Wednesday, 28 October 2009

the saming

Slams Either Side Of The Pond

So here i am back in London, the English one.

London Ontario was... nice. I had a lovely billet. I got to hang around with Jayson Macdonald and Jeff Colbert and their respective very nice girlfriends. I walked down their Thames in the Greenery. I let myself be surprised by the number of ex-businesses lining many of the streets.

And my two shows there felt very good.

So I will certainly apply for the Fringe for next year.

Plus I went to a slam.

The London slam was good to see, though no-one was terribly friendly. And four days before that I’d been to the Vancouver Slam. Which was great, and super-friendly.

I remember the effect my first Vancouver Slam had on me, back in Sept 03… Because it was me who started Poetry Slams in Scotland, back in 2001/2. Which were great events with shedloads of audience and bucketloads of press . The crammed punters went crazy for it.. the media couldn’t write enough about it… and they went off like a bomb.

Part of the reason I remember those slams so fondly is cos they broke the back of my eternal skintness. Cos up till then, at the age of 38ish, I’d always been broke. I was less broke than I used to be, but I’d always been skint. Money was building up, and I was good at living on nothing, I could live in London on less than ten quid a day, but it was always tight.

And then… after decades of profound skintness… our second slam was so successful we, two of us, made 385 quid each in profit. Because we weren’t funded to run the slams. So we were perfectly entitled to keep the profit. So we did.

And I’ve never been skint since that day.

So I remember them fondly.

As I said earlier in blog, my wallets had always been sad and tragic, had died at length of anorexia… but, ever since then, they’ve been bulimic.

Ultimately though, the Scottish slams were a ballsup.

For a few reasons, which are all down to me, they were a cock-up. I was running them with someone else, but as all the good ideas were my idea, and I take the credit, so were all the ballsups.

And the real ballsup it that they were going so well… They had a real possibility of turning into something much much bigger…Cos in Berlin these days, their Slam finals have an audience of over 10,000 people in one weekend… 10,000!... and we had a chance of achieving some small version of that, but we didn’t, and I’d put the mistakes down to me, the actual doer.

Trouble was that I’m a performance poet. And I think performance poets should get paid to do what they do. So Slams, live poetry competitions, where the acts don’t get paid, were, I thought, not the way to go, and could be regarded as exploitative.

And I also think that new acts …developing, improving, going-to-end-up-good/great performance poets… should have longer than the 3 or 2 or whatever minutes the slam format allows them. So I didn’t focus on slams. I focused on the cabarets. Which might have been ok-to-good, but were nothing like the gorgeous raging beasts that were the slams… frequently close to pandemonium with greats acts bursting out the woodwork and crazily positive Scottish audiences...

However, despite the above logic being good logic, it was wrong.

I reckon it would have been much better if I hadn’t worried about paying people 10 or 25 quid, or the small amount of stage-time involved.

I reckon it would have been much better if I’d gone for well-organised Scottish national poetry slams. With heats in the Autumn, semis in the winter, and finals in the spring. Which could have truly grown into something. With the slammers going for it, competing, getting better and better towards a visible potential victory: Scottish Slam Champion.

That would, I believe have been better for performance poetry in Scotland.

And it was ballsed-up because I, me, this blogger, had too many inhibiting principles.

So, part of the reason I write about this now is because of the Vancouver Slam. Because, when I went to it in September of 2003, I remember being knocked out by the way they do it. Ten or so slammers, 3 minutes, great positive vibe, lovely, and run by a collective.

And I remember thinking, when I get back Scotland I will rejig it on these lines. Because the whole Scottish format was my idea, [a modification of Marcus Moore’s] … Twenty-five poets with two minutes each in heats, ten in semis, and three in final.

But by the time I got back there I was completely shattered by my first 100 day tour, the headache/ woman I was running the show with was barely speaking to me, there was various rogue acrimony pustulating out all over, so I never got round to it.

Which is a balls-up.

But on the other hand, I see the London Ontario slam, and how samified all the slammers are, particularly the good slammers, and I think… maybe not.

Because they’re great positive events, but the process is a terribly powerful homogeniser.

I mean, I’d rather see a night of British performance poetry than of American. Even though every one of the US slammers might be better than the UK slammers.

Because the UK slammers would be so much more diverse. Would be funny, heavy, light, dark, political, trivial, fast, slow, wilfully oversmart, wilfully overdumb.

Which would make for a much more entertaining show. Because variety from each performer, and between the performers, is such a vital part of a quality show.

While pretty much every good US slammer i`ve seen has been in the same style.

Like the good slammers in London Ontario.

That high-energy jacked-up Ginsberg style with a hiphop lilt.

And very well written.

Frequently marvellously written.

Except all the North American slammers have got that style.

First you see one, its like wow, amazing.

Fifth time you see one, its like wow, amazing.

Fiftieth time you see one, its like, wow, this is amazing but you`re more frustrated than you are knocked out.

Cos they`ve got that Ginsberg hiphop litlting energy thing like a virus.

All of them.

And it ain`t easy to get that thing. It takes serious craft and the writing has to be shithot to shape up. To pull that off you have to be very together, and only for very few people does that come easy.

And yet they`ve all got it. And half of them seem to have a list of issues they`re ticking off as they go. Which gets very frustrating, cos half the time you feel you could write the second half of the piece yourself.

I mean, half the best acts i`ve ever seen are women who came out of New York Slam. Tracy Morris, Stacy Ann Chin, Sonia Sohn. And the best guy i`ve ever seen is Shane Koyzan, who came out the Vancouver Slam. And these people are marvellous.

The slam phenomenon is of course, incredible. Has unleashed a huge wave of untapped energy into poetry. Has been one of the main ways, if not the main way, poetry has been taken away from the usual wasp-academic ivory tower bullshit of yore`s yore.

But Jesus Christ, the samification. The intense, unhealthily incestuous genepool, deformed-grandchildren level of samification. Of homogenisation. Of commodification… [now that’s the word]…

What a strange thing for all those classy minds to do with all that talent… to do to themselves ... To get so intensely samey.

Cos it takes hours and hours, lots of hours and hours and days and days and weeks and months to get together enough to pull that off live... The breath the rhythm the energy the commitment the voice the writing the language the wordplay.

And that don’t come easy.

And just the writing is plainly a real endeavour… Cos a slam is a field of intense scrutiny and your writing has to stand up next to some shithot writing, so you have to be class else you ain’t getting anywhere.

And all that ain’t easy. And it produces some very classy performance poetry.

And yet…

The saming.

The saming.

The saming.


The saming.


  1. Hi Jem,

    You're right about this - it's something I noticed in my few trips to Canada and California.

    I find it difficult (not impossible) to think of two top class UK performers who are as easily interchangeable as two similarly selected North American poets. (Which is why it's nice they visit the UK singly... unless all their poems are the same shape too.)

    Why might this be? Is it because over the years audiences have selected one or two particular styles of poetry as slam-winning, thus letting other styles wither from underuse? Is it because winning is more important over there? Could it be any number of other reasons.

    One thing I think worth remembering is that many of my favourite poets and performers (and most especially poems) would never in any concievable universe win in a slam situation - but they're still brilliant.

    I'm enjoying dipping into your mind on your web-log from time to time Jem, thanks for writing.


  2. I agree that a lot of the folks who consistently want to win slams are 'samifying' (sic??) themselves to try to adhere to being 'slammers', often at the expense of any real content... But... I for one loved the first bunch of Big Word slams, and am also glad you then chose to focus on the cabarets: it is the cabarets rather than the slams that folks keep telling me they miss in Edinburgh. I miss them too! Plus, they are a much better way to develop and get away from the samey-samey-ness of the slam style. Anyway - Bram put me on to yer blog; will nae doubt read my way through them at some point! Hope yer well. Jenny