Hammer and Tongue 14/03/11 (The Green Note Café, Camden)

-Reviewed by James Webster

The Night

The London Hammer and Tongue, based in Camden’s charming Green Note Café, is an offshoot of the slam competition that was founded by Steve Larkin in Oxford in 2003. Since then it has grown to become, in their own words, “the biggest promoter of Slam Poetry in the UK” and has now spread to Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, and two London chapters: Hackney and Camden.

In Camden the slam is run by Michelle Madsen (who founded the London H&T chapter) and was hosted on the night by ‘Angry’ Sam Berkson and Sophia Blackwell who provided a lively and warm welcome to the audience, Angry Sam’s rough humour and enthusiasm perfectly complimented Blackwell’s elegant wit. The two of them helped stress Hammer and Tongue’s only two rules: 1. You talk about Hammer and Tongue, and 2. You TALK about Hammer and Tongue. And they certainly delivered something to talk about.

Both hosts gave us some poetry to warm up the evening:

Sophia Blackwell showed off her Dear Deirdre poems, inspired by the problem pages of The Sun; these poems gave us some fast paced, foul-mouthed fun, both very light hearted and filled with clever verbal gymnastics. Sandwiched between them was a tender and intimate poem that can be found in the Erotic issue of Diva magazine, and it was loaded with, well, loaded and sexually charged language; a great contrast to her other sillier poems.

Angry Sam gave us his poem ‘Poison Ivy’, a great slam poem where the rhyme overlapped with rich alliteration as he presented an image of the world where humanity seems to strangle the planet, human weeds wrapped around our natural resources.

These poems set a tone for the evening that was both enjoyable and thoughtful, which is only to be expected from two such accomplished performance poets.

The Slam

The Slam is one of Hammer and Tongue’s great draws. Eight poets, three minutes, five judges: the winner the poet with the highest score. Unlike many slams at the moment, Hammer and Tongue does not use a proscribed scoring system (for example 1/3 quality of writing, 1/3 performance, 1/3 audience reaction), but instead choose random judges from the audience and let them give scores out of ten based entirely on how good they thought the poets poems were. To give a balanced score the top and bottom scores are discounted and the poets all receive a mark out of thirty as their final score. And to try and combat what is known as ‘score creep’, a phenomenon where the judges give higher scores as the night goes on as the poets warm them up and they have a few more drinks, the order is decided entirely at random.

The Slam kicked off with Michelle Madsen (London H&T founder) as the ‘sacrificial poet’ (as no one likes to go first) who performed a love poem that was both tender and tense, that wound itself up using raw and wild language that is gradually unwound by the lover its addressed to. A warm and familiar offering that received a 23.4 from the judges, a score that seems low for such a strong poem, which is the very reason they have a ‘sacrificial poet’.

Then came the slam proper, first up:

  • Naomi Woodnuf: an entertaining poem about Facebook stealing her soul. Funny, but wasn’t able to lift itself above being a fluff pop-culture piece and failed to put an original poetic stamp on the subject. Her 19.7 might have been higher with a stronger performance.
  • Charlie DuPrés: a barnstorming poem dissecting the question “What’s your real accent like?” asked before sex. This was hilarious in content and delivery and opened the subject up to ask questions about class and identity. Any poet that threatens his “lyrical gun will spray this room with lyrical cum” deserves his 28.5 in my book.
  • Dan Simpson: a faux-bitter poem about being changed then left by an ex because you’ve changed. It had some laughs, but the obvious punch line left me cold. The 23 he received owed a lot to the strong poem before him in my opinion.
  • Dave Flores: a character comedy poem about the Foxton’s Christmas Party. Started out weak and relying on his ‘posh voice’ being intrinsically funny, but increasing surrealism (including the image of Rupert Murdoch riding a gold horse-drawn carriage pulled by people) led to a great and very funny poem. Just pipped DuPrés to first place with 28.6. I can’t help thinking ‘score creep’ worked a little in his favour.
  • Alan Wolfson: former slam champion with an impressive moustache, whose name comes up on predictive text as ‘Anal Yoghurt’. Sadly his poem about a tour of the world’s edges seemed a little pointless. 23.1.
  • Nathan Thompson: a poem about over thinking your chat up lines went down well, but needed better punch lines and more punch to the performance. 24.5
  • Bingo Pajama: a great stage name combined with an intriguing concept for a poem, but the performance filled with awkward pauses and uneven writing made it seem bitty. 22.5.
  • Dave Devon: His poem had some great imagery and some lovely touches, with a conversation about a recent holiday that is interrupted by his entertaining internal monologue. But it was hampered by continual pausing that gave the impression he’d forgotten his material or was making it up as he went along. 19.9, but lost around ten points due to overrunning by 2 minutes: 9.9.

Overall: a very entertaining slam with a high level of quality. It suffered slightly from all the poems having similar tones, all trying for comedy without always reaching it. I think a few of the poets would do better if they stopped trying to be funny and started trying to write good poems.

The slam finished with performances from Selena Godden and MC Chester P, both of whom will be reviewed at a later date.

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