– In which James Webster sums up Best Spoken Word Show, Regular Spoken Word Night, Spoken Word Performer, and One Off Event –
What an evening.
The Saboteur Awards really were the most wonderful time. It was lovely having so many amazing, creative people all in one room to celebrate the exciting achievements in indie literature over the last year. 12 awards, 12 trophies, 12 bottles of very nice champagne (we had the best prizes this year), two fascinating panels, one embarrassing gaffe, a hotly contested game of bingo, a few tears and more than a few drinks later, and the awards were over.
I joked on the evening that “we are all winners here, but some are more winsome than others” and, of course, I was lying. Everyone involved in the awards (those who could be there and those who couldn’t) is equally winsome and it was an incredible pleasure to be a part of bringing such an awesome crowd together.
Best Spoken Word Show
In a phenomenally exciting (and very closely fought) category, there was a brilliant mix of shows in the running. From Colin Davies and 2001: A Space Ode and Ditty‘s warmly nostalgic account of a life in geekdom that took people on “a witty and wonderful trip through sci-fi and comic fandom” and was also described as:
“Engaging, refreshing, touching. A revelation!”, “Colin is a fantastic writer and uses every word to great effect. Nothing is wasted.”, “For a show which is about sci-fi, it manages to include non-fans and not alienate them (pun not intended …. or should it have been?)” and “A brilliant hour of geekdom writ large. It’s so dense with pop cultural references that one wonders how he managed to fit any other words in.”
To Schlock! and Hannah Silva‘s multimedia smorgasbord of poetry, sound and British Sign language that took 50 Shades of Grey and “made a silk purse out of a pig’s ear” and brought it to life with “humour, honesty, laughter and tears”. Voters also said:
“Best thing to come out of 50 shades”, “Because there is nothing like it and it made my heart flap in my ribcage like a stuck bird.” and “Because it’s unique in content and performance: shocking, controversial, darkly funny, revelatory and risk-taking with absolutely no safety net. Hannah Silva takes the art of live multi-media performance to a whole and extraordinarily memorable new level.”
Then there was Sophia Walker‘s Can’t Care Won’t Care, an excoriating one-woman interrogation of the care system that voters called “socially conscious, gripping theatre” and according to our review she “wields words so strongly they might break you”. Further, it was:
“a show that hangs entirely on the writing, and that should be how we judge spoken word shows. Stripped back, simple, show with a script that knocks you sideways. When I saw it, more than half the room cried”, “I saw Sophia Walker live earlier in the year, and her work is just so powerful and moving, she is definitely worth amazing recognition.” and “This is urgent, vital spoken word that acts out the counternarrative to every time you ever hear ‘care workers’ or ‘the care system’ on the news or in the pub. Which is every night. It matters now, and it matters that it is given the attention, the grit and the eloquence it needs to convince people of that.”
But coming in as the runner-up in this absurdly competitive field was Ross Sutherland with the work of split-second, synesthetic brilliance that is Standby for Tape Backup. Voters called it: “Funny, heartbreaking, compassionate and innovative” as well as “fucking dope” and, having managed to catch it myself earlier this year, I can attest to its sheer creative joy. Further praise:
“Because it was imaginative and entertaining, and anyone who dares to do such daring stunts with technology deserves an award.”, “He is incredible. Funny, heartbreaking, compassionate and innovative. A charismatic performer of unusual and compelling material.”, “He has a beard” and “The most original, captivating, super cool spoken word show I’ve ever seen!”
But, the winner, which was greeted by shrieks of glee by an appreciative audience, was Jackie Hagan with Some People Have Too Many Legs. Our review called it: “a poetic, playful, psychologically-astute piece of theatre which engages the audience’s hearts as well as minds”
While voters said:
“This show makes something witty and life affirming out of a nightmare experience, and with not a trace of inspiration porn in sight.”, “Hilarious show about a heart- stopping subject, brought into the limelight in such an intimate and toughly tender way. Jackie is hard and funny as care bears wearing steelies.”, “Cos its fucking awesome. Clever. Funny. Poetic. Sexy. Sad and a dancing unicorn” and “Because it’s a brilliant show and she is an extraordinary wonderful warrior of a woman and deserves all the prizes and goodness life can throw at her.”
Sadly, due to an incident with a dodgy thumb, Jackie couldn’t accept her award in person, but she sent a lovely acceptance email in which she showcased the chutzpah and humour that won her they award by professing to be “off my tits on morphine”, hoped that we were all suitably drunk and claimed to be working on new show “Some People Have Too Many Thumbs”. Fundamentally, you have to love a performer who’s bold enough to cover herself in glitter and drink cava out of her own prosthetic leg.
A lot of great nights in this one, from across the UK. Evidently is a Salford-based night with an emphasis on warm atmosphere and riotous entertainment, with voters saying:
“they have totally rejuvenated the performance poetry scene across Greater Manchester”, “Well-programmed nights with all the best talent. They treat guests so nicely and produce kick-ass films.”, “The friendliest, most exciting night of spoken word, brilliantly hosted and put together by the team of Kieren King and Ella Gainsborough. First timers are made to feel welcome, and seasoned performers can’t wait to take part” and “My favourite place on earth. Warm, friendly and encouraging.”
Another of the northern contingent, the Say Owt Slam has a reputation for being a real melting pot of styles and ideas, with such varied topics as pokemon, anarchy, feminism and contemporary politics all thrown down and taken apart; voters said:
“It is a show that four times in a row has sold out, that I have been to and been blown away by the quality of the performers and the hosts, and their gust poets have always been amazing. As one of the hottest nights out in York, it deserves awesomeness!”, “Not been going long, but every time it’s been fizzing with creativity, emotion and brilliant performances. The best night in York!” and “Tons of energy at this well loved venue. A real gem and true ambassador for the spoken word.”
Project U is the performance arm of Unthank Books, also nominated for Best Anthology; relatively new, it’s a playful and friendly space that’s achieved impressive popularity impressively quickly by showcasing the best of performance prose instead of poetry. Voters said:
“There’s a wonderful atmosphere there – friendly yet serious about good writing. Well organised: no ‘free mic’ – just high quality storytelling and experiment.”, “spoken word in a unique atmospere that makes you want to grab your pen” and “The readings are consistently excellent and there are always new people to meet. A thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining evening, every time.”.
Despite all these strong contenders, this ended up becoming a straight-up head-to-head between two titans of poetry. These behemoths of spoken word duked it out to the very end, with less than 40 votes between the winner and the runner-up. Said runner-up, a previous winner in this category, was the stand-up poetry juggernaut that is Bang! Said the Gun. An absurdly successful event that’s hosted some of the biggest names in spoken word and been broadcast on Sky and Channel 4, Bang! Said the Gun is, in many ways, the spoken word night. To quote the voters:
“To make people like poetry, Bang! is where you take them. It’s our gateway drug.”, “This night is genuinely fun, off-kilter, raucous, and the roll-on of the open mic winner nabbing a feature slot for the next night is a great idea.”, “Love it love it love it.” and “BANG is the best in the country: lively, welcoming, professional to the nth degree behind its friendly facade, and a genuine transformer of the poetry landscape. The others are all good but only Bang regularly attracts people who do not identify as spoken word fans – just as people looking for a good night out.”
It is all the more impressive then that the winners defeated these kings of poetry, wresting the crown from their very brow(s). Bad Language is another Manchester-based night, which, as well as hosting a selection of top performers, reserved half the open mic for newcomers every time. Voters heaped praise upon them, such as:
“Incredible open-micers for a free night, run with great friendliness & professionalism. Hugely encouraging to new performers, and fiercely promoting gender balance.”, “Literally changed my life. Their supportive open mics took me from a stage-fright wreck into a performer and semi-professional writer. I owe BL so much.”, “Truly egalitarian night. Encouraging people not just to watch but to engage and becomes an entry point into the entire ‘scene’. A friendly corner of the literary community entirely without snobbery or pretension.” and “Great beards.”
Always a fascinating category, in the past few years this one has consistently thrown up surprise after surprise, showing just how vibrant and quickly evolving the spoken word scene in the UK is proving to be.
Newcomer Stu Freestone has been on the Spoken Word scene for just 18 months (after being inspired by Scroobius Pip in Edinburgh) and has wasted no time finding his style, winning fans and earning an impressive reputation, taking his debut show to Edinburgh last year and following up with another this year. Voters said:
“Stu always speaks from the heart and you know you are in for a roller-coaster of emotions when you see and hear him perform his poetry. Fantastic – thoroughly deserves this nomination and fingers crossed he wins!”, “Best eyebrows that curled words around a microphone this year.” and “Stu Freestone brings a fantastic energy with everything he does. He defines what a spoken word poet should be, to me.”
Oz Hardwick is clearly a man with a ridiculous number of talents. A writer, journalist, photographer, musician and professor, he’s both performed and been published across the world and has been gracing the back rooms of pubs with his poetry and music for years. Voters said:
“Having heard Oz read in person, I see that he finds in each audience, in each room, potentialities–added elements that can make that given reading singular. Like a good cook, he knows how to make the most of his ingredients!”, “Because Oz Hardwick delivers his mesmerising and wonderfully diverse poems that delve into the depths of the human condition with passion and heart.” and “A voice I trust and words that stay with me.”
Chimene Suleyman is a London-based writer and performer who is always good value. In the past she’s represented the UK at the Internationale Biennale 2011 and her poetry collection Outside Looking On has been stonkingly received and was mentioned in the Guardian’s Best Books list. Voters said:
“She balances a conversational style of delivery with heavy subject matter in an unforced and therefore galvanizing way”, “She is a powerful and fearless performer.” and “I’m voting for her because she came to Margate”.
One nominee, however, who was no surprise was Sophia Walker. A mainstay of the Saboteur Awards shortlists, she once more made the shortlist for both Best Performer and Best Show and came the closest out of anyone to challenging our eventual winner. She’s a one-person storm of a poet, combining powerful emotion with elegant wordsmithery and consummate performance who never shies away from important topics. Voters said:
“Raw, honest, un-sensational but quietly mesmeric. Her performances build in intensity until they have you by the guts.”, “Beauty, truth and humor delivered in one package. It is brilliant what she does.”, “passion + truth= enlightenment” and “She spins words like silk, transforming the raw and rough of the human experience into pieces of profound beauty.”
But the winner’s rise to the top was, in the end, unstoppable. An ascendant star of spoken word, Hollie McNish has captivated and gobsmacked audiences, gone viral on multiple occasions, and bravely taken on a bevy of societal issues in a way that speaks to all kinds of people. Earlier in the day, Sophia Walker had commented on how in other countries spoken word is an art form of dissent and of protest, whereas in the UK it’s mainly an art form of entertainment. It feels to me, then, incredibly appropriate that the top two performer spots were taken by Sophia and Hollie, two performers who constantly engage with social and political issues in a way that is thoughtful, fierce and persuasive.
Plus, Hollie wrote a piece about how giving birth is like being a transformer, which makes me geek out for her massively.
“Commitment, integrity and a willingness to stick her neck above the parapet on social issues which expose her to a whole lot of trolling.”, “Engaging, honest poetry performed with a realism which allows any audience to engage with the genre, coupled with an irreverence for the conventions of performance which proved to be refreshing.”, “More important than ever to have strong, engaging and funny voices for feminism if we’re having 5 years of Tory horror.”, “Because awesome.” and “She has brought poetry into the public consciousness and opened up women’s issues in an accessible and enjoyable way.”
Another award that never fails to deliver, presenting this one has made me tear up at two awards ceremonies in a row now.
Heart Poems for Children’s Heart Week, for example, has an inspiring and heartbreaking story behind it, as one voter put it, Rebecca Goss became “an ambassador for paediatric heart charities following the death of her own daughter. Her selfless commitment deserves recognition.” As well as spawning some amazing poetry, the week-long event also raised awareness for the Children’s Heart Federation Charity. Voters added:
“Stunning array of poets supporting a great charity.”, “Fantastic poetry but also for a really fantastic cause – shows poetry can simultaneously work as art and something purposeful/useful.” and “Beautiful and haunting poems”.
MINE by Holly Corfield Carr was the only project to be nominated in more than one category, as the textual accompaniment to this live piece was also nominated in Best Poetry Pamphlet. A fascinating and intimate experience that was at once both guided tour and live literature, Holly took audiences into unusual spaces and opened both their eyes and their ears to a new and haunting experience. Voters said:
“An amazing, multi sensory experience.”, “Best site specific piece I’ve ever seen – just beautiful” and “Corfield Carr is always finding unusual, forgotten, underused spaces (old factories, Victorian public toilets, boats) with their own fascinating history, and transforming them into vivid experiences through poetry. MINE blended place, poetry, science and history to create an unforgettable experience”
Words and Women do great work all year round, supporting women writers working in the East of England, providing a constant source of inspiration and encouragement. Their International Women’s Day event brought together music, theatre and literature for a whole celebratory day that was called:
“This event was so inspiring, really well attended and a variety of readers and performers – this variety was reflected in the audience too. Words and Women are doing really good work for women writers in the east of England.”, “wonderful community event inclusive and popular. unfailing commitment to this special gathering by the team behind it. tireless effort in making it happen.” and “From funny and thought-provoking readings to powerful and emotive dramatic monologues, the Words and Women International Women’s Day event was an excellent showcase of work from a range of talented female artists.”
OE by Max Barton, Kiran Millwood Hargrave and Tom de Freston was another innovative multidisciplinary experience that retold the story of Orpheus with poetry, art, music and performance, creating an evening that tingled across the senses and lingered in people’s minds – so much so, in fact, that it emerged as the runner-up!
“nothing prepared me for the immersive and brilliant experience: Tom’s pictures of the underworld, Kiran’s poetry, Max’s music …deserves multiple showings”, “this show brought together the performing arts, the spoken word and visual art forms. An immersive experience the performance thrilled its audience (of which I was a part) and created a sense of wonder and laughter and pain that I have not often felt – and certainly had not expected.” and “Such an amazing night! Each component (song, poetry and paintings) strong enough to stand alone, coming together in an extraordinary way.”
But, in a field full of inspiring events and projects, the real stand-out and clear winner was Jo Bell’s The 52 Project. An experiment in creative engagement and criticism, participants were encouraged to write a poem a week for a whole year under her eager-eye. Providing prompts, feedback and plenty of support, Jo Bell marshalled the project 500 members on to new heights. The thing that really struck me about this project, was the sheer number of people whose lives it touched and changed and the continuing ongoing impact that will continue to ripple across the poetical landscape for years.
Just listening to Jo talk about it in her acceptance speech made me cry some of my own tears. What a project.
The voters said:
“Amazing project which just grew and grew, encouraging experiences poets and those who had never written with her well-thought out prompts, Jo Bell has given her time selflessly to this project.”, “An absolute phenomenon. Life affirming and life changing for so many people.”, “A unique event that will widen and deepen poetry in Britain for years to come”, “Because 52 is beyond fucking brilliant!!” and “Because of Jo Bell’s 52 I’ve had poems published and plucked up the courage to embark on an MA in creative writing. 52 has supported and encouraged so much talent in just twelve months and has become a wonderful network of poetry friends. Jo gave up a year of her life to help other writers find their courage and their voice. She, and the 52 project, truly deserves this award.”