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Sunday, 14 December 2014

Part 2/2: How to win an international slam and have a bit of a complex

(links/pics to follow)

Reading my post last Monday, you might think "he doth protest too much". I say my slam win was the "icing on the cake" and wasn't the most important thing about my Rio trip, then I go into more detail and post a picture of me holding said icing, grinning from ear to ear.

1: Not embellishing.
The thing is… most people who regularly take part in, or even attend, slams knows that they have very little to do with who's the best poet in the world or even, let's be honest, the best poet in the competition. I'm certainly not the best poet in the UK, nor the best performer (but I'm working on upping my game, so watch this space!) so the title 'Poetry Slam Champion' can sound a bit grand for what it actually is.

Winning a slam usually means, at one given point, a poetry performance has managed to capture the attention of an audience/ judging panel. It could be a poem written years ago that's done the rounds several times; it could be something written on a scrap of paper on the bus journey to the slam (although not in this case, as we had to email 6 poems in advance, to be translated and inputted into the computer for surtitling) Often, the poet nearest the end wins (and I've written about "score creep" before), especially if they're able to "catch the vibe" of the audience.

Each country is different: my experience of American slams is that louder, tougher poems about important issues do well; my experience of the London slam scene is that political satire, self-deprecating humour - and sometimes hard-hitting (but not too loud!) poems do well. There are regional patterns in cadence, in rhythm and in body movement too. From what I gather, the Dutch and the Swiss nearly always read from the page and use little body movement; irony works well. In any case, there isn't a set standard - either nationally or internationally - and there isn't meant to be. The whole reason slams were created was to shake up the poetry open mic scene. Now it's all about the exchange of ideas and rhymes. Those in the slam scene know all this - and this knowledge, generally, helps keep the scene convivial.

2: Personal Context
I think, after Rio, I experienced the feeling I had when I won the Farrago UK slam championship, almost exactly five years ago to the day. Hardly anyone had even heard of me… I had 25 friends on Myspace (bonus points if you remember how popular Myspace was; double that bonus if you still have an account) and I was expected to go and represent the country in a World Cup slam the following June! I knew performers who, for one reason or another, refused to go to Farrago slams; I also had some knowing comments from other poets. Standing next to David Jay at another poetry event, someone greeted me by my name. David Jay then turned to me. "Ah, you're the Keith Jarrett I've heard about!" There I was, next to an incredible performer who had spent years honing his style; any pride I'd had in my new title disappeared pretty quickly!

That win did take me to Paris; subsequently, I got to know some Polish poets and ended up in Warsaw for a festival. And then I kept going… It encouraged me to write more and start taking spoken word seriously. I doubt I'd still be performing if it weren't for the boost of winning slams. Slams were what brought me to the London poetry scene in the first place. You get to hear a variety of voices and be one of those voices in any given night. Anyone who absolutely decries their merit without having been to at least half a dozen is, frankly, disingenuous. (And those who have sometimes have ulterior motives)

I get that some poets can feel intimidated by slams. The name conjures up rap battles and wrestling contests, the epitome of macho culture you wouldn't normally ascribe to poetry (although it's useful when you're trying to sell the idea of writing poetry to stereotypical teenage boys). And, yes, in more than a few instances, the influence of hip-hop can be seen in slam delivery.

I deeply respect Kei Miller's readiness to admit being "ashamed of being ashamed" at having won slams. As the Guardian - and some of Kei's essays (particularly on dub poetry) - suggest, conflict does exist between 'respectable' poetry and 'establishment' literature. That's all fine. Without repeating many of my past posts, I know slams can be problematic. I know they can be unfair. And then so too can other poetry worlds.

3: The Great white/male divide
Back to Rio, and the Swiss poet Hazel Brugger, takes to the stage again after receiving a low score (the judges are averaging about 9.4 for everything! And Hazel's last score average was about 8… out of 10). She'd read the last one from the page; it was short and quiet and reading the surtitles required a lot of concentration from the audience considering there were three languages up on the screen. The next piece she delivers has a great energy to it and is, frankly, hilarious, with a very serious point about feminism sitting prominently behind it. She is describing what she would do with her newly-acquired penis. The audience is in uproar. Some of us - including me - are following the English above her head; the majority are manoeuvring their bodies to follow the Portuguese words disappearing behind her neck while laughing and applauding.
(As an aside, Hazel is the woman who I met a couple of days before at a planned trip for the slammers on a rooftop bar in a favela overlooking the city. She introduced a group of us to the new dance craze she is trying to introduce to the world: "the snail, who is having her eyes touched." Picture five or six poets on a roof terrace, trying not to choke on caipirinhas while mimicking the dance and laughing our guts out… )
This time, all five judges rewarded her efforts with high 9s. But she was still eliminated... That's just how things go. In an ideal world, she - or one of the other female poets from Colombia, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Spain or USA - would have helped make it become not another all-male final. I've been to too many of those - and, perhaps that's another aside. Perhaps not... because where slams are overwhelmingly more racially representative than the poetry publishing scene (not difficult.... although the trend in publishing is changing, according to this post), the gender balance has some way to go in certain places.

It seems when one battle is won, another presents itself.

4: Old stuff
Back to my own heat and, as I went up to the stage, I struggled to decide what to deliver to the audience. At some point, I would have to perform "Tell Me What You Believe", which I'd sent to the translators early on - it's a poem with a simple theme and message, and a catchy refrain. But the twenty-three/four year old who wrote that poem has a few more layers on now. I simply wouldn't write that poem in the same way, if the idea were to have come to me this year. So, oddly, it feels like cheating, or plagiarising myself; 'current me' is not the author of that poem.

I did manage to include stuff that I've written months, not years ago… but my newest poem, written the day before I flew out, didn't make it onto that list. Instead, I made do with one I'd written in response to a pupil asking me to write something back in the summer. That, and a poem about hip-hop felt most real to me on stage.

The only way I could bring myself to perform 'Gay Poem' again was to practice one section of the poem in Portuguese. Earlier this year, I wrote that I was sick of the poem; it's close to complete retirement. I now only make a habit of performing it in spaces where I can give it something new... where I feel I can give it new meaning or relevance.

5: Competition
The finals are tenser than I thought they would be. My competitive spirit has all but disappeared, but it is coming back as the scores are coming in. Of course, I want to win, but...

1) I'm in Rio
2) it's a lovely day outside
3) I've just finished leading a really satisfying writing and performance workshop and I'm thinking about that
4) I want to say a proper goodbye to colleagues Chris Redmond and Hannah Walker before they run off to catch their plane home
5) I want to process everything after what has been a very busy week and I simultaneously want to make this slam last longer... after this, the whole festival will soon come to an end.

So yes, when the scores are read out and my ears ring with applause, of course I feel good, but I also now it signals the end of something.


NEXT UP: THE LAST (ever) UTTER! @ Amersham Arms in New Cross (where I'll be taking part in a final Slam, ironically enough)

Before I get steamy-eyed, here are some comments from Richard Tyrone Jones and here's the official blurb:

2012-14’s PAID GIG CONTEST WINNERS inc Keith Jarrett, laurie bolger, jamie d huxley & danni antagonist BATTLE each other & Prev. champs  ALI BRUMFITT & GEORGE CHOPPING
for £300 TOTAL PRIZE MONEY in the last London ‘Utter!’
7pm, £7.50 door/5adv, Amersham Arms, new cross SE14 6TY
 For the last 10 years now ‘Utter!’ spoken word has brought quality established spoken word acts like John Hegley, Zena Edwards, Tim Key, Kate Tempest and Baba Brinkman, and five-star solo shows to stages in London, Luton, Edinburgh, across the UK and even Canada. Supporting stars of tomorrow who actually have become stars, like Harry Baker, Keith Jarrett and Rob Auton, and with the ever-popular ‘Paid Gig contest,’ we have done hundreds of original, themed shows such as ‘Utter!’ Cats, Agony, Evolution and Funeral to thousands, established spoken word at Edinburgh’s Free Fringe – not to mention bringing the first ever spoken word sitcom, ‘Big Heart’, to Radio 4. Yeah, we’re not bad.
“prepare to be left speechless by the tongues of these talented bards” – **** ThreeWeeks.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Last word on Rio, part 1 (in pictures)

I promised to blog again yesterday but got carried away with a post about slams (see pic below)… If I get the huge chunk of text down to a easy blog-worthy size in the time I have free tomorrow morning, I'll put it up. If not, then I'll just post about next week's gig… the final UTTER! (There are still tickets left, so come along!

So, in ten pictures:

1. Here's the famous samba school in Rio, which Mangueira is famous for. 

2. (And this is what it's like inside… at the beginning of the night)

And, not much more than 100m away, workshops and slams were taking place...

3. Workshop led by Chris Redmond
4. Early slam heat

5. And this is what O Globo newspaper had to say about the poetry (if you can read Portuguese, have a look here …or Google Translate):

6. Among other things, a rap battle, after discussion panels and other activities...
 And then… a few mornings later….

7. going up into the Complex de Alemão favela in the new controversial cable cars
8. it was rainy

 9. Some of the poetry family… from Mexico, Argentina, Ivory Coast, Netherlands, (me), UK and Spain.

10. attention - this could be a poem… apparently

Monday, 8 December 2014

I'm back!!! And Never Mind the Fullstops...

FLUPP festival took me to Rio and I still haven't shaken Rio from my shorts.
(Cue surprised face)

Decompression time: approx 2 weeks… and counting. 

Highlights weren't necessarily the expected ones - you know, like winning the Rio International Poetry Slam. Ok, I won't deny that was a pretty big one: the competition was fierce; the poets were numerous; the event was live streamed on the internet and reported in national press so, yes, it did send my adrenaline pumping way up there. 

But, away from the fast and furious poetry battle, I managed to run workshops with simultaneous interpretation, perform with a samba band at a Rio version of Tongue Fu (btw, Tongue Fu is on again on Thursday, and is looking good… and tickets are selling fast #justsaying) and write on-the-spot poems for visitors with various requests, in an event similar to The Poetry Takeaway. I also got to see some of Mangueira and dance in the samba school, as well as shaking my stuff at a funk event in the now-famous City of God. Plus all that other stuff, like hanging around with various authors and slam poets from around the world… maybe you'll start to get the idea why winning the slam was really just the icing on the cake.

(Cue pic of me smiling with the trophy #evidence)

Happy people from the British Council!

I'll be posting a few more snippets from the trip, starting tomorrow. And I'll be updating other stuff on this blog, too. So stay tuned.


Speaking of tomorrow, it's time again for Never Mind the Fullstops, the poetry gameshow that's the talk of the East End. I'll be on #TeamVarjack, doing a bit of poetry larkin' on a winter's Tuesday evening. Plenty of laughs, and reinterpretations of pop classics are in store in this Xmas special. More details on the Hackney Picturehouse website. Come along!

Ok, signing out till tomorrow. (Cue peace sign)