure I’ll be more comfortable.
Another difficulty was this: how do you score fairly across different aesthetics? Part of Claire’s aim was to bring together page poets, to use her term, and performance poets. She achieved that as far as the line-up went, but I couldn’t help feeling that there was quite a clear aesthetic divide between the two groups and that we page poets were somehow at a slight disadvantage in the slam setting regardless of how Claire had set it up. I can’t quite identify why that was, because it’s not as if the overall atmosphere was actually hostile towards the more lyric approach. Perhaps it could be because we lyric poets aren’t, in general, quite so used to scoring.
Also, the line-up was pretty evenly balanced, but — and I’m not sure — maybe there was a slight bias towards performance poets in the numbers. If that last comment is correct, then the fact that lyric poets tend strongly towards the serious sets us at an automatic disadvantage, though it shouldn’t. Then again, how on earth could anyone ensure that the balance didn’t favour one strand over the other?
Of course, the divide is never entirely clear-cut: there were page poets whose performance skills were particularly strong — Mairi C-J and Colin McGuire, for instance — and Stephen Welsh declared himself a performance poet, although his newspaper poems rang with a lyric impulse. Nor are the performance poets all of one style and approach by any means.
That’s all for now. I might post a few more reflections later.