Totally slambolic

Officially, I’m Not Doing Slams Anymore. I made a decision, about a year ago, that I’m Beyond That Now and that I was going to concentrate on getting more 20-minute sets and developing one-hour shows. The high-impact, three-minute attention grab was no longer for me.

Which is odd, because I’ve ended up doing more slams in my first year of Not Doing Slams Anymore than I did in my last year of Still Doing Them. One of these was an accident – I turned up as audience and they were a slammer short, so I agreed to make up the numbers – but the rest I can only ascribe to my penchant for volunteering for mad shit when I’ve had a few drinks.

It’s hard to keep away, because I LOVE slams. Yes, I know all about their shortcomings (the scorecreep, the tendency for judges to penalise material which is subtle or which provokes or challenges the audience in any way, the danger of being viewed as an eternal amateur if slams remain your principal focus), but I’m basically the most competitive person in the whole world and when those scorecards flip over and there’s a 10 on them, I feel like Nadia Comaneci competing in the 1976 Olympics. I have always been epically crap at sport. My PE teachers had to entirely redefine the parameters of what “being crap at sport” meant when they met me, because I was ten times crapper at sport than the crappest student they’d ever taught previously. I never learnt to swim properly. I never learnt to ride a bike, at all. I couldn’t do a handstand or a cartwheel. It was only in about Year 9 that I finally managed to do a forward roll. My body just didn’t do what I told it to. Poetry slams are the closest I’ve ever come to knowing what it feels like to be good at PE.

When I first started doing them, in my naivety (but I suspect I’m not alone in this), I assumed that slams were the spoken word equivalent of the Civil Service Entrance Exams: that you couldn’t have a career in that field if you didn’t do well in them and if you did very well indeed in them, you were guaranteed a fast-track career trajectory. There then followed an agonising couple of years, during which I won almost all the slams I entered, but still couldn’t get booked for a 20-minute set anywhere, while all the people I’d beaten were being given feature slots all over the place, and I realised I was wrong. Fact is, some of the best poets I know are rubbish slammers and how you do in slams is pretty much irrelevant to anything, at all (unless, possibly, if you win the Roundhouse or the Hammer and Tongue National Final). I know people who have managed to use regional slam wins as a springboard to success, but it has generally been in combination with a ruthlessly efficient promotional campaign and world-class networking skills.

That’s not to say I haven’t done well out of slams. They can be a great way to get your work seen. I have recently been offered two fantastic opportunities by people who saw me compete in a slam and were impressed enough to want to book me. The thing is, though, it didn’t happen in a hurry – one of them had seen me in a slam a year previously, the other one had seen me in a slam THREE years previously. And in neither case had I actually won the slam. I’ve got no complaints.

I do think there’s a lot of double-think around slams, though. Yes, yes, we all know “it’s not about the winning, it’s about the poetry”, “the best poet never wins” and every other saccharine cliché that is trotted out by the hosts on a regular basis. But if it really all is totally arbitrary and a bit of meaningless fun, why do some slams offer big performance opportunities as prizes? And why do poets regularly describe themselves as multi-slam-winning in their biogs? Either it means something, or it doesn’t.

Many spoken word nights and literary festivals want to include a slam because they get bums on seats – they are popular with audiences and they attract a lot of wannabe performers, most of whom bring a vast entourage of friends and family along to support them.  Organisers usually do very well out of it. In return, though, I think they owe it to entrants (especially ones who are new to spoken word, naïve and/or impressionable and who may have unrealistic expectations) to give them an honest idea of what, if anything, a win will lead to, and, possibly, also help and advice on what they can do next to move forward in spoken word, beyond slams.

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