For those about to slam…

Some (probably worthless) advice on slams for beginners , from someone who’s watched a lot of them and won a few.

  • Don’t start your set by saying, “Please be kind to me: I’ve never slammed before/my boyfriend has just left me/my dog has just died.”  Audiences are usually prepared to be supportive and generous to a slammer who appears nervous, inexperienced or in some kind of emotional pain, but they aren’t usually impressed by slammers who actively try to cultivate the sympathy vote.
  • If you didn’t know that and actually did start your first slam appearance with “Please be kind to me: I’ve never slammed before”, don’t beat yourself up about it. So did most of us.
  • There’s this thing called “etiquette”. Listen respectfully when the other slammers and any feature acts are performing (if you’re too nervous about your own upcoming slot to really listen, at least try to look like you’re listening). Do not: chat to your friends, check your phone or go outside to buy a drink/have a smoke during other people’s performances, loudly criticise other people’s performances, turn up late and/or leave early so you miss the other acts, unless it is absolutely unavoidable (e.g. you’ll miss the last train home if you stay).
  • Do try to chat to the other performers in the breaks and at the end. You’re at least as likely to impress the spoken word community and get offered other opportunities by your offstage conduct as by what you do onstage.
  • Don’t try to chat to them before they’ve performed, though. Many slammers need space to get their head together and run lines before they go on, especially at major slams. And don’t do it in an ultra-ambitious, networky sort of way – just enjoy the experience of getting to know people who share a common interest.
  • Some slams are very eclectic, while others have a marked house style. It’s often (but not always) the case that young, urban audiences prefer intense, confessional and/or political poems about serious topics, like identity politics, while provincial and literary festival slams with a slightly older audience are more likely to favour Pam Ayresey-style light verse. If you can, it’s a good idea to get a feel for what kind of poetry goes down well before you decide whether to enter that slam or not.
  • If you do choose to enter a slam where everyone else is doing a different style of poetry from you, don’t expect them to experience a Road-to-Damascus moment where they realise they’ve been doing poetry wrong all their life and that you are a far superior poet to them. And don’t throw a strop, complaining they’re all Philistine idiots who don’t understand what real poetry is/all cliquey snobs who only vote for their mates, if you don’t win.
  • The biggest difference I’ve found between audience judges and “expert” judges is that audiences often want you to sound exactly like every other spoken word artist they’ve ever heard and if you don’t, it confuses them and they penalise you for it, while “expert” judges want you to sound different from every spoken word artist they’ve ever heard and will reward originality (often to the bemusement and displeasure of the audience).
  • If you do win, don’t think that automatically makes you the new Kate Tempest. If you don’t win, don’t assume you must be shit and there’s no point ever entering a slam again. Judging is always going to be somewhat subjective and on another night, with different judges, it might have gone a very different way.
  • The audience and the organisers will have forgotten who did well and who did badly within approximately 24 hours. They might remember who won, but you can’t even count on that. But slammers never forget – they’ll still be rehearsing their keenly felt grievances about the judging three years later.
  • It’s gutting when you don’t do as well as you think you deserved to do, but try not to be an arsehole about it. Congratulate the winner as sincerely as you can. If you can’t honestly look them in the eye and say, “You were fantastic and deserved to win” at least try to muster a fake smile and a noncommittal “Well done”.
  • Having said that, if you have lost it and thrown all your toys out of the pram, it’s probably not irredeemable – most of us have behaved badly on isolated occasions. Just try not to make a habit of it.
  • Stay off social media if you’re sore, though. A churlish remark made in the heat of the moment, on the night itself, in the immediate aftermath of defeat, is much easier to forgive than one that your opponent has taken the time to type out on Facebook the next day.

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