Hammer & Tongue Camden vs Oxford: Part 1, Camden


@The Green Note Cafe

– Reviewed by James Webster (with help from Dana Bubulj) –

I have a fondness for Hammer and Tongue; their events were my first taste of performance poetry. Their slams running in 6 different locations provide a lot of people with similarly excellent introductions to poetry slams. So in October I was very happy to attend two H&T slams in two days in two different cities.

They were quite different, but drawn together by H&T`s core values: poetry, politics and an open and supportive atmosphere. It’s poetry opened up for (and often involving) the audience.

I thought it fitting given I saw them on successive days to compare the two. First: Camden.

The Venues – Green Note Cafe vs Turl Street Kitchen

The Green Note seems like a bit of a creative hub, also hosting music, comedy and the Utter: Spoken Word poetry night. It has a nice bohemian feel and a nice atmosphere for poetry, very intimate and communal.

The comparison: Sadly, the Green Note and its hipster haven doesn’t quite have the Turl Street Kitchen’s sense of community and activism: Oxford edges it.

The Hosts: Michelle and Sam vs. Lucy and Steve

  • Michelle Madsen and ‘Angry’ Sam Berkson make a great team. Both equally quick with a welcome as with a wisecrack, they’re encouraging, they get the crowd involved, make the rules of the slam clear, and summon the same boundless enthusiasm for their poets every month. They are especially good at making newcomers feel welcome, as Michelle said ‘if you’re a slam virgin we will take your cherry with grace’.
  • Sam’s poem on road safety from the government was biting, funny (if slightly marred for me by a minor rape joke) and filled with amusingly random anecdote breaks, including such lines as ‘’cos you’ve kept your distance to two chevrons you can join me in the kingdom of Heaven’ and ‘we only kill people if they’re inferior culturally, signed: The Government’. It was good stuff.

The comparison: Tough. Sam and Michelle are excellent, but Oxford featured a touching handover of hosting from Steve Larkin to Lucy Ayrton that distilled the essence of H&T and sneaked a victory.

The Slam: Camden vs Oxford

  • 3 minutes, 5 judges, 30 points up for grabs, winner goes through to the November final. Let’s go!
  • David Lee Morgan was this month’s sacrifice (used to calibrate judge scoring), and his poem seemed to sum up all the fight and struggle of western history in three minutes. Impressive imagery, but a little unfocused. Sam Berkson describes him best as ‘Blake fucking Ginsberg’. 22.3
  • James Webster’s ‘Taken For’ was described by my co-reviewer as ‘fluid, rather smooth, but you should be worried that he manages to explain that character in a sympathetic way’ and by Michelle as a ‘John Donne persuasive poem’. 20.8
  • Stephanie Dogfoot ‘Queen of Singapore Slam’ and her letter to her 12-year-old self was well written, but needed to be more smoothly and confidently performed. 20.4
  • Gilbert Francois’s ‘I Did It for the Bees’ a poem of cockney rhyming slang, complete with translation, was certainly skilful, but I didn’t think the content of the poem was strong enough to back it up, and lines like ‘at least I didn’t have to pay for the abortion’ made me cringe. 22.3
  • Alan Wolfson is a man with the kind of moustache any hipster would want to grow up to be. His ‘Kissing Application Form’ is amusing, and his poem on Gaddaffi (we should catch him and demote him to sergeant) was took a savage delight in humiliating the former dictator. Well crafted poems, honed delivery, but I sometimes fail to grasp the point. 22
  • John Paul O’Neil, the man behind Farrago, gave a strong performance that emphasised the fond nostalgia of an early caper involving his sister painting a light switch on a wall (he took the blame) and hovered over the heart-wrenching images of her in hospital, years later. 22.1

Winner: Gilbert Francois, but or my money John Paul was more deserving.

Comparison: Some very good poets at both events, but Oxford were just a little more consistently excellent (and the score seem to reflect this).

The Features: Richard Marsh and Paula Varjack vs. Anna McCrory

First up was Richard Marsh. One of the hosts of Sage and Time (a top event), he’s a poet I admire greatly. His show ‘Skittles’ has recently garnered him a string of superb reviews (and is on this coming week at the BAC in London), and with an engaging manner and some uniquely entertaining poems, you can see why. These were my favourites:

  • His poem for fools is immense. It’s a rallying cry for those who tilt at life’s windmills, for the bruised and ever enthusiastic ‘mucky-faced adventurers’. He demonstrates a knack for turning phrases that flow into his litany for the ‘stirrers of the future’s cauldron’.
  •  ‘Glamorous Tesco’s’ was fantastic. A story where Richard gets a crush on a check-out girl and a self-checkout machine (ably played by Michelle Madsen) gets a crush on him (‘love-notes will be dispensed below the scanner’). Absurdly touching humour.
  • ‘Pub’ described a post-breakup hook-up in a pub. It’s self-deprecating and deft, blending setting and theme; the characters sharing a ‘salt and vinegar kiss’ before humorously describing their drunken sex. Then it suddenly shifting into a more fluid and sweet style (‘We’re Michelangelo’s chisel, we’re Snoop Dogg’s shizzle’) and ends with the two finding each other while trying to forget the past. Awwww.

Next was Paula Varjack who has come over fromBerlin to tour theUK. An entertaining poet,

  • She started strong with ‘Why You Should Never Date an Artist’, a list of all the artists you shouldn’t date and why not. Equally cutting on conceptual artists, poets and musicians, it’s very funny and often lovely.
  •  ‘My Country’ was a role-swap, inspired by a guy who once said ‘I don’t like the term ex-pat, I prefer migrant’. It’s effectively done, imagining the US and UK as countries no-one had heard of, and wittily describing pub culture and prom as quaint cultural rituals. But it didn’t feel like she quite fulfilled the idea’s potential.
  •  ‘Not Even Worth Stealing’, on why no-one looted any books in the recent riots, started as a really insightful take on why people looted. Then it got somewhat simplistic, dubbing the riots ‘not revolution, but consumerist warfare’, which didn’t seem to live up to its earlier astute originality.

The comparison: Richard and Paula’s different styles and entertaining material mean that, no matter how charming Oxford’s Anna McCrory is, Camden takes home the victory in this category.

The final feature (both here and in Oxford) was Henry Bowers, Swedish poet extraordinaire, who will soon receive his own Spotlight feature, as he is just that good.

Please check out the next review for the Oxford event and final comparison!

Also, the next Hammer & Tongue Camden event is this coming Monday 12th if you’re interested.

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