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?
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7 thoughts on “Cheltenham All-Stars & “Slapathy”

  1. Hey Ben,

    You make a lot of very valid points. I was in the qualifier at Cheltenham too – just missing out on a place in the final by rather uncompetitively doing a controversial piece about child abuse. (To be fair, I pretty much knew I had little chance of getting through a random judging panel with that particular subject, regardless of lashings of integrity and passion and a little bleak humour. I was amazed to do so well as I did.)

    I agree the unqualified judging is a big problem, as is the reliance on audience response. All too frequently this is taken to mean laughing and whooping, whereas I went out to root the audience to their seats for 3 minutes. I guess the worst part of this – for you, me, Thommie and others – is that we’d all rehearsed 3 or 4 excellent and varied pieces of work, most of which we never had the chance to air. Yes, it’s great that slams get bums on seats for poetry, and Marcus and Sara-Jane are fantastic advocates and supporters… but I do agree with you that the benefits are equivocal. Team slams sound like fun. Must try to get involved in one!

    Meanwhile, for the second year running, the winner of the “UK All Stars” Slam at Cheltenham just happened to be resident in Cheltenham. What are the odds?

    Hope to catch you again sometime. Enjoyed your work.

    Tim

    PS: Also agree, Thommie’s poem Body is astoundingly good.

  2. Ben, your blog makes for interesting reading, but I’m surprised that you choose to criticise other poets in such pointed terms.

    You are perfectly entitled to your opinion, but it seems an odd fight to pick. It smacks of ‘poetry snobbery’. Slams are the gateway into poetry for many people (both the audience and the poets) and anything that makes people re-connect with the love of words can only be a good thing. If someone attends a Slam and find that they like the big, populist riffs of the more obvious and comic stuff, it may encourage them to explore the poetry equivalents of prog, jazz, electronica or shoegaze. Everyone benefits!

    Sure, some Slam poems (including some of mine) take broad swipes at populist targets in a light-hearted way, but it is a mistake to assume that the poet is necessarily ill-informed. A smart poet may be taking an intentionally dumb swipe. The swipe may also appear dumb on the surface, but may actually prove to be a smart swipe as the poem reveals itself to the attentive listener.

    Equally, a poem about (say) dropping an F-bomb could be perceived by someone as the hamfisted crowbarring of hackneyed homophones into a mean-spirited sneer of juvenilia and titillation, whereas someone else might perceive it as clever, witty and sharply-observed. And both would be correct: their own perceptions are their own realities. (I quite liked it, by the way.)

    Regarding the judging of Slams, I’d say this: if a poet performs a Slam poem that takes a pop at MPs, bankers or chavs, then he/she probably won’t get a good score if one of the judges happens to be an MP, a banker or a chav (or holds a contrary opinion to that of the Slam poet). The Slam poet probably doesn’t care – again, he/she wants to deliver the poem and forge a connection with the section of the audience that does enjoy their poem.

    Sometimes the judges will like a poet’s work, sometimes they won’t. We will probably agree that if the same poets did the same poems to the same audience in the same order, different judges would produce a different result. That’s the randomness and fickleness of Slams, and part of their appeal perhaps even to the poets (“Wow, tonight might be my lucky night, even though most of the time another poet might beat me”).

    That said, I thought that the judging in both the qualifier and the main event was pretty reasonable. I think that most poets who were at both events would agree with the majority of the judges’ decisions for both the qualifiers and the heat winners. Like you, I think that Thommie was one of those who was perhaps harshly-appraised by the judges – and I said so to her during the interval. However, I’d never criticise the judges for their subjectively-held opinions, and neither would I denigrate the poet whom the judges chose as the winner of Thommie’s heat.

    If Slams went down the route of only appointing poetry connoisseurs as judges, what would probably happen is that Slam poets would perform stuff that they thought the judges would like (it’s a competition, after all) – which would result in a much more homogeneous and almost certainly duller night out for audiences and poets alike. The judges would be the only ones whose lot was improved!

    I don’t understand your antipathy towards end-stopped rhyme. Arguably, it is much lazier to dispense with rhyme and form entirely. The only thing that makes a blank verse-type composition ‘a poem’ (as distinct from some prose, or a story) is the author’s assertion that it is, indeed, ‘a poem’.

    With poems that have distinct rhythm, rhyme and metre, the audience can easily grasp that poem-ness of it. Well-written poems that rhyme properly, conform to a tight metrical structure and yet seem effortless are rather difficult to pull off. They require discipline and invention, as well as a broad vocabulary. My stuff rhymes properly and scans properly most of the time, and because I have a poetic licence and am not afraid to use it, I will occasionally take liberties!

    Rhyming also lends itself well to comic poetry of course, which as you rightly observe tends to be more popular with Slam audiences and/or judges. You can serve up a fat, juicy, well-telegraphed punchline, or you can surprise and delight them with an unusual rhyming twist.

    Besides all of that, some of this country’s most celebrated poets (Kipling, Betjeman, Larkin, Owen, and Wordsworth to name but a few) wrote large parts of their canon in end-stopped rhyme!

    Tim King – coincidence, nothing more. I neither entered nor attended the 2011 UK Allstars Slam so cannot comment on last year, but this year neither the audience nor the judges were aware of the poets’ home towns until the final itself (containing 3 poets). Given that the winning poet’s final poem scored over 20 points more than the other two finalists each managed to score, I doubt that the margin of victory can be attributed to home advantage…

    Dan Duke, 2012 UK Allstars Poetry Slam Champion

  3. A useful debate.

    I have seen more than my fair share of Slams and have reviewed many as a neutral observer, as well as having won a few, and lost a lot. Dan Duke makes his points well.

    The poor old Slam seems burdened with impossible aspirations by some. My view is that it is an entertainment evening. Bizarre judging, random juxtapositioning of performances, shameless appeals to populism, and disputed judgement are all part of the mix. Anyone who has submitted work for publication will know that quixotic decisions are not unique to judges unschooled in poetic study.

    Comic verse has its detractors. Yet the test is simple. Did it entertain on the night and make most people laugh? That is no easy task. I am always wary of blackguarding performers with accusations of plagiarism and reheated form. Originality is in as short supply as good performance.

    I do not accept that serious poetry, or “issue” poetry cannot do well. I have witnessed Fatima Al Matar hush a room into revered silence by her words, and Catherine Brogan prick and stir with her polemic. It is difficult- but who said poetry was easy?

    Counter-intuitively Slams can offer a platform and audience that conventional events don’t. I performed at a Much Wenlock Slam that drew an audience more than twice the size of that for Carol Ann Duffy ( not because I was slamming, of course!). Those slammers reached many more ears than the Poet Laureate, and that offers opportunity. Amy Rainbow occasionally Slams with a poem condemning Date Rape, the message is far more important than a place in the next round. Brenda Read Brown sometimes wins Slams with her fine poem about prison suicide, and on other occasions does not, once again the message is not lost. In both cases those poems may resonate with a listener for far longer than they can remember who a Slam winner was.

    In conclusion, I believe that we would all be far happier with Slams if we enjoyed, and accepted, them for what they are, not for what they are not.

    Gary Longden

    Garyswordz- http://garylongden.wordpress.com/

    Behind the Arras-http://www.behindthearras.com/

  4. Thank you for your comments, gentlemen; Gary’s right, this is a really useful and interesting debate, and I’m grateful that you’ve taken the time to read the post and engage with it.

    There are a few things I’d like to say in light of your responses; some are to clarify my meaning, some are to whole-heartedly agree with you, and some, as I think is only healthy, are questions.

    Tim, I must admit that I do think Dan’s being from Cheltenham is a coincidence and had very little, if any, bearing on his victory. Naturally there will be more poets competing (particularly via the qualifiers) who are from the surrounding area, as it’s a long way for many to come without a guaranteed slot in the final proper. So in answer to your question: the odds are, yes, very slightly higher, but only due to geographical convenience!

    What won Dan the slam was the fact that he performed three poems that, on the whole, the audience and judges enjoyed. They resonated with the people in that room on that night, and that is no mean feat. (I particularly enjoyed the clever linguistic dexterity of the ‘Vole’ poem, Dan, I must say!) His first and third poems were on subjects that are almost inevitably going to elicit cheers from a British Literary Festival crowd in 2012, and so he chose his subject matter well. The distinction I’m keen to make is between content and form. It’s difficult to disagree with a statement as morally concrete as ‘rape is bad’ or ‘fiddling your parliamentary expenses is bad’, etc., but it doesn’t necessarily follow that all poems preaching such statements are good. (Any poem preaching anything will be, by definition, bad, if we’re to adhere to the famous show-don’t-tell adage.) Their subject matter may be commendable, but they may well still be bad poems. (Of course, it’s worth me saying at this juncture that, yes, you’re all obviously right in your assertions that art is entirely subjective, so what I dismiss as a ‘poor’ poem may very well be someone else’s favourite ever poem, but there are some characteristics that see poems become and remain more popular than others, not just in a slam, but over a longer period and to a wider public – as well as within academia too. There must be some way of putting works of art in a hierarchical system, otherwise we wouldn’t have the Man Booker Prize, or of teaching some reasonably universal traits of a ‘good’ poem, otherwise we wouldn’t have Creative Writing degrees.) If you think about the stories told in novels, they are never the same (you can identify ‘types’ of plot, but the specific details within the stories are always unique). A novel/work of art in general can be about anything (a man who’s abducted by a spaceship when Earth is destroyed in order for an inter-galactic highway to be built vs. 2 people waiting for someone, and talking) but what makes it good, and popular over time (I say over time to eliminate transient fads that lack literary merit like Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey, which almost certainly won’t be being read in 10 years’ time, never mind 100 years’!) is how it is rendered, not what it’s about. That’s not to say that anyone who reads and enjoys those books is inferior to someone who only reads the Orange Shortlist or listened to Mercury Prize-nominated musicians, for the record.

    Dan, you follow in fine footsteps by satirising in rhyming couplets (Pope, Swift, Dryden, etc.) and, as I mentioned above, you chose a target (I’m speaking mostly about poem #3 now) that may well deserve our scorn. However, unlike those aforementioned poets, I was personally disappointed that the poem lacked references to any individuals or specific incidents and instead attacked an entire group, some of whom (and I have to say I answered ‘yes’ to your opening final-round question about the honesty of MPs: call me naive and idealistic, but I genuinely believe that the majority of our MPs go into politics for the right reasons) probably don’t deserve to be slandered so unanimously. Do please correct me if I’m wrong – I’ve looked for the poem online in order to watch/read/hear it again but I can’t find it, so I have to rely on memory, and I may have simply been tired and forgotten its finer details.

    You might very validly say that I myself make sweeping generalisations about “upper-middle-class village poetry festival audience”s for comic effect. I totally appreciate that you may be much better informed than the MP-bashing poem suggests (I’d like to refer to it by its name, but I don’t know it – apologies) and have chosen to render it that way deliberately. I only made that point because, at the time, I felt as though you’d picked a populist, and a little tired, subject matter and discussed it only in vague abstractions. As you point out, I’m entitled to my opinion. as you are yours.

    I don’t have a personal preference for any particular form, or lack thereof, but instead for meaning, above all else. When this is aided by using or invoking the generic associations of rigorous metrical form then fantastic. When it is hindered, however, as is more often than not the case, then I find archaic structure trite and frustrating. I really resent the idea that “The only thing that makes a blank verse-type composition ‘a poem’ (as distinct from some prose, or a story) is the author’s assertion that it is, indeed, ‘a poem’.” Surely you can’t be serious? Even if you detest free-verse, good free-verse poems contain some unquestionable and inherent poetic features: similes/metaphors/allegory – like all good formal poems. As I said in the original post, genre isn’t discreet, so what one person might view as a poetic piece of flash fiction another might call a prose-poem. This was the only point in your comment that I strongly dispute, and I’d be doing myself a disservice not to raise it now. We are in an age that prioritises meaning, and, unfortunately for fans of rigorous form, prioritises more versatile structures, like free-verse. The most contemporary of the poets you mentioned died almost 30 years ago, but for the most part you refer to late C.19th/early C.20th poets (all of whom wrote in rhyming couplets at some point, yes, but they were rarely end-stopped, and they all, I believe, tended toward looser, freer styles towards the end of their careers/lives). Their age was saturated, as ours is also, with poets trying and failing to write well in a certain style. For every Dryden there were a thousand Shadwells, who only survive as literary jokes and targets of ridicule in the work of their more talented peers. No one age or style is better than another, and perhaps you and I simply differ on the free-verse vs. rigorous-form debate. Though I’d be interested to know whether you honestly think Paradise Lost is inferior to, say, the Faerie Queene, purely in a formal sense, because it is in blank verse?

    But this is by the by. The blog post did not set out to be a condemnation of slams (nor do I think it reads that way) but only an exploration of what could explain my slight lethargy with them at present, and the things I think could be reconsidered or improved. Perhaps that was arrogant of me. The concept has been around a lot longer than I’ve been alive, and it will undoubtedly have undergone many interrogations and revisions in its time. So, in hindsight, I think the post serves purely to outline the limitations of the concept, which we’ve all collectively and independently highlighted here. A better discussion of my opinion of slams probably happened on VoiceBox, a spoken-word radio show on BurnFM, on which I was a guest recently: http://soundcloud.com/voicebox-radio (this isn’t a plug; I genuinely think you might be interested in hearing the debate, which begins at 32:45 on the 23rd October edition).

    I’m not, as I made clear at the very start of the post, irredeemably bored of slams, I just often let my personal disappointment at not seeing more of the poets I liked manifest in a general dislike of the concept. They are fun, and I have, for the most part, had a very positive experience with slams (it is, after all, where I got my first gigs!), I simply feel more inclined to watch/perform at events where this is no arbitrary scoring system, which therefore has no effect on who reads what when.

    If you take only one thing away from this comment, I’d like it to be the assurance that I have nothing personally against any of you, and the post was simply the result of a desire to strive for higher artistic practice and of wanting to engage in healthy debate about a fringe art form that we all hope will continue to grow in popularity.

    Ben.

  5. Nice reply, Ben. It’s certainly been interesting and thought-provoking, and I wish you well in all your endeavours.

    Regarding the poem about MPs (“Do Not Feed The Animals”), I wrote it after being fortunate enough to support Attila The Stockbroker, and drawing inspiration from the vibrancy and ferocity of his style. Like my own stuff, Attila’s poetry would rarely score highly for technical merit, but I was impressed by his passion, the way he commanded the stage, and how well he engaged with the audience. Even more suprisingly, I felt that his overtly political stuff about Thatcher, Libya etc from 25 years ago still resonated today.

    When writing the poem I thought hard about making it more specific and pointing the finger more overtly at certain individuals (there *are* allusions to specific people and specific incidents in there), but I thought that the device of using ‘animal’ words as imagery and implicitly tarring all with the same brush would be more effective as a Slam poem and allow the audience to ‘get it’ more readily. Yes, populist definitely. Hence the questions in the introduction that ask “… if *most* of our MPs…”

    I agree that most MPs go into politics for the right reasons. I was in the same class at school (in fact I snogged her when I was 10) as someone who became a Labour Cabinet Minister (and has since left politics), and during my professional training I sat next to someone who is now a Conservative Minister in the current coalition Government. Both of these people I would say are honest and honourable people. I’ve met the current (Lib Dem) MP for Cheltenham too, and he strikes me as a good sort as well.

    But in the same way that a poem or comedy routine that slags off bankers or accountants or footballers can be funny, so (to some) is my poem about MPs. It’s quite dumb, intentionally so. Let’s blame Attila!

    On the free verse topic, it’s a tricky one for me, probably because my limitations as a poet mean that I find it easier to employ structure and discipline, which then helps me to write. I do write stuff in free verse occasionally – but it’s rarely, if ever, Slam material. My free verse stuff is dark and introspective, it might go down well at Dignitas.

    I agree with you that when a free verse composition contains metaphor, allegory, internal rhyme, similes etc it may tip it towards poem-ness, but the old traditionalist in me still questions why a composition with those linguistic devices isn’t just an interestingly-written piece of prose. It’s probably just a matter of labelling, in no way do I think non-rhyming poems aren’t poems – I was mostly playing devil’s advocate and taking the ‘extreme’ position in order to promulgate my argument.

    As another poet has said elsewhere when discussing your blog – there’s room aplenty for all of us!

    Cheers, Dan

  6. Pingback: VoiceBox Radio & Grizzly Pear « Ben Norris

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