Thursday, May 14, 2009

Slams, Audiences, And Numbers

Three readings in quick succession:

1. I took part in the voXboX ‘quiet slam’ – participants got marks taken off for ranting, shouting etc. In other words, not like an average slam at all. Each poet had two rounds to strut their stuff. My first round poem (from my book) totally bombed with the judges, but in the second round (two new poems) I did very well. I’m not sure what I think of slams. They’re OK in the performance circuit where they are part and parcel of that whole scene. But the idea of poets competing live for approval and popularity from audience or judges makes me a little uncomfortable.

It could be argued that this is no different from sending work to magazines or publishers and inviting them to judge it – those approved get in and the rest are locked out… But the public nature of performance and the real-time reaction of audience/judges might tend to encourage more of a desire in poets to do only the approved thing and tailor poems towards instant accessibility and immediate entertainment rather than subtle layering.

That said, I enjoyed the evening. voXboX is a lively event with a good atmosphere, and I thought that many of the poems were good. The winner after a third final round was the excellent Colin Donati – deservedly. He is one of the best poets around at the moment in this part of the world.

2. In a church hall situated in a fairly tough, very un-middle-class area of Edinburgh, Andy Philip and I read from our books and Alan Crocker played flamenco guitar. We had an audience of about 40, the vast majority of who had never been to a poetry reading before. Many confessed to me afterwards that they’d come not expecting to like it much, but had been genuinely surprised. It shows two things.

Firstly, that people often like poetry when they come across it, even if they think it’s going to be ‘beyond them.’ Poetry isn’t dead, it’s more a too-well-kept secret. We have to get it ‘out there’ because, when we do, new audiences emerge.

Secondly, you don’t need to dumb down poetry to attract an audience for it. You don’t need to serve up really simple poems for people to relate to them or otherwise engage with them. I’ve always felt that and I now have the proof. What Andy and I read could have fitted just as well had we been reading at the Scottish Poetry Library or any other literary event. This evening was a real success.

3. ‘Poetry at the…’ featured Robert Crawford, Gerry McGrath, JL Williams and Julia Rampen. They were all excellent. I did my MC thing. It was another varied but high quality evening. The crowd was much smaller than I had expected, a dip from previous months, and I don’t know how to explain that. I know that some people who habitually come were away, ill, or otherwise engaged, but that’s always the case with any event.

This does illustrate how precarious a live poetry series is. A small crowd for one evening is OK, but similar numbers over three months or so would be simply unsustainable (in a financial sense). Anyway, the audience seemed to enjoy the readings very much. The next date is Sunday 14th June with a cracking line-up: Katy Evans-Bush, Allan Crosbie, Andrew Philip and Ivy Alvarez. My only problem with this one is to decide on which order they should read. I’ll probably have to toss a coin or draw lots.


Frances said...

I've never taken part in a slam. It must be quite a scary situation. But I am very heartened by what you say about the audience having surprised themselves by enjoying it so much. This confirms my belief that people dismiss poetry as beyond them without really having looked at it since school days. A great post, as ever, Rob.

Background Artist said...

Shreveport, Louisiana poet Buddy Wakefield who was World Slam Champ for two years running in 2004 - 5, reckons slam is a gimmick, in the sense that it is a limited form, due to the three minute rule. But as a form to get hte kids interested in Poetry, it works very well.

Slam was invented by Chicago construction worker Marc Kelly Smith, (b. 1949) and began at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago in November 1984 and moved to its permanent Chicago home, the Green Mill Jazz Club in July 1986.

Marc Kelly Smith began writing poetry at 18, but was put off by the snoots who attend do's where: (as Dublin poet and playwright Fintan O'Higgans puts it in this Shit Creek Review piece: Poetry in Dublin:

"a polite gathering of poetry-lovers spend a pleasant hour trying not to cough too audibly on the dust that whispers from the reader’s mouth.""

Smith wanted to make Poetry inclusive, because as he said, for most people with a background like him and me, *the very word, Poetry, repels people*, and writing in Words in Your Face: A Guided Tour Through Twenty Years of the New York City Poetry Slam, author Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz describes the influential Smith:

"Extremely well-read and a disciplined, passionate writer, Smith did not think of poetry as something lofty, a refined ideal that people should strive to achieve. Rather, he believed that poetry should reflect the core of one's being, that it was a raw part of humanity, and that a poet had to be both fearless and dogged to tackle it properly. His dedication to this belief was so evident that when Smithsonian magazine covered the poetry slam phenomenon in their September 1992 issue, the reporter described Smith as "almost visionary on the need to rescue poetry from its lowly status in the nation’s cultural life."When i first arrived in Dublin armed with nought but a ticket to pretend from university, i fell into a weekly open mic, Write and Recite, (WaR)run by someone from the same camp as Smith, Gerry McNamara, a Dub with the same vision as Smith, and it drew an ecletic crowd, every Tuesday, Monday or Wednesday depending on the pub it ws held in.

Luckily, when i was at college, i developed a discipline of orally editing poems as they came out, using the college rehearsal rooms to nail and and memorise them as they came out. And i would only deliver from memory, setting a sort of bar for myself, my thinking being that it is not really that difficult to memorise a few minute poem and deliver it unaided by a script, especially if you claim any sort of seriousness in the art.

After all, the bards of yore had not only to memorise 350 tales over 12 years study, but a hole raft of lore and geneologies of 200 plus kings in chronological order and further, compose mentally before they committed their poems to manuscript.

There were some seriously talented poets at Write and Recite and week in week out, healthy competition between us developed, very much in the vein Heaney describes in the Group he was in, that there was a process of trumping and self-trumping going on, but in a way which raised everyone's game.

I remember i would go to the wine and cheese do's and it was a totally different crowd, and the two camps didn't really cross-over or mix. But as O'Higgins also points out, the difference between the two is one of atmosphere rather than quality, like trying to find plum raisons in a bowl of rabbit droppings in both camps.

The thing about learning in a slam-like environment where people can heckle, is you do not develop thinking you are coming out with the word of God, that Poetry is a holy roller gig, because people are too polite to say they are bored, and this is why the slam form is so popular, because it has that dose of popular reality, whereas the non-slam side goes more for respectful silence, and lets face it, a lot of the audience poets who will pretend and say nice things to your face, and then go bitch how crap they think you are on their blogs, not not naming names, sneering.
Which is great if you are a slammer as they are used to being told out straight and have got beyond taking it personal, and as it says in the wisdom text which the first year student recieved on walking through the door of the old bard schools, one of the four human joys for a poet is:

"Health untroubled in the abundence of goading one receives when taking up the prosperity of bardcraft."

Basically ignoring the unsupportive people who will have a problem with you just doing your own thing, and pull all sorts of strokes to muscle you out the frame, which in pre-web print-only days, was a doddle to effect. But not know.

In my own experience, i had a few do it to me, but as the wisdom text also staes, one of the four human Sorrows of a poet:

"Question: How many divisions of sorrow that turn the cauldrons of sages? Not hard; four. Longing, grief, the sorrows of jealousy and the discipline of pilgrimage to holy places. It is internally that these are borne although the cause is from outside."How we handle our Jealousy, can turn means the difference between chanelling it into healthy competition-with-self, so if we experience someone who sets a twang off, rather than waste your life hating htem and getting bitter, concentrate on your own gift. This is why a slam environment is ideal for learning in, because the jealousies can be outed, heckling, banter and eventually you get over and passed what others are doing, and see that the wine and cheese mob, often do not have this mechanism and everything ends up dreary and bitchy short one liners.

i know from personal experience, there are poets out there who will smile whilst behind the mask, their machevelian brains are plotting to shut yer gob, coz, well, they dunt like fickos gerrin above their station, innit?

This is Buddy Wakefield reciting Flock Printer at his peak, with the winning recital at the 2005 Slam Championships final in Worchester Massachusetts. Look and learn.


Rob said...

Des, I've no probloem with slams as such, particularly in the performance circuit (as I said in my post). Just not so sure a regular diet would be good for page poets.

As for Buddy Wakefield, someone should tell him that 'Howl' has already been written 50 years ago.

Anne said...

1 You are a brave man.

Re your point 2 - that's been my experience too, with J6. People enjoy it and they don't need poetry lite. (Though I can think of poems and poets that would put a newcomer off for life.) But how do you get them to come along in the first place? Was it the flamenco guitar that lured them in?

And re 3 - once you've got them to come along, how do you keep them coming?

Rob said...

Anne, it was a very relaxed slam, so I didn't need to be that brave!

I work in the area, so people came along out of curiosity. I tend to keep my work and poetry ruthlessly separate, but occasionally I allow it to overlap. I suspect if I hadn't known plenty of people in the area already, almost no one would have turned up.

I wish I knew how to keep people coming. I wish having a terrific programme and a good venue were enough.