Slam poetry in Margate
I’ve avoided poetry slams for years. The idea of poetry as competition sticks in my craw, and I’m not alone; it’s an issue that divides the poetry community. Slam poetry was intended to give poetry back to the people, but tonight the people are noticeably absent from Elsewhere, a trendy, intimate vinyl-cum-coffee shop in newly fashionable Margate. There’s a headliner, ten competing poets, then two champions tailing the event, slugging it out, pro-wrestler style, for a belt. That’s thirteen poets already, and I see heaps more in an audience of perhaps fifty-five people. You couldn’t throw a thesaurus without walloping a poet, but of ‘people’ – assuming, safely I think, that poets can’t be counted as people – there aren’t a whole heap. But
I like Connor Sansby a lot, and he’s running this thing, and if he runs an evening, I go, and relax into it. He’s perfect for a slam. “It’s pantomime”, he tells us, repeatedly, with himself as the moustachioed villain-cum-ringmaster at its helm. He starts off by setting us up as the heroes of the night, telling us we here in Margate are much better at slams than Faversham (Faversham, boo!) – “You guys are way more slam primed – and I love you for it!”
It’s an extraordinary literary phenomenon that here in the dog-end of East Kent we have so many exceptionally good young poets, all eager to perform, publish and compete. All credit to Connor of Whisky & Beards publishing for championing so many new voices. Twenty years ago you’d be pushed to find anyone under 40 at a poetry event in Thanet, yet this sunny Saturday evening sees them spilling out the door, fighting for the chance to shine.
We start with the Headliner, Neelam Sarelia-Brayley. Her style remains gentle, even as she plants her feet in defiance to perform poems of resistance and fury: poems which expand before you like ink on a blotter.
Then ten poets, each with three minutes to impress. They are predominantly young and with single issues poems – asylum seekers, #metoo, poverty. Three audience members volunteer to judge, which seems incredibly brave of them. Fancy offering to take a split second to judge an artist’s work, out of ten, while surrounded by the artist’s pals? Extraordinary. I’m thrilled to remain an anonymous audience member. However, no one scores less than seven, and there’s certainly a hint of sympathetic scoring for newcomers who are less practised than their rivals. Even when nerves mean we can barely hear a word – I was in the front row, and a couple of poets were still inaudible – they are scored kindly. Poetry isn’t being judged here, but rather people’s bravery and willingness to have a go. Nothing wrong with that.
The first two poets give us comic turns which are gleefully received and score well, but not given scores likely to win. Alex Vellis is up third, currently writing his dissertation on slams, and firmly of the opinion that here in the UK slam is not a genre of poetry – as it is in the US – but more a presentation style. To demonstrate this he gives us a poem about his father, brilliant, searing, flawless, exposing, well-crafted and tight-jawed angry, with nothing remotely humorous or crowd-pleasing about it – unless, that is, the crowd before you happen to really value good poetry, which happily this crowd do. He scores well and comes third, after Oisin Harris, who delivers a heartfelt piece for his sister, again hardly conventional slam territory, a narrative brimming with humanity. The crowd roar at his efforts. This is great.
Why slam rather than showcase? In slam you can be more confident what sort of beast will be well-received. You know in advance the likely age range; you needn’t gauge the mood of the room on the spot. You need practise less, as you only have three minutes to sell yourself. The delicate, the humourous, the pastoral, will all be tolerated and politely received, but they’re likely to be thrashed by more zeitgeisty topics. In this instance, the #metoo poem wins, and deservedly so – Nina Telegina staggers on, speeds up, slips up, delivers with passion and frenzy a well-crafted, blistering piece, eventually leaving the page as if extemporising. It’s very impressive and moving, words and performance both, but indubitably if she’d crafted and presented something that splendid about a walk beside a lake she wouldn’t have won. The issue presented pushes her into championship territory. Nothing wrong with that either. It’s just a different beast.
Connor links the night together with the consummate flair which has rightly made his monthly Margate poetry showcase Tongue Punch famous. His paternal empathy, genial and ursine, works as a leveller between contenders, so that none feel lesser or judged, whatever the scorecards might say. He even gets them clicking at lines they particularly like, beatnik style, cheerfully admitting to its wankiness. “It’s OK: we’ve all turned up to a poetry event: we’re all cool with a little bit of wankery”. The full-throated audience pick up on his generosity and ensure everyone is treated kindly. Here all performers are championed as the heroes of the night, their performances nestled lovingly among a host of stories about walrus memes and his mum’s loathing of Lionel Richie’s Hello. No, actually, I don’t quite remember how that worked, but somehow at the time it seemed relevant and absolutely compelling. Spending time with Connor is like having a lunatic sit next to you on the bus; after moment’s panic you just relax and go with it, and find the journey passes more colourfully in consequence.
Two Kent poetry slam champions finish the night, Henry Maddicott and Sadie Davidson. The three judges hear three pieces from each, writing a name after each round. Sadie goes second each time, and each time I fear for her: Henry’s work is so honed and heartfelt. But she produces something to rival it in every round, delivering furious diatribes about the experiences of the underclass as she sees it, damaged, suffering, but incapable of surrender. Mostly it’s presented to us third person, but her voice is so authentic it’s hard to distinguish between what she’s reading and who she is.
Seems a shame someone has to lose. Sadie loses, as it happens, only just, which given the tone and content of her work seems entirely appropriate.
It is indeed pantomime: satirical, self-aware, fun, people-pleasing, crafting its art to engage and encourage a wider, more varied audience. The poetry scene should remember that without pantomime most theatres would be bankrupt and derelict within a season.