WHO WILL PROTECT US FROM POETRY’S PROTECTORS?
I don’t know how you whippersnappers reel off your blogs so quickly, so I arrive at the pitchfork party for Nathan A Thompson a little late. Earlier, a wave of virtual sabers were shaken throughout the twittersphere after Thompson’s ill informed and reference free diatribe against Slam appeared in today’s Independent. Most of us started by asking who the hell Nathan A Thompson actually was? The online buzz of the national performance poetry scene was unanimous in this respect before our subsequent Googling unveiled an individual that had previously praised Slam poetry in the Guardian, but also appeared to have built a career in Slam poetry workshops.
Poejazzi and Raymond Antrobus didn’t break a sweat when taking Thompson’s non argument apart; while Dave Bryant penned a brilliant satirical pair of blogs pinpointing the mainstream press’s editorial flop flopping about whether the occasional vocalisations from the poetry world were birthing pangs or a death rattle.
Evidently, Thompson seems to have unwittingly established himself as a bete noir for the performance poetry community, almost on a par with the plagiarist Christian Ward, which is not entirely fair seeing as all he has done is write a stupid article.
I myself am left pondering the same old questions such as: how do people that are seemingly unknown on the poetry scene always pop up as experts in the subject on the pages of national newspapers? Will we ever get a decent critical engagement with live poetry other than the usual swing between hagiography by journalistic friends of the scene and hatchet jobs by senior figures that just don’t get it?
I’m also wondering when people will stop talking about Slam as if it was something that suddenly arrived and needs to be quickly summed up or dealt with. It’s nearly thirty years old fer feck’s sake. Attacks on Slam are getting pretty old too, with Harold Bloom’s dismissal of it as “the death of art” still knocking about cyberspace since he mumbled it as an unguarded aside to the Paris Review in 2000.
Thompson’s attack on Slam seems to take the same form as most others: an anecdotal remembrance of Slams they didn’t enjoy rather than a serious engagement with the three decades of the art form. In a similar but far more nuanced way, Lemn Sissay attacked Slam in the Poetry Review a few years back. Sissay’s essay mainly focused on his own negative experience in witnessing the audience turn on a poet during a TV recording of a Slam that he was hosting. However, Sissay appeared to change his mind about Slam after watching We Are Poets, a powerful documentary that followed a team of British, inner city youths as they took part in a major US tournament.
When we speak of Slam, we don’t just speak of something that is barely a decade younger than punk and hip hop; we speak of a phenomena that has caught on in every corner of the globe. Whole books have been written about the differences between the New York and Chicago Slam scenes, let alone the differences between Slams in Denmark and Singapore. The spread of Slam has enabled vibrant spoken word cultures to spring up where there wasn’t even a back room open mic and added a bit more choice in cities where the live poetry culture is long established.
I am far from a seasoned Slam performer and yet I have had the pleasure of taking part in Slams at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark, the Cheltenham All Comers Slam at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and squared up against the Bristol Slam team at the Bristol Old Vic. I didn’t win in the first two and was a fair to middling component in the winning team in the latter. But I got to perform alongside poets from all over Europe at Roskilde and got to showboat in front six hundred paying punters over two rounds, or six minutes, in Cheltenham Town Hall. I have also judged a fair few Slam type contests, indulging my evil, snobbish Saint persona at the Roundhouse Page Match and I’ll be once again be judging the Anti Slam this February, the Slam where the worst poem really is meant to win.
I mention all these not just to reiterate how wonderful I am, but also to make one particular point. With all these experiences I retain memories of the poets and their poems and tactics, the audience and their unguarded expressions of approval or malevolence and the truly surreal foibles of the judges themselves. The thing that I always forget is who actually won the damn thing. It’s the theatricality of the format, and the way in which everyone, from host to poet to judge to audience member, plays their role, that lingers. Something about the drama of competition seems to pack in the punters, not just for Spoken Word poets either: those “Ivory Tower” types pack in the crowds when shortlisted poets for the TS Eliot Prize sell out the Royal Festival Hall every year.
The carcass of Thompson’s missive has almost already been picked clean. His strange assertion that nob jokes win slams is dismissed with a cursory glance at female slam champions such as Holly McNish, Lucy English and 2012’s Farrago UK Slam winner Stephanie Dogfoot Chan. Thompson’s risible dictum that a poem should be sampled like a fine wine could only be outdone in the buttock clenching department by saying that writing one is like making love to a beautiful woman.
No, instead I’ll reference Thompson’s erroneous statement that Slam was “named after a brutal wrestling move”. The founder of Slam, the Slampappy himself, Marc “So What?” Smith chose the term Slam because of a sporting connection but not wrassling, it was more in the spirit of the basketball Slam Dunk: the moment of virtuosity, weightlessness and sheer power that hushes the crowd for a moment before they scream out their fanatical appreciation.
But let’s stick with wrestling for a moment. While the body slam seems like a brutal assault, it is actually a potentially lethal move (a botched slam can, and has led to paralysis or death) carried out with great care by two skilled professionals. Personal injury is actually the one thing that the two wrestlers are most eager to avoid. They are there to tell a story. They are there to thrill the crowd and help them forget the rigours of their lives for a moment.
Maybe Nathan A Thompson wasn’t wrong about everything after all…