Accessibility in Slam: the Debatable Fairness of Exclusive-Entry Qualifiers

Last week, a discussion was initiated on the Facebook event page for the Scottish National Slam regarding the fairness of the Glasgow Student Slam, which I am co-organising with students at universities across Scotland. The debate involved many prominent members of the Scottish spoken word scene, and became quite animated as many people weighed in. As it can be difficult to convey the nuances of one’s position through a Facebook thread, I’m posting here on the nature of the discussion and explaining my perspective within it. I’d like to emphasise that I respect the opinions of all involved and I appreciate that this debate is occurring. Discussions such as this one are healthy and necessary to determine the values of the Scottish slam community on how to ensure fairness within the slam competitions in Scotland. By expanding on my opinion here I seek only to fully explain the thinking behind my position and open the discussion to a wider audience, not to beat a dead cat.

The discussion was initiated when some within the Scottish slam community were concerned about the fact that the Student Slam, as an exclusive-entry slam which only allows students from Scottish universities and colleges to compete, was being used as a qualifier for the Scottish National Slam. They believed that this practice unfairly benefitted students by giving them an additional opportunity to qualify for the National Slam, and argued that only slams open to all poets who wanted to enter should be used as qualifiers.

I certainly understand this position and agree with the spirit behind it. Before getting into a deeper discussion of those issues, though, let me explain how and why we organised the Student Slam as we did. The rationale behind establishing a Student Slam was certainly not intentionally discriminatory. At the Glasgow Slam in November 2014, Robin Cairns (the host) suggested that students from universities across Glasgow band together and organise a slam for Scottish students. A week or so later, I proposed on the Scottish Spoken Word Event Co-Organising Facebook page that we do this. The idea received support from all who commented on the post and soon a group of students from the University of Strathclyde, University of Glasgow, and Fife College, including myself, convened and began planning. I should clarify here that Robin did not specifically suggest that the slam be students-only; that was a decision that we made. We made the assumption that the winner would continue on to Nationals, and when we submitted our event information to the Scottish Slams website, it was accepted as a qualifier event. It is also relevant to note that, to my knowledge, none of us had ever organised a slam before (although most of us have organised poetry events and have competed in slams ourselves). Of course we have all recused ourselves from performing in the slam, as is common practice to avoid bias and self-serving nepotism. We did not reserve any spaces for friends and promoted the event sign-up information across as many channels as possible to ensure equal accessibility to access for students across Scotland.

Our goal in organising the Student Slam was to provide a platform for students across Scotland to come together and engage in friendly competition. We had observed that while some universities and colleges in Scotland have highly active performance poetry communities, some don’t yet, so we wanted to foster a network of poets across the universities. The aim of the slam was to provide students a platform to perform, connect, and plan for future collaborations. Another goal was to give younger performers with less slam experience a chance to perform with people of roughly their age and expertise level so that they would feel comfortable entering. Many of the poets who have entered are new to the scene, so we were successful in this regard. Glasgow’s performance poetry scene attracts people from all ages and experience levels, which I think is excellent; however, to some young students the prospect of competing at a slam with veterans may be intimidating. Our event was partially geared towards attracting people who may not have tried performing before and giving them a safer-seeming opportunity to start. It is also worth noting that, while students aren’t discriminated against in the slam scene at all, they certainly don’t have an unfair advantage, either: of the thirteen poets who have qualified for Nationals this year, only one is a student.

However, I understand that the issue being argued on the Facebook thread was not the right to hold a slam for students—that seemed acceptable to all commenting—but rather the fact that the winner would be permitted to continue on to the National Slam, considering that the contest had been exclusive. The crux of the argument here is fairness. Should slams with exclusive entrance requirements be allowed to channel into the National competition?

My personal perspective is that as long as there are enough fully accessible competitions which allow poets plenty of opportunities to qualify for the National Slam, allowing some exclusive-entry slams with the explicit purpose of attracting poets who may not normally compete in the Scottish slam scene to exist and channel into Nationals is acceptable. The Student Slam is not the only exclusive-entry slam currently running in Scotland: there is also the Quiet Slam, geared towards poets wishing a gentler, less fiercely competitive atmosphere in which to perform, and the Rally & Broad Commonwealth Slam, which was by invitation only, thus designed for more established performers. The Student Slam and Quiet Slam in particular serve the purpose of attracting poets who may be put off by normal slam culture, and I think this is quite important. If slam is to be a truly accessible form, it is vital that organisers attempt to attract members from multiple writing styles and communities to compete.

In an article circulated among the Scottish slam community several months ago, Chris Gilpin argued that slam is not a style but a genre: we perceive it as a genre because a set of norms for the slam poem is being crafted due to the perpetuation of cliche. In order to avoid having all poems in the scene mimic each other, driving cliche production, slam organisers need to encourage diverse voices to perform. I understand that it may seem backwards to attempt to increase the accessibility of a genre by creating exclusive-access qualifying events. But if these events attract new poets with new voices, then I think this needs to happen; otherwise the scene continues with the same people performing poems in the same style, and no evolution occurs.

During the online discussion, an argument was presented that if these poets we’re designing the Student Slam for are newcomers, or are put off by the intensity of slamming, then why would they want to compete at the National Slam anyway? I believe first that this argument is a bit condescending: if a newcomer student wins a qualifier slam against other newcomers, that does not mean that he/she will be creamed at Nationals. As several people commented in the online discussion, it happens often that a wild-card newcomer competes and wins over a lineup of veterans, so it’s a matter of giving them that first chance to compete and hone their craft. Second, I would argue that the incentive to enter the National Slam is a major draw attracting people to compete even if they may not initially believe that the competitive environment is right for them. In November 2012 I was new to slam, not even considering Nationals, when I won a University of Edinburgh Literature Society Slam. Yes, these slams are open to all, but knowing that the participants were mostly students and that many of the participants were newcomers made me feel more comfortable entering. Had there not been a venue that felt as accessible, I doubt I would have competed at all and thus wouldn’t have been set on this fantastic path I’ve been able to pursue due to slam poetry. So the need for accessible-feeling slams for newcomers, who often happen to be young, less experienced students, is of personal significance to me.

In the future when we plan the Student Slam again (we hope to make it a recurring event), we will carefully consider the entrance requirements and abide by the decisions of whomever is running the National Slam regarding qualification. As some contributors to the discussion noted, there is currently no “central command” to the Scottish slam poetry scene. Slams are run by whoever wishes to run them, and the organisers set entry requirements as they will. Since folks in the Scottish spoken word scene are generally good-intentioned people gunning for the promotion of the art form we care about, this has tended to work, although now it seems the lack of regulations is being questioned. It’s a larger question whether all slams in Scotland should be organised by a central committee and be subject to the same rules and regulations. Personally I think that this would undermine much of the democratic feeling of the slam and the ability to shift the format for varying tastes, but it would certainly make entrance into Nationals a more fair contest. Fundamentally shifting the way poets qualify for Nationals, such as organising regional competitions as the sole means through which to qualify, may be a good option; however, that would require a radical overhaul of the current system which would likely encounter major backlash.

There are elements of the Student Slam that are likely to shift when we plan it again; as this is our first experience with slam planning, we’re learning as we go. For example, all of our judges for this first Student Slam are experienced performance poets within the Glasgow scene, and we’re delighted that each of them agreed to judge for us. However, a suggestion was made during the discussion about diversifying slam judging panels to have them include people from various aspects of the scene (i.e. a slammer, a print poet, an events promoter, etc) in order to draw opinions from multiple perspectives, prevent nepotism, and avoid a situation in which the same judges are judging the same performers time and again. This is advice that we may take into account in the future (although I certainly don’t expect any bias to influence our judges for the Student Slam).

Another possible change we could impose to make the system more fair would be to continue hosting a Student Slam but not make it exclusive to students, although that feels a bit odd. Since the Student Slam is hosted by the Aloud student organisation at the University of Glasgow, one option is simply to have an Aloud Slam open to all poets (the highly popular Aloud Open Mics at QMU are not limited to students). That would be great as its own event, but might not achieve the sort of cross-campus collaboration and interaction that we intended initially and have been able to achieve so far.

Another option to ensure greater fairness that was aired during the discussion is the use of quotas. This practice is already used in some slams in terms of gender (Scottish slam tends to be male-dominated, so female performers are sought-after). Perhaps a better practice for the Student Slam in the future would be to enforce a quota of at least 50% students, so that the format would still feel accessible for students but also open to others. Or perhaps in order to have the slam be truly accessible for less-experienced performers from all walks of life (and in recognition of the fact that some students are highly experienced slammers while some adults/non-students are newcomers), a slam could be instituted exclusively for newcomers: poets who have never competed in a slam before, or (to make it less exclusive) poets who have never won a slam before.

There are many questions that have been raised in this discussion, many opinions that have been aired, and many possibilities for positive change have arisen. I believe that the most important task going forward will be to continue the open dialogue about what structure and regulations for slams feeding into the National Slam feel the most fair and accessible to all. In a form as democratic as slam, it seems essential that the community that engages in it works towards a consensus on how it is governed. I’m eager to hear others’ views on the matter: as I’m still relatively new to the slam scene here I certainly don’t proclaim to have the answers, and I’m keen to learn what others think the right way forward might be.

Poets, promoters, people in the Scottish (or any) spoken word scene: What are your thoughts on whether exclusive-entry slam competitions should be allowed to channel into the National Slam? Should Scottish slam be subject to greater regulations, or is it best as a locally-/individually-organised series of events capable of setting their own rules?

 

Gilpin, Chris. “Slam Poetry Does Not Exist: How a Movement has been Misconstrued as a Genre.” Canadian Review of Literature in Performance, 8 (2014). Web. http://www.litlive.ca/story/602

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2 responses to “Accessibility in Slam: the Debatable Fairness of Exclusive-Entry Qualifiers

  1. Having one slam out of 13 which encourages predominantly younger performers to compete will not in any way make the Scottish slam less fair. It will encourage new generations of poets to perform in settings with their peers; getting more people into slamming is by no means a bad thing. If exclusive-rule slams become widespread then there might be a problem to entry, but we’re nowhere near that stage.

    Having a fairly loose approach to slam rules has been fantastic for slam style diversity. I agree with yourself Katie, and it’s important to think and discuss accessibility and making this artform as open as possible. But I think those who have gripes with a student-only slam are missing out on the bigger picture – encouragement of new poets to compete and perform in the scene.

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  2. Hi Kathryn, I really enjoy reading your blog, and this is an intelligent response to what was little more than a foul-mouthed rant. I’d say, don’t worry about it. Slams are a successful way of engaging people in poetry but they are no more rational than any other sporting competition. We have a diverse and exciting poetry scene going on and lets just enjoy it.

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