Charlotte Mealing, a third year English Literature student at the University of the West of England, took on the task of reviewing Bristol Poetry Festival Poetry Slam 2016 for Poetry Can.
Here’s what she discovered:
(Slam photos courtesy Tim Woolfe www.woolfandrogersphotography.com )
‘It’s no secret that there can be a huge difference between reading poetry and listening to poetry being performed by its author. The immersive, almost hypnotic nature of spoken word poetry is something that I, as well as many others, often associate with performance poetry and thoroughly love about it. There’s something truly mesmerising about sitting witness to poetry-in-motion; the way that a person’s voice inflects, rising and falling during a sentence, the intonation, the emphasis placed on certain words, the raw passion that bubbles from deep within the poet when they deliver poignant words, and the excitement in the room after the dust settles from a string of well-executed lines. These are just some of the things that make us feel as though we are present inside the minds of those speaking.
The words ‘Slam’ and ‘Poetry’ position in the same sentence conjure up images of wordsmiths battling to the death, wielding metaphors and simile like weapons – We are told, after-all, that the pen is mightier than the sword. Considering that the winner of each heat is decided in part by how loud the audience cheer and clap, and partly by the scores awarded by the judges, any poetry slam, and certainly the Bristol Poetry Festival’s Poetry slam, can definitely sound like a scary prospect for any performer. However, when I walked into the gallery of the Arnolfini on the evening of the 15th October 2016, I did not feel a daunting atmosphere and nor did I see the poets suiting up for competitive battle for the lucrative £100 prize, and the accolade of being the ‘Champion’. Instead, the energy of the room was like that of a drama performance with everyone warmly chatting to one another; discussing their work, laughing at each other’s jokes, and reminding us of the sentiment held by the grandfather of slam poetry Marc Smith who once stated: ‘If the competition takes over the poetry, then the poetry is lost.’ It proved impossible to separate those who were just friends, and those who were competitors, and had it not been for the large banner above the stage that read: ‘The Poetry Slam’, one could have believed that these poets were gathered to share with us the innermost workings of their hearts and minds as a form of group therapy, or celebration of the individual.
Shortly after 19:30, the ominous and unmistakable sound of Eminem’s ‘Lose It’ could be heard over the sound-system and the self-proclaimed ‘hip-hop happening’ hosts Claire Williamson and Glenn Carmichael emerged to introduce the eighteen contestants emphasising the ‘love, love, love’ between them and reminding us of the disclaimer from the Nuyorican Poet Café including the statement that ‘the best poet never wins.’
The judge panel consisted of Angie Belcher; a stand-up poet, to judge the quality of performance, Colin Brown; director of The Poetry Can to judge the audience reaction, and Tom Dewey, last year’s youngest ever Poetry Can Slam winner at nineteen, to judge the quality of writing. As a form of ‘sacrificial poet’ panellist Angie Belcher performed the opening poem ‘My Ode to ALDI’ to whet the appetite of the audience and to break the tension in being the first poet to perform, offering an entertaining social commentary on our love/hate relationship with the store and the conundrum surrounding five-pence bags.
Then, in the spirit of true democracy, the running order for the first heat, and the poets that would be performing in the first round was chosen through the age-old names-out-of-a-hat system.
The first round was billed of Catherine O’Driscoll, Alex Rhodes and Polly Denny.
New to Slam Poetry, Catherine O’Driscoll commanded the space brilliantly and responded confidently to being the first contestant to perform, promising to ‘only perform the poem once’. Her poem focused on a twenty-one-year period of grief, self-harm and the complicated loneliness that comes from loss, all of which earning her a score of 251; 81 from Angie on the quality of her performance, 84 from Tom on the quality of her writing, and 86 from Colin who judged the audience response.
Next onto the stage was Alex Rhodes, the host of Pukka Poets in Plymouth, offering an entertaining but dark under-toned version of ‘Rapper’s Delight’ in the reimagined form of ‘Nana’s Delight’ in honour of his grandmother’s declining health from Motor Neurone Disease, claiming an opportunity to gain the closure he might well have needed whilst subtly entertaining the audience. ‘Nana’s Delight’ earned him a score of 259; 91 from Angie, 83 from Tom, and 85 from Colin.
Lastly in heat one, Polly Denny the eighteen-year-old Bath Young Poet Laureate, offered a tour down the avenue of love and relationships through metaphors of food; pairing love with fruit and vegetables, and the loss of love through sweets sugar, and salt. Despite Polly’s stumble half-way through her poem she was able to bring it back with a burst of supportive applause from the audience. She earned 257 points; 84 from Angie, 86 from Tom, and 87 from Colin. The winner of the first heat was former House-DJ Alex Rhodes.
The poets in the second heat of round one, chosen in similar fashion to those in the first heat, featured Hannah Davies, Tim King and Eliza Burmistre.
Hannah Davies, commissioned by the BBC to write a poem for National Poetry Day, outlined an uncanny account of her childhood through dolls; suggesting that women could be the sum total of the dolls they’ve owned, and elaborating on the characteristics she may have inherited from each. She earned a score of 268; 94 from Angie, 85 from Tom and, 89 from Colin.
Tim King’s poem opened with a trigger warning, he euphemistically warned of content along the lines we might associate with Jimmy Saville. His poem explored the complications of childhood ‘night games’ and the repression of oral sexual abuse from his older brother and the suppressive statement ‘It didn’t happen’ from his father. Tim’s well-performed and hard-hitting poem earned him 256 points; 87 from Angie, 84 from Tom, and 85 from Colin.
Last up, Latvian-born poet Eliza Burmistre performed ‘This is not HTML’ with an expert eye over the English language musing on the differences between ‘sorry’ and ‘I’m sorry’, ‘night’ and ‘goodnight’, and contemplating the differences between coding and real life. Eliza was awarded 249 points for her enriching comparisons; 82 from Angie, 84 from Tom, and 83 from Colin. Hannah Davies’ won the heat.
Heat three featured the poets Sam Grudgings, Rob Casey and Tim Ledwitch.
Sam’s poem engaged with his struggles with alcoholism and his crisis of confidence and faith, whilst entertaining the idea that ‘addiction is nothing more than fiction’. Sam earned 276 points; 91 from Angie, 92 from Tom, and 93 from Colin.
Rob Casey; the ‘Bard of Exeter’ and author of the poem for Devon during National Poetry Day, and a stand-up poet for Apple and Snakes, emerged onto the stage dressed in a bright blue renaissance costume and beret. Rob’s ironic poem revolved around the statement: ‘I don’t complain, I write poetry’, explaining everyday situations where he would have liked to have complained, but instead wrote a poem about it. This entertaining poem almost made one want to vex him, to feature in it. The poem earned a score of 264; 86 from Angie, 86 from Tom, and 92 from Colin.
Finally, Tim Ledwitch, Hammer and Tongue Champion 2014 and dinosaur enthusiast, presented a narrative of a woman who had come to this country to get an abortion. His heartfelt poem earned him 267 points; 91 from Colin, 92 from Tom, and 84 from Angie. Sam Grudgings was the winner of heat three.
Heat four of round one was a time for Grace Cohen, Sven Stears and Imogen Downes to shine.
Grace Cohen, the President of the University of Sheffield’s Poetry Society presented a poem suggesting breasts, eyes, and thighs should be remembered together and stated the poignant phrase: ‘I am woman and I am enough.’ A statement that resonated throughout the Arnolfini. Her poem earned her 266 points; 87 from Angie, 90 from Tom, and 89 from Colin.
Sven Stears an ‘army baby’ from Münster, Germany who grew up in Kent used his history of teaching performance poetry to youth groups and in schools to offer an anecdote about growing up in ‘Middle-England’. Sven, with one of the best poetic flows of the evening, lifted the veil on childhood and growing-up detailing the events of the loss of childhood and the rebellion of teenage life with ‘9/10ths energy, [whilst] the rest is grazed knees’, before feeling the pain of his friend falling ill with leukaemia. Sven earned a score of 275; 92 from Angie, 91 from Tom, and 92 from Colin.
The last poet of the heat, eighteen-year-old Imogen Downes, in an attempt to write more poetry, brought a strong Bristolian vernacular to the table, and a charming allegory of the processes of making a hot-pot for the sake of food therapy, and drew comparisons between the hot-pot and her romance, she discovered at the end that she doesn’t need a man to complete her. Imogen, with one of the best examples of a wordplay of the evening: ‘You’re not dough, I don’t knead you’ earned 278 points; 93 from Angie, 90 from Tom, and 95 from Colin seeing her through to the next round.
Heat five of round one introduced Liam Mac an Phearsuin, Sanket Shrestha and Sarah McCreadie into the mix.
Liam Mac an Phearsuin, Milk Poetry Slam winner and Hammer and Tongue finalist and self-proclaimed poet of ‘wordplay and melodrama’ commanded the stage confidently, using every square foot to tell his story. He starts off dangerously by stating ‘My girlfriend is a five’, leaving the audience in a state of shock before coaxing them back from the edge of their seats by attempting to demolish the sexist thought processes behind rating women on their physical appearance by discussing that men’s sense of masculinity is ‘measured by vaginas’. Liam’s entertaining rollercoaster of a poem left him with a score of 277; 94 from Angie, 91 from Tom, and 92 from Colin.
Next to the stage was Nepalese poet Sanket Shrestha, a student at Bath Spa, and visibly a little nervous at the start of his poem whilst introducing the scenario of giving someone a poem. However, despite the nerves, Sanket was perhaps one of the best poets for engaging with the audience, asking numerous ‘Have you ever?’ questions, encouraging the audience to raise their hands at questions that rang true. Sanket racked up a score of 269; 88 from Angie, 90 from Tom, and 91 from Colin.
Last to the stage was Cardiff-born Sarah McCreadie; a Words First poet and a member of the Roundhouse Collective. Sarah’s poem revolved around the idea that women are gods: ‘from the womb to the tomb we are gods’. She managed to rack up a score of 268; 89 from Angie, 90 from Tom, and 89 from Colin seeing Liam through to the next round.
In the sixth and final heat of round one Claire Guest, Connor MacLeod and Ciaran Hodgers took to the stage.
Claire Guest, an engineering student from the university of the Bath gave one of the sincerest performances of the evening. Her recurrent hook of ‘I don’t want to be here’ engaged with depression and anxiety in a palpable way and encapsulating the feeling of wanting to hide away from the world, and how performing poetry makes her uncomfortable. Her honest confessional earned her a score of 267; 86 from Angie, 91 from Tom, and 90 from Colin.
Connor MacLeod, a third year creative writing student at Bath Spa and Edinburgh Fringe performer, was next to the stage. Connor took the legendary words of Martin Luther King’s 1963 ‘I have a dream’ speech and, at first, reduced them to a comical rendering of his nightmares, such as his teeth falling out. However, later in the poem he wielded them to assess the society that surrounds him against egalitarian ideals. This satirical poem earned him 274 points; 89 from Angie, 93 from Tom, and 92 from Colin.
Travelling down from Manchester Ciaran Hodgers offered an obscure but insightful comparison between himself and bodybuilders, relying on wordplay between exercise and exorcise to make the comparison come to life. Ciaran earned 275 points; 91 from Angie, 93 from Tom, and 91 from Colin qualifying him, by one point, for the second round.
After this long bout of eighteen poems from eighteen poets there was a fifteen-minute intermission to allow the dust to settle. The music came back on over the sound-system but there was still a very definite impression left in the air from the power of the words that had come before. I made my way outside for some air and to stretch my legs and to take in the atmosphere of the audience. I found that many of the poets were stood outside, amongst their friends and family, amongst other poets discussing their performances, taking in well-deserved praise and comment from other members of the audience.
When the slam reconvened at twenty-past nine the original eighteen poets were now down to six; Alex Rhodes, Hannah Davies, Sam Grudgings, Imogen Downes, Liam Mac an Phearsuin and Ciaran Hodgers. The sound engineer called for everyone to resume their seats, and as the lights dimmed, the tension in the room was tangible once more.
Hosts Glenn Carmichael and Claire Williamson were back on stage explaining the rules of engagement; two heats of three poets, non-cumulative scores, and fast-paced lyricism.
The first heat faced Sam Grudgings, Alex Rhodes, and Hannah Davies against one another.
Sam’s poem grappled with the conflicted feelings of hitting rock bottom; of knowing that he isn’t the only one to feel low, but knowing that he might need the help of others. Sam honourably calls out for conversation, and companionship, and encourages that the best way to conquer the feeling of isolation might be an open conversation about mental health. The poem earned a score of 278; 89 from Angie, 95 from Tom, and 94 from Colin.
Next to perform was Alex Rhodes with an entertaining twist on Einstein’s theory of relativity: Einstein of course described it to his secretary as: ‘When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.’ Rhodes version, however, was something more like: You fall in love, and it feels like forever, but you’re on magic mushrooms so it might have only been seven hours. Rhode’s poem was rich with openness, the beauty of letting someone in, the infinite possibilities of love but knowing that what goes up must go down. There were moments in the poem that members of the audience could be seen to be wiping tears away from their eyes. Alex’s poem earned a score of 273; 90 from Angie, 93 from Tom, and 90 from Colin.
Last to the stage, and perhaps stealing the show was Hannah Davies’ retort to the events of the US presidential election, opening her poem with the unforgettable line: ‘Go on, grab my pussy, I dare you.’ Her poem tackled the portrayal of rape culture in the media; starting with Donald Trump’s tape before moving onto the Brock Turner case, and footballer Ched Evans. Her undoubtedly passionate performance earned her poem a score of 282; 94 from Angie, 91 from Tom, and 97 from Colin, registering one of the highest audience reactions of the night securing her a place in the final.
In the second and final heat of round two Imogen Downes, Ciaran Hodgers and Liam Mac an Phearsuin were pitted against one another.
Imogen’s poem took us on a journey through her school career, starting when she was eight years old juxtaposing ‘those who try’ and ‘those who succeed’. She brings us forward to when she was seventeen years old, stuck in the same institution whilst more inequality occurred around her, stating that: a ‘thesaurus is the strongest sword you can wield when you are middle class’. Her social commentary earned a score of 283; 92 from Angie, 94 from Tom, and 97 from Colin.
Ciaran Hodgers offered a perspective on the Orlando massacre and LGBT+ rights, insisting on the complicated and undeveloped nature of identity in the LGBT+ community: ‘our grammar is still young’. This poignant assessment of current affairs earned a score of 275; 90 from Angie, 92 from Tom, and 93 from Colin.
Liam Mac an Phearsuin, the final performer giving the final performance of the final round before the final, took to the stage reminding us that ‘the points are pointless’ before providing one of the most complex, and brilliant narrative constructions of the entire evening. Liam sets a scene of America in 1943 and the aeronautical dilemma in the air force wherein planes needed to be light enough to fly, but strong enough to deal death to the enemy and come back protected. He parallels this narrative with the familiar premise of the ‘three (depressed) guys walk into a bar’, where the first man talks about a new prescription of SSRI’s, whilst another discusses his inability to get out of his head, whilst the third guy offers only condescending advice. Bringing us back to wartime America Liam begins to tell the tale of Abraham Wald, the Romanian statistician behind using survivorship bias to improve the planes of the war, asking us to consider the ‘marks not on wrists’, and the ones that don’t make it back alive. This emotional and complex poem earned the highest score of the night, 287; earning 96 from Angie, 95 from Tom, and 96 from Colin seeing him through to the final to face-off against Hannah Davies’.
The fast-paced nature of the second round began to take a toll on the audience; so many concepts and metaphors delivered in such a short space of time to process them left many of us in a confused state of emotional turmoil, still half-laughing from the poems that entertained us, still half-saddened by the poems that tugged on our heartstrings and still confused over the metonymies that were over before we could grasp them. Despite all of this, the audience were keen for the final, to see a victor from their champions, and now it was time for the duel; poet against poet, in it for the camaraderie but also in it for the prize and the title.
Glenn Carmichael and Claire Williamson see a coin tossed into the air to decide who would go first and last. Liam comes out with the luck of the toss and decides to go second.
Hannah Davies’ final poem lists the contents of a boy’s pocket, using the items to tell his fortune, and the emotional process of a child growing up whilst the mother protects the image of the boy-child safe. Her poem earns a respectable score of 284; 94 from Angie, 94 from Tom, and 96 from Colin.
Liam Mac an Phearsuin’s response is his ‘Ode to London’, setting us once again in the 1940’s, but this time in blitzed-out London surrounded by fire. Beginning to feel depressed, the persona goes into pubs and provokes skinhead right-wing nationalists before taking us back to London and telling the story of a factory worker, bombed out of his house twice. Liam tackles the idea that Londoners did not refuse to leave because they wanted to die, but because they wanted to be the ones who survived, and not just lived. This two-tone poem earned a score of 282; 93 from Angie, 94 from Tom, and 95 from Colin. This meant that Hannah Davies had won.
Following the acceptance of her award and the exclamation that the drive down had been worth it, and Liam’s acceptance of his certificated runner-up prize, Hannah provided an encore; a response to Liam’s ‘Ode to London’ with one of her own in the same vein. She wove the story of falling in love in London, spliced with taking drugs, and drinking in her youth.
Concluding the night Glenn Carmichael and Claire Williamson took to the stage for the final time thanking the judges, reading the names of all eighteen poets, thanking Poetry Can, and the technician for ensuring the evening went smoothly before thanking, lastly, the audience for their thorough and enthusiastic participation in the Poetry Slam’s event.
All in all, the evening was one of thorough enjoyment; it contained ups, and downs, and even sideways emotional journeys, it made us laugh, sometimes out-loud, sometimes to ourselves, it made us appreciate poetry and the artistry of the spoken word, our fingers were sore from clicking, and our palms aching from clapping.
There had been a winner, but there had been no losers, and all emerged as friendly and as wide-grinned as they had entered, all of us better for the experience.’
Charlotte Mealing 2016
(Slam photos courtesy Tim Woolfe www.woolfandrogersphotography.com )