Review: Hammer & Tongue Camden Slam Final 14/10/13

reviewed by Irina Jauhiainen

Ross Suth

As you may know, Hammer & Tongue is a national network of poetry slams that is committed to launching the careers of new poets. Poets compete in a series of regional slams, with the winners going on to the regional final and the winners of the regional final going on to the national final at the Wilton’s Music Hall, the winner of which is rewarded with a national tour.

An electric night right off the bat …

I walked into the softly lit Green Note in Camden during Amy Acre‘s poem inspired by the Back to the Future films, and was instantly grasped by the brilliant performance that welcomed me in to this exciting event. Amy’s Sage & Time co-organiser Richard Marsh followed up as the next featured act, after which Amy and Richard performed a hilarious duet involving an imitation of Sainsbury’s self-checkout voice overs.

Another featured act on this night was Ross Sutherland, whose interest in the French OULIPO movement (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle -Workshop of Potential Literature) spawned some fascinating poetic experiments. One of these was a poem whose stanzas could be read in any order and it would still make sense; presumably inspired by Raymond Queneau’s One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems (10 sonnets whose lines can be interchanged, potentially creating 100 000 000 000 000 different combinations (well, more like 3,628,800 – Editor)). Sutherland‘s stanzas were shuffled for a random stanza order and the resulting poem did indeed work very well.

Plus some enthused hosting …

The night was hosted by Michelle Madsen and Poet Curious in an energetic game show manner, appropriately for a slam event. The audience needed a bit of encouraging from the hosts to make noise – the atmosphere lacked energy in the beginning of the night, but rose steadily after each performance. The randomly chosen five judges seemed slightly harsh with their scoring on the first few acts, and I couldn’t help feeling that a performance’s entertainment value was more important in scoring than the quality of writing, which is probably true for a lot of slam events.

And a strong and varied slam …

The slam final was opened by sacrificial poet, and Hammer & Tongue founder: Steve Larkin (who’s one-man show NONCE is at the North Wall Arts Centre in Oxford on Saturday 16 November and is well worth a look). Matt Cummins from Forget What You Heard About Spoken Word was the first slam finalist, followed by Katherine Tarka whose piece contained such brilliant images as ‘love is like formless lumps…’, while Gilbert Francois‘ poetry was very well written, but he the melodramatic ending where he fell to his knees may have proved more alienating than involving and harmed the piece’s impact. Kemi Taiwo started off with what seemed like a clichéd love poem, but had an unexpected twist to the story; the a shift which illustrated the speaker’s complex experience of domestic violence very well. Sarah Perry followed up her usual political agenda, delivering her message through striking imagery and strong language. Charlie Dupré‘s piece accurately conjured the experience of a poet’s struggling to communicate with less literary-inclined poeple when a stranger at a urinal wants to talk to him about football. Catalina Ferro was amazing; her poetry serious with just the right amount of comedy to lighten it up. Kareem Parkins-Brown did an Ars Poetica-esque, ‘Kanye West -inspired rant,’ which beautifully captured the need for self-expression through writing. Stephanie Dogfoot finished the first round with her entertainingly exaggerated piece about all the crazy things going on in bus 29.

The four highest-scoring slammers from the first round were Sarah Perry, Catalina Ferro, Stephanie Dogfoot and Charlie Dupré, with the respective scores of 25.7, 25.7, 27.2 and 27.9. These four finalists performed in a second round with the points from first and second round combined for each contestant to make the final score. After a brilliant and definitely more energetic second round, Charlie Dupré turned out the ultimate winner.

And building to a big finish …

After a break, the features were given the stage once more. Ross Sutherland returned with a fantastic rewrite of the story of Little Red Riding Hood, having changed some of the words in the story to ones a few entries below the original in a dictionary. It became a whole different story as the words “grandmother, what a big mouth you have” became ‘Great Britain, what big MPs you have!’ Loved it.

The Green Note is a perfect venue for a spoken word show. The show went on for quite long, but the two breaks in between allowed opportunities for getting a drink and fresh air; also the great quality and variety of performances was well enough to keep the audience awake. This was a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a Monday night. Their next event is on Monday 11 November and features Stephen Morrison-Burke and Emily Harrison.