Last week (Thurs., Jan. 22) I was delighted to win the Edinburgh University Literature Society January Slam, thus qualifying for the Scottish National Slam (which will be held Feb. 26 in Edinburgh). However, I faced a bit of a dilemma because I was also slotted to compete in the National Library of Scotland Burns Night Slam the following Monday (last night, Mon., Jan 26). Part of me felt that it would be unfair to compete in the Burns Night Slam considering that I had already qualified for Nationals and, in the chance that I were to win, I would be removing someone else’s opportunity to qualify (especially considering that the NLS slam was the last open qualifier for Nationals this year). However, I had been invited to compete in the slam and my name had been used in promotional material, so it also felt unfair to the host to remove myself from the slam with only a couple days’ notice. Currently there are no rules regulating whether poets who have already won a slam are permitted to continue competing, so this decision was entirely up to me. It sparked an interesting question that I’ve been discussing lately with other poets in the Scottish slam scene: should poets who have won a slam and thus already qualified for Nationals be permitted to continue competing at slams? Continue reading
Two days ago (Sat. Jan. 24), I attended a master class in Edinburgh with the London-based spoken word artist Francesca Beard hosted by Rally & Broad. The workshop focused on how to establish a persona and a physical presence onstage when performing spoken word poetry. It was very well-attended and proved an excellent source of new ideas, discussion around performativity, storytelling, and poetry, as well as providing lots of new writing inspiration.
Francesca opened with one of her own poems, which flowed brilliantly and seemed rooted in the storytelling tradition. Beard has a wonderful way of performing her poems as if telling them for the first time, rather than as if reciting a memorised piece. She spoke about the importance of the element of improvisation in performance: how vital it is that the piece feel live and exciting onstage. Watching her, I was reminded that pauses and appearing sometimes to not know the next line for a moment (when fully in control of the performance) can actually be a good thing, as it increases the suspense and puts the audience on the edge of their seats, making them interested not only in the poem but also in the act of telling the poem. Continue reading
The U.S National Poetry Slam rules require poets to perform pieces they have written: one cannot perform another person’s work at the competition. Slam as a genre is linked to the performance of one’s own identity since the poet is physically there onstage with an accent, a skin colour, an apparent sex, etc. These cues affect how the audience perceives the poet even before he/she opens his/her mouth: they identify the poet before he/she has had the opportunity to claim an identity for him/herself, and they generally expect the voice of the poem to match the identity that they have perceived.
As Susan B. A. Somers-Willett observes in The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America, the performance of the authentic self is hugely important in slam poetry; indeed “it might be the primary criterion slam poets have in mind when they write their poems: to impart some truth about their subjective experiences that artfully reveals an authentic self” (73). This is a major factor in judging: does the physical body onstage match the identity-declaration from the voice onstage? Of course, this “authenticity” is itself false: by writing, rewriting, rehearsing, and performing a poem, poets are conducting an act. They are performing one identity while enacting another identity (even if these two identities appear identical). But poets tend to be judged on the level of “realness” of their performances, how “true” they feel to the audience. Some of the most interesting pieces happen when the perceived identity of the poet and the identity that the poet professes through his/her work seem to clash and the audience realises that their preconceived notions are flawed: this is where the power of performance poetry to challenge stereotypes lies. Continue reading