‘Every time you dry your hair

You kill another polar bear…’

Anyone who has anything more than a passing familiarity with the slam poetry scene would, unfortunately be liable to have encountered the odd dreadful example of the genre. Its sins are manifold – but let us name as examples regularly found and best avoided:

  • lax composition and going too blatantly for the easy rhyme, over and over again
  • narcissistic wordcraft (this is all about me, and my feelings!!!) that fails (or simply neglects to make) any attempt at transcendence,
  • the presentation of what are, following a little consideration, facile right-on bien pensant platitudes as ground-breaking (if self-evident) pieces of revelatory political insight. “The Sententious Editorial in The Guardian syndrome”

or – rather more comprehensible and forgivable – the inexperienced performer who simply loses their nerves when presented with an attentive audience; or who prefers to emote excessively, out of dread that their words, presented in a more neutral tone, may not reach their intended effect…. the anti slam

Perhaps to counter these perils – perhaps even to alert aspiring slammers to these and other risks – was born the “Anti-Slam”, hosted recently at the Old Fire Station, which was promoted as offering “Oxford’s best poets” performing poetry. It must be said….it succeeded, admirably: some of Oxford’s best poets really were there, and so in control of their craft, and able to manipulate its techniques, to satirise its aspects most open to satirising, that they managed to present some works that were, frankly, somewhat, frequently hilariously, awful: but, it must be said, some way short in awfulness of what has sometimes been heard in more conventional slams. And rather more hilarious  The label of “so bad its good” was thus fitting.

Thus: we learned that

Snooker is a metaphor for racism and colonialism, as there the white knocks out all the other colours – and owns the table.

A direct and inevitable consequence of using a hair drier is the death of a polar bear.

Those entirely unfamiliar with what Pokémon is about learned precisely nothing from one poem – filled with allusions and references rather narrowly drawn from that field alone.

And above all, over and over again, we heard far, far, far more than was strictly necessary on the topic of bodily discharges.

There were: terrible rhymes, self-obsessed dronings, grotesqueries – of presentation as well as of substance: there were, among the delights and the demonstrations of What Is Not To Be Done:

  • the poet (Pete The Temp) walking on stage, and starting his performance by coughing into the microphone;

    'coughing'

    ‘coughing’

  • the poet (George Chopping) getting lost in his digressions and ramblings that left too little time for his actual poem;
  • the poet (James Webster) reading closely from his mobile phone (which is interrupted by the signalled arrival of a text message mid-flow);
  • the poet (A.F Harrold) ranting incoherently and being altogether abusive about cats
  • the poet (Danny Chivers) as over-ardent, and, some might suggest, intentionally ill-informed, environmentalist (dressed in hi-vis vest and campaign T-shirt), spewing forth agitprop, interspersed with a derivative of rapping in a cod-Jafaican accent

    cats

    ‘cats’

  • the angry angry poet (Paul Askew), the resurrection of Alan Parker Urban Warrior, perhaps, who throws the microphone away, rants and shouts from a shopping list of Things That Are Wrong In The World;
  • the poet (Kate Byard), the author of angst-ridden crush-smitten teenage poems written as diary entries, foolishly deciding to bring them to a public audience years after they were written…
  • the poet (Sophia Blackwell) who demonstrated precisely why, over many centuries, poets of note have generally not found menstruation an apt metaphor to describe the qualities or intensity of love

    'diary'

    ‘diary’

The poetry apart, the presentation of the evening is worthy of note: Tina Sederholm and Dan Simpson shone as hosts, aided proficiently by the most mysterious scorekeeper this side of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, the seemingly slightly Germanic “Professor Vert”.A general proliferation of velvet clothing lent an air of hipster decadence, which was possibly fitting. While the audience had the opportunity (one that was sometimes taken advantage of) to order a poet off-stage once they had been performing for two minutes, should their work be considered sufficiently awful,

Judging was conducted by a “professional” panel of jurists – Steve Larkin, the founder of “Hammer and Tongue”, Paula Varjack (the instigator of the Anti-Slam), and Sally Outon, who took delight in expressing their response to each poet’s presentation – in one instance by drawing a picture to express a despair that surpassed all words.

 

'Your face is like a rained on cake...'

‘Your face is like a rained on cake…’

In the end those three poets deemed to be the best worst, or the worst best, or something like that, were set a final challenge: they had ten minutes to compose poems on a person, an object, and a place, chosen by the audience: these turned out to be, respectively, Gary Barlow, a sock, and the moon. At least two of which are subjects on which poets have been mysteriously silent. Which almost certainly proved to be a good thing. Sophia Blackwell took the prize, deservedly, coming up with the most coherent and memorable poem of the three.

So, all in all, an entertaining evening, rather different in character from a Hammer and Tongue night: with the judging, and some the poets seeming to act in exaggerated character, this was something of the vaudeville or the literary burlesque about this offering. A most worthwhile addition to the Oxford arts scene.

Dominic Heaney

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