Review: Wantage Poetry Slam – Wantage Betjeman Poetry Festival 28/10/12

– reviewed by James Webster and special guest reviewer Lucy Ayrton

@ Shush

The Event

Last Sunday, I attended the Wantage Slam was part of the wider Wantage (not just) Betjeman Poetry Festival, which featured a slew of interesting readings, performances and workshops (often Betjeman themed due to his long association with Wantage).

The Slam billed itself as ‘a fast and furious, X Factor- style, spoken word stand-off ‘ and for the most part lived up to that description admirably. Featuring 12 different poets, with a variety of different lyrical styles, we were served up some excellent rapid-fire rhyme and thoughtful storytelling as the poets battled it out for first place.

The Slam Style

Splitting the 12 performers into four heats of three (brackets selected randomly from a hat), with the winners going on to the final round, poets were judged on three categories: quality of writing, quality of performance, and audience reaction. It was my first experience of the ‘bracketed’ slam system, and I had to say I enjoyed it, and while scoring by three distinct categories is not always the most popular of judging styles, it does ensure poets are encouraged to give rounded performances.

Where it fell down is that, while billed as ‘X Factor-style’, it actually wasn’t enough like X-Factor … which is a statement I should probably qualify as soon as possible. Allow me to rephrase: where the show fell down, for me, was that while judging on the three different categories is not such a problem, the lack of transparency in scoring is. I found myself really wanting to know the breakdown in scores if only so I knew which judge to cheer/boo when I agreed/disagreed with a score. Plus, it’d be nice for the poets to know where their performance has potential room for improvement.

The Poets

Heat 1: Lucy Ayrton, James Dolton and Graham Eccles

Lucy Ayrton: a Sabotage favourite (we gave her Edinburgh show 5 stars twice), Lucy performed ‘Little China Figures’, a brittle and adorable piece, buoyed by waves of smooth rhyme, the poem told a powerfully realised and bittersweet story. But it suffered slightly from an unusually stilted performance. 17

James Dolton: his poem ‘Reading Too Fast’ was cleverly self-referential to his writing and delivery, with excellent use of performance and slick cadences. It did tend to repeat itself, which may have been the point, but made it somewhat dull towards the end. 24

Graham Eccles: also performed a piece on writing poetry, which had some pretty good gags (especially a cat setting his poem on fire) and amusingly clunky rhyme, but didn’t come to a head nearly soon enough. 20

Heat 2 (points not announced): Kieran King, Nick Short and Brenda Read Brown

Kieran King: performed two pieces, the first ‘Whatever Happened to the Heroes’ had quick-fire delivery and a relatable subject (all the heroes have sold out, let us down or died), but seemed simplistic and perhaps undercut itself (saying ‘I can think for myself’ while bemoaning the dearth of heroes to look up to). His poem on sticking out at metal gigs was a strong, rat-a-tat, one-note joke on metal being in your heart, not your clothes. 2nd

Nick Short: announcing his poem as ‘for anyone who works in an office’, he had decent timing, but it was ultimately comic grumpiness with little real insight and a hint of sexism (deriding colleagues for being excited about their children with a ‘congratulations, you spread your legs’ comment). 3rd

Brenda Read Brown: was ridiculously likeable. Her poem on creating a new ‘old-age’ political party was full of wit and wordplay (‘kids drunk on WKD-40’ and the idea of a ‘drive-by grumbling’) and just about transgressed into being genuinely political. The litany of fears and loss that it built to was also pretty powerful. 1st

Heat 3: Helen Harvey, Joel Denno and Tina Sederholm

Helen Harvey: the third poet to deliver a meta-writing poem, her personification of poetry was reasonably original, with some vivid imagery (‘I carved quills from my fingernails’) in her search for a muse. But some of her delivery was disjointed and her performance fell a bit flat.

Joel Denno: taking the form of a homework assignment for school-children, this poem was disjointed, with various sections that didn’t form a coherent whole, leaving a kind of bifurcated and pointless poem (with bonus gothic gore that, while decent, didn’t lend any more of a point). 22

Tina Sederholm: performed her piece on cupcakes (from her show Evie and the Perfect Cupcake, rated 4 stars by Sabotage) in all its voyeuristic and frosted glory. Her repeated cries of ‘lick me’ build very amusingly, while her sugar-sweet language of hunger and hollow fulfilment pulled the audience in admirably. 22

Heat 4: James Webster, Dan Holloway and Guy Williams.

(Special Guest Reviewer Lucy Ayrton taking over here, so Webster doesn’t have to review himself)

James Webster: came to the stage after a truly ridiculous intro, and his piece ‘MCWASPSM’ had a good tempo and rhythm and his flawed take on socialism was a great section. The piece had a coherent structure and clarity and the line ‘I don’t mean to complain, I don’t mean anything at all’ was a brilliant line that probably would have been a better ending than the unnecessary verses that followed. 22

(Thanks, Lucy, I’ll tag you out now)

Dan Holloway: Dan’s poem ‘Making Fairytales’ contained a plethora of verdant and gorgeous language (‘folded poems into paper planes’), full of magical and dirty imagery, with a thoughtful and assured delivery that was a breath of fresh air. 21

Guy Williams: of his two pieces the better was a dull poem on how he solved problems DIY style by chopping them in half. The worse was a creepy piece best summed up as ‘breasts are nice to look at, which isn’t really sexism is it? Oh, it is? Well don’t worry I’ve checked my sexism at the door after my daughter started growing boobs’. I’m sure it was intended as satire, which it kind of worked as, but it needed more thought and self-awareness to work.

Final: James Webster, James Dolton, Brenda Read Brown, Joel Denno and Tina Sederholm.

(I once again pass over to Lucy Ayrton for reviewing duties, Lucy?)

James Webster’s ‘What Are You Thinking’ had a strong voice, good opening and some amusing back and forth between its different voices. The shift into more resonant imagery was satisfying and Webster nimbly flitted between funny and touching lines, with a lovely lyrical voice. I’ve heard this poem before and it’s improved: very good.

(Thanks again, Lucy, your cheque’s in the post)

James Dolton’s poem was pleasantly abstract, seeming to use different strands/images to chart the course of a life/forming of a mind. The excellent use of on and off mic sections worked well to draw the audience in and delineate different ideas, mixing some cool word-association and plays with meaning together into an effective performance.

Brenda Read Brown cast herself as an appropriately fallible/human God in ‘In the Beginning’, a rollicking ride through Her attempts at creating life, going through some amusing missteps before finally creating evolution and leaving them to it. Funny, clever, and in the end a moving elegy to the excellence that is a God-like humanity.

Joel Denno continued his theme of ‘poems that seem entirely pointless’ with a piece about orchards going on strike. Not weird enough to work as surrealism, yet not biting enough to work as satire or allegory, I was left admiring some of his technique, but wondering ‘why’.

Tina Sederholm’s ‘Love Tokens’ is a heartfelt and humorous piece, with a consummate performance. Reimagining her husband’s messes as ‘love tokens, signs of your devotion’, she utilises a lovely refrain to subtly build a layered performance where her metaphor defeats her own frustrations. Simply excellent.

The Winners and Prizes

  1. Brenda Read Brown – £100 and slots at future festivals
  2. James Dolton – £70
  3. Tina Sederholm – £30
  4. Joel Denno – Wine
  5. James Webster – comedy tickets


A fun slam, which was well hosted by Anna Saunders with energy and good humour (poets who went overtime were threatened with nebulous punishments to be meted out in the back room). As with all slams there were some mixed performances, but the majority was entertaining, with special praise going to the top three of Tina, Dolton and Brenda who all wowed me.