“If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you’re not sure you can do it, say yes- then learn how to do it later.” – Richard Branson
On Saturday, 30th July, this quote whipped up on my newsfeed. Interesting idea I thought, and scrolled on. By Sunday afternoon I had secured a place in the first ever Belladrum Slam Dunk poetry competition. The culmination of my slam poetry knowledge up to that point was Button Poetry clips on YouTube, so experiencing my first live event as a performer, at a festival, with some of the most experienced performers going in the UK? That definitely falls into the ‘yes then learn’ category.
So here’s the logistical low-down. Slams usually run two qualifying rounds with set time limits- between two and three minutes is normal. The judges then add up the scores of each performer- generally a mix of the poet’s skills and audience enthusiasm- and a select number, based on the size of the slam, carry on to the final, which is another timed round.
As for the poetry itself- here’s what I learned in just a couple of hours:
It is its own art form.
New to the game and with a week to prepare, I fully acknowledge that my poems were page poems being recited, not spoken word poems being performed. There is a lot of debate over which is the more prestigious, the more honest of the two; in each case there are structures, forms and expectations that can be met, subverted or transcended to produce great poetry.
You can say a lot in a minute.
Slam poetry is not a lesson or a lecture- once you can be understood, there’s no speed limit. This is, in part, why slam poetry is so powerful- the intense brevity, the eloquent urgency.
Have fun with your subject matter.
Slam poetry is a wonderful medium for unusual and hilarious topics and, albeit in distinctly different ways, Mulbert and Sam Small treated the audience to some heartfelt laughs, while Kevin Gilday got top marks for audience participation (part of me hopes his poem on how to recognise a Tory is a starting point for a wildly successful picture book series for young children, entitled ‘Then you’re probably a…’) Boxes, beer, online dating, aviators, greyhounds- no topic is off-topic in this arena.
Energy and conviction are important.
Shaun Moore’s polemic against the idea of masculinity initially had the audience championing the hallmarks of manhood, only to become increasingly subdued as he revealed the crushing reality of this oppressive societal epidemic. His pitch and tone brokered no argument.
Images need to be immediate and striking.
The audience only hear your poem once- it needs to grab them. Drop evasive allusions and obscure references: the power of Leyla Coll’s declaration, “I am not ashamed” silenced the crowded tent; while Michelle Fisher’s repetition of “I was never a fan of the zoo” gradually transformed from childish statement to haunting refrain.
The compare is as much a part of the show as the poets.
Milton Balgonie, performance poet and musician, kept the engery going with several ‘off the cuff’ performances of his own, much to the delight of everyone, with his only verbal stumble being the conundrum of pronouncing my name in the early stages.
And what of Hamish MacDonald, first and current Scots Scriever (also the event organiser and fellow competitor…busy man), who delivered a rip-roaring, energetic, vivid, and hilarious narrative in vibrant Scots? He emerged victorious, gaining the opportunity to compete in the Nationals in February next year.
So what makes slam poetry so attractive to potential performers? Though gathering momentum at a terrific pace, its grass-roots origins mean that events give novices like myself stage-time alongside professionals flexing their proverbial verbals, which inevitably creates a varied and stimulating line-up. At a time when more and more of our entertainment is ordered, recorded, stored, repeatable, and deletable, an evening of live entertainment is a real novelty- and with no one look, sound, or style- you can’t predict who will be there on the night, what they will sound like, what they will say- every show is a one-off, every performance original.
Slam poetry is here to stay. The variety, the speed and the verbal dexterity of the others on stage kept the eclectic audience crowded onto their couches and into the aisles throughout the event. So let’s hope the folk at Belladrum make Slam Dunk an annual event- though they may well need to up the size of the marquee. As succinctly summed up by Hamish, “The Verb Garden venue has been running spoken word events since the early days of Tartan Heart. It has had book readings, poetry, comedy, political debates, plays, talks, discussions as well as music and song… so seems the perfect home for slam poetry.”