@ The Rada Foyer Bar
– reviewed by Issy McKenzie –
This thing called ‘Slam’
When Sabotage asked me if I’d like to review a poetry slam, I had some reservations. My taste in literature runs out at around 1918, so I only had the vaguest idea what slam poetry was.
I had images of being put on the spot by people who knew ten times more about the subject than I did, or being exposed as a fraud and frogmarched out of the RADA foyer bar by beret-wearing bouncers who understood postmodernism. I even took notes on a few articles about performance poetry, presumably in case there was some sort of test.
When I reached the venue, though, I was very quickly put at my ease. People were friendly (even before I mentioned I was here as a reviewer) and more than happy to explain how things worked. There was definitely a real sense of community here; one that seemed happy to welcome newcomers into the fold.
Overview and a loving tribute
The first half of the show started with a tribute to Fran Landesman, nominated posthumously for Best Overall Performance/Reading, and I would encourage readers to look up the work of this highly talented lyricist. A smooth and uplifting performance from Sarah Moore, with Miles Davis Landesman accompanying.
Throughout the awards, which had been decided by online ballot, we were also treated to a number of non-competitive performances by nominees and winners. Highlights included Nia Barge‘s highly charismatic deconstruction of the beauty myth, and Kemi Taiwo‘s flawless verbal barrage of anti-war protest, but these were by far not the only strong performances of the evening. I only wish I had the time and space to talk about them all.
- Best Performance by a UK Poet: Mark Niel from Milton Keynes, who encouraged the audience to “live every day like you just had your first kiss”, a polished performance showing a great deal of vocal versatility.
- Best Performance by a performer working in English and another language: Susana Medina, with translator Rosie Marteau.
- Best Performance by a London Poet: Keith Jay Jarrett.
- Best SLAM! Performance: Amy Acre, delivered to rapturous applause. Her performance of Blackbird, a highly sensual poem of sexual fluidity and self-doubt, did a lot to explain why she seemed to be a crowd favourite.
- Best Farrago Debut Feature Performance: Amy McAllister. This Irish poet had a deceptively underwhelming stage presence; her visceral, earthy and fluent performance was one of the highlights of my evening.
- Best Performance by a performer using spoken word, comedy or music: Miles Davis Landesman & ensemble. This was followed by a performance by Miles accompanying singer Kath Best. An enjoyable tribute. I would love to hear Kath singing from a more soulful repertoire, as it is clear this would suit her voice immensely.
- Best Performance by an International poet: Penny Ashton (New Zealand), who sadly couldn’t be here tonight, due to the trains from New Zealand being delayed that evening.
- Best Overall Performance/Reading: Fran Landesman, awarded posthumously for a performance at Farrago only days after the death of her husband. One poet remarked that it was “the most courageous performance [they] had ever seen”.
The second half of the evening kicked off with performances by the hypnotic-voiced Abraham Gibson and UK Slam Champion Harry Baker.
If I still had lingering fears about slam being inaccessible to me, then Harry Baker‘s love poem about dinosaurs put them solidly to rest. With his strong geeky charisma and his talent for seamlessly combining rap influences with maths jokes, it is clear that this performer will go far.
Then came the competition.
It soon became clear that since I was neither performing in the slam, nor friends with anyone in the slam, nor “in a sordid sexual relationship with anyone in the slam” (I am not kidding, this was one of the criteria), I was one of the few people eligible to judge. I applaud this attempt at objectivity, although it was somewhat negated by the tendency of the audience to boo when lower-than-average scores were given. When this happens on X factor, I throw stuff at the screen, but I didn’t think that response would be appropriate here. Still, whilst perhaps meant in good humour, it is never conducive to a fair competition.
To the MC John Paul O’Neil‘s credit, the whole process was explained clearly, so even as a complete newcomer to slam I was able to pick it up very quickly. However, I did notice that the scores were perhaps more disparate than they should have been, which I learnt afterwards is a common phenomenon at slam events. This should probably have been explained to us on the night in order to avoid “score creep” (the process by which judges award higher scores as they have more fun and drinks – ed).
Highlights of the slam included Katrina Quinn, with a breathless and highly evocative performance that showed a lot of potential; Kathleen Stavert, whose fluent and conversational style made me want to hear more, and Lettie McKie, a first-time performer who delivered a highly promising ode to chefs, although her choice of subject matter didn’t grab me.
The winner, by .1 of a point, was Anthony Fairweather with an energetic and well-delivered image of the Olympics gone wrong. Anthony obviously has a great deal of potential as a comedy poet, and had the audience laughing a number of times. In retrospect, digs at “the health and safety brigade” are a little old even for this Victorian scholar, but that is my only real criticism. A well-deserved victory.
I have to confess, I expected to cringe a lot more than I did. My experiences of non-performance poetry groups and writers’ circles have occasionally been just short of traumatic. However, this was far from the case at Farrago. Although there were some weak performances, all of them had at least one positive aspect, and I even found myself awarding perfect tens to two separate poets.
There were fourteen participants in total, all of varying abilities. Although previous Sabotage reviews have criticised this aspect of Farrago slams, I think it has the advantage of making the slam seem accessible and welcoming to newcomers whilst still being entertaining for non-participants. Perhaps more experienced poets and performers might need to supplement their circuit with more selective events, but there is a definite sense of inclusion and community here, and I would definitely like to come back and attend in a non-reviewing capacity.
Conclusion: Any kind of intra-community “award ceremony” always risks being elitist, but the Farrago Zoo New Year Slam Awards successfully managed to avoid this. A highly enjoyable and accessible event. Clearly Farrago’s diversity is one of its strengths.