– reviewed by Harry Giles –
A couple of days ago we reviewed the International Women’s Day event Poetry in the Parlour, now continuing this theme Harry Giles reviews another of the plethora of IWD events, this one in Edinburgh – ed
Poetry slam can be difficult, chaotic, oppressive, liberatory, or many other things besides – but at its best it’s a beautiful expression of poetic community. At its best, slam stops being about competition and starts being a celebration of poetry’s diversity and of our direct and passionate relationship to an audience.
Edinburgh’s International Women’s Day All-Female Slam, organised by local poet Claire Askew, set out to redress the male bias often prevalent in Scotland’s slam scene (a bias both in numbers competing and in those winning) by showcasing some of the most talented and ambitious of our female poetry talent. The make-up of the slam was also aiming to break down some of the perceived barriers between page and stage, welcoming poets more comfortable on the page into the performance arena.
This deliberate mix led to one of the most surprising and delightful slams I’ve ever attended. Though I attend and compete in slams regularly, I often find myself twitching impatiently through tired forms and heard-it-before comic turns – but every performer at the women’s slam brought something fresh and new to the stage. The audience was packed into the Banshee Labyrinth, filling every available corner, but host Claire Askew’s welcoming enthusiasm made sure everyone was happy. Although her nerves were sometimes clear, she used her passionate belief in the event and warm encouragement of every single poet to ensure that every participant has the best possible time.
In the first round, Gayle Smith and Rose Ritchie both gave us comic observations from the tradition of Scots ballad verse. Both performances were rough and unpolished, but had real heart and warmth. Hayley Shields and Theresa Munoz‘s poems, very much from the page-led tradition, had the complexity and richness of imagery we often miss in slam, though again more practised and paced performance might have helped the audience appreciate their depth. Elizabeth Rimmer and Katie Craig both had wit and charm, and performed with enough aplomb to carry the audience with them in true slam style. A surprise performance late in the night from Lara S Williams, although she arrived to late to compete, treated us to a romp through the difficulties of trans-national identity – something that certainly spoke to a diverse audience in a country like Scotland.
Amongst the stand-out performances in the first half, qualifying for the second, Katherine McMahon startled thhe audience with real joy in her delicate but celebratory performances of “Shine” and “Forest”, which drew on the American declamatory slam style as well as a more English simplicity. I’d like to see more texture in her delivery, to help navigate her often quick and surprising poetic moves – she feels like a performer still discovering the power of her rage. Camilla Chen‘s tight, sparse verse journeyed through both snap puns (“Camilla Chen is a vegetable”) and moments of astonishing grace and insight (“Tell me the sea”). All I could wish for here is more time to enjoy the full range of what she’s reading. Tracey S Rosenberg treated us to a dry transatlantic wit with both “Genderclusterfuck” and “So where are you from?” – she found a raconteurish style that kept well away from the cynical comedy prevalent in slams through its audience-focussed warmth, while still revelling in wordplay and cynicism. Sally Evans – the editor of the venerable Poetry Scotland, who it was thus a real delight to find at a slam – gave us poems so rich in meaning and direct intention, so pleasingly funny, that her inexperience with a microphone barely mattered at all.
Tracey and Camilla both qualified for the final, and both again changed pace to perform some of the most lyrically beautiful moments of the evening. Tracey’s “Miracle”, which she revealed to be a wedding poem, was an extraordinary expression of love, while Camilla’s “France, Spring 2011 (as soundtracked by Badly Drawn Boy)” evoked waves of place, experience, and feeling with sharp, quiet stanzas. Both poets seemed slightly fazed by finding themselves in the slam final – or perhaps it was simply tiredness from the many highs of the evening. Nevertheless, it was a real pleasure to hear these last performances.
The star of the night, though, and its eventual winner, was Rachel McCrum, whose frank and resounding poems captivated the audience every time. “Are the Kids Alright?” reflected on urban unrest and violence with an enquiring and passionate concern, while “Last Night Ashore” delivered timely reflections on masculinity and poetry. Her finest turn was “Broad”, for me the highlight of the night, which moving journey through the working female bodies of the poet and her mother. This performance, in the first round, held every breath in the room: a poet talking simply, directly and beautifully about her own experience of her body while she stands just a few feet away from you is just the kind of extraordinary magic that slam at its best can work.
Alongside these great female talents, Claire had invited a number of local male performers (including myself – see the disclosure below) to be sacrifical poets, or warm-up acts, before each round. The male performers took this opportunity to express their solidarity, and both performed with great aplomb. Matt McDonald‘s devastating poem on male shame, “Open Letter to a Rapist”, was delivered with an unrushed quiet sincerity and written with honesty and, astonishingly, tenderness: it was a highlight of the evening for many.
Colin McGuire‘s exploration of Glasgow’s queer masculine identity, “Filthy Man” brought the house down multiple times per minute – but had real depth too. The decision to include male performers was important to the integrity of he slam – it demonstrated quite clearly that this was about celebrating diversity rather than separating female poets somehow, and allowed men to vocally express their support for the slam
Colin’s set saw an extraordinary expression of just how strong the sense of solidarity and community in the venue was. Earlier in the evening, Rose Ritchie had been forced to leave the stage when, as has happened to so many slam poets, nerves claimed her memory of her poem: Colin used his own stage time to welcome her back to the stage to perform the poem she had left unfinished, which she did brilliantly.
It’s hard to say whether this slam was so exciting just because it was an all-female slam. Certainly, a sense of purpose and solidarity united the audience behind every performer, and gave each performer a definite support and welcome to play to. Certainly, a slam setting out to improve diversity will always have a better chance of surprising us with something fresh. But in the end, the success is down to something much more basic: great performers, speaking directly to the audience with skill, style and originality. That’s something that every slam needs. I hope the legacy of the first all-women’s slam is that we see it more.