@ The Fountain Inn, Cambridge
– reviewed by Seán Hewitt –
When I arrive at a poetry slam, I usually anticipate having to execute a kind of soul-splitting which I’ve nearly perfected now. It goes like this: the outer-me sits listening to cringingly-confessional poetry read in a faux-‘working-class’ accent, as the inner-me writhes like a foetus in my torso trying to cover its ears and saying ‘NO MORE! PLEASE, NO MORE!’ Thankfully, I was spared (for the most part) from undergoing such a procedure at tonight’s Hammer & Tongue: Cambridge. This evening’s slam often relied on comedy, and tongue-in-cheek melancholy, as opposed to the more common ‘earnestness’ that I’ve come to expect from more amateur slams.
Let’s start at the start.
The upstairs room above The Fountain is bare and spiritless, and there’re very few people here when I arrive to give any sense of atmosphere. In fact, at one point, when the host, Fay Roberts, was doing some plugs for a show in another venue, someone shouted out, with a tone of desperation, ‘Will it be warmer there??’ Okay, so the room might not be great, I thought, but that’s not why I’m here.
The trademark Hammer & Tongue banner stands in the performance area, promising professionalism, and I get a nice ego-boost when I’m asked to be a judge for the slam (anyone who knows me knows judging is my forte), so things are looking up. The two supporting poets tonight are Anthea Lee (the first Cambridge slam finalist) and Jessie Durrant.
Anthea set the evening off on a shocking and bleak tone, giving a starkly emotional performance of a poem about sexual abuse; but she shrugged the seriousness off in favour of comedy in her next few pieces.
Then Jessie, a poet who almost dances out her own poems, came onstage. She tackled serious issues of social isolation head-on, a brave move which paid off in places, but at other times led her to saying things that were a little obvious. There was a continuous ‘slam-style’ repetitive intonation in her voice which quickly started to grate, but she managed to counterbalance it with a husky quality which made her voice seem on the edge of breaking. She put it down to a cold and, if that’s the case, then her illness was fortuitous, actually working to her advantage.
Then came the slam
And my time to shine like the star I am (an unexpected rhyme, I assure you). Actually, I was so afraid of seeming bitchy that I spent most of the judging time asking the old woman next to me what she thought, so I could offset the blame. The thing is, the people in this room (including the ‘judges’) are so friendly, so nice, that I don’t think that harsher (or what I call ‘realistic’, ahem) judgment would go down too well. In fact, at one point I gave a slammer 8.6/10 and was booed for my harshness. Seriously.
The slam only featured two poets (well, three if you count the guy that got up to ‘freestyle’ but then sat down without performing, blaming it, 8-Mile-style, on nerves), and the first was up and off so quickly that I didn’t catch her name, though she did stop long enough to confess herself to be a ‘poetry virgin’ before launching into an admirable performance for a first-timer.
Then came Anthony Fairweather, dressed like a modern-day Wyndham Lewis, who gave an easy but humorous poem about the impending and inevitable disaster of the London Olympics.
Overall, the slam was okay. Nothing to write home about.
Anna (tonight’s guest feature) shone out like a beacon at the end of a night that had balanced out at palatable mediocrity. Her poetry is well-considered, genuinely hilarious, and always leaves room for poignancy. We get a real sense of who she is from her poems, but that doesn’t mean that they’re all about her. She takes us on a whistle stop tour through births, break-ups and sex, but none of it was cringy.
When I go to a poetry slam, I like to keep myself a little tally of ‘onstage orgasms’ (where, unsurprisingly, the poet pants their way through a poem about sexual climax), but there were only two this evening (yes, poetry-slam virgins, I said only two) and neither came from Anna, who managed to get across all the tingling sexual desire of her situations without collapsing into easy cliché.
Fay, the host, did a brilliant job of pulling together the pieces, but there was a little incoherency in the evening, and a wild variation in talent (always a risk in an open slam). But the crowd seemed to be enjoying it, and the barman especially seemed to have had his eyes opened to the world of performance poetry. But Anna’s superb performance really highlighted that there was something missing in parts of the evening; and that was a lack of wit, a lack of real poetic invention, and so a lack of real inspiration.