In advance of the Trans Europe Expression Slam Final in Manchester on 14 November, Olivia Logan reviews the Berlin heat.
On a rainy Sunday night in Berlin’s Neukölln area, I’m trying to choose a seat at the Trans Europe Expression Slam heat. The expat creative scene in Berlin is frustratingly dominated by two extremes, non-native speakers with flawless English and native, linguistically privileged, ignorant English speakers with embarrassing German. Never the twain shall meet I thought, until I found the ‘Trans Europe Expression Slam’ where poets were encouraged to perform in German or English. As I wait for the slam to begin a rushed man makes a pit stop past a few groups of audience members. As he approaches two women within my earshot I listen to his pleas, ‘Hey! I was wondering if either of you know any of the performers this evening?’ Hesitant and confused they reply that they don’t. ‘Okay great! And you’re both native English speakers?’ They give the same negative response but this time he is disappointed. ‘You see we need three judges for the competition tonight, but they have to be native English speakers and not know any of the contestants’, he says. I watch him jump around a few more groups until three lucky box-tickers are armed with A4 sized whiteboards and marker pens. After overhearing this interaction and witnessing that the only German spoken during the whole show was the compere asking a judge to confirm their score, ‘Ist sieben komma fünf oder?’ it seems that even the Trans-Europe poetry slam is in the same English speaking rut as the rest of expat Berlin.
The stage lights beam and the compere came out, a tall German with glasses and self-deprecating attitude, she is confident and I like her quickly. She explains the rules, contestants have ’90 seconds to rock or shock the mic’, nine performers, three rounds, three judges who can give scores between one and ten. Contestants are not allowed props, not allowed to sing and no hate speech will be tolerated. The winners will be flown to Manchester where they will compete against winners of the Paris heat to win a £500 prize.
The first act runs up to the stage from the back on the room where all the performers are sitting. She begins with confidence, a piece about the vulnerability of crying in public. With only a passing mention of Tinder, PMS and a cutting remark about Coldplay I already get a sense of the zeitgeisty performances which are to come. The judges are asked for their first scores, her performance brings in a 7.2, 7.0 and an 8.6. Interspersed between a witty poem about oral sex and a catchy 90 second ode to exema, a Boris Johnson lookalike takes the stage. It becomes clear that the amateur judges have the confidence to be harsh. His drab performance is met with the same dislike as those of his doppelganger. He scores on average a mere 6.5. Next comes a roaring character, who delivers one of the most theatrical performances yet, an aged Nina Hagen demands, ‘You’re in paradise! Paradise your life.’ Following this, a performance which seemed to be a poem about some kind of political injustice, which one never quite becomes clear to me. In the background of the poet beats her hand against her chest in a frenzy. This seemed to be breaking the no-singing rule but none of the judges complained.
Finally, Arielle takes the stage, she looks like she has spent her life preparing for this moment and has the posture of a professional stage actor. She has unsymmetrical hoop earrings and performs a piece laden with the intersectional perspective the feminist movement needs and demands today. The room seems taken with her as she moves with her words and beats, ‘the West African drum with colonized tongue’. She sticks out like a sore thumb in comparison to the contestants that have preceded her and find myself eager to see her next performance before she has even left the stage. Arielle seems to have raised the standard and fortunately this standard is upheld for the next few performances. First with Denise, ‘Why would anyone want to be a flower when one could be a root instead?’ she begs, in a poem detailing inner strength. Demi delivers her frustrations with her never-ending dissatisfaction with romantic relationships, quick witted and full of highly relatable scenarios for the Tinder-generation filled audience. Paula makes a plea to the activism of today, failing to recognise the power of its threat and highlighting the cunning and gradual plans of the oppressor, building a new wall, brick by brick. It is rare to see such anger expressed so eloquently while maintaining the illusion that these pieces haven’t been recited in a bedroom a million times in the past week. After listening to these performances, I feel how I imagine one is supposed to feel after listening to politics infused poetry, everything stays the same but I feel re-energised and like I am part of a club.
It is contagious theatrical energy which is both the cause for popularity and invitation of mockery to slam poetry. When executed well it is brilliant and exciting but when done poorly the style begins to sound almost like a caricature of itself. This can be painful to watch. During some of the performances I feel as though I am on a movie set, we are filming the scene that takes place at the broadly titled ‘Feminist Slam Poetry Show’. ‘Rebellious’ and ‘angry’ looking women perform in the background while the main storyline continues. The camera and audio refocuses on them briefly before changing scene as they shout words like ‘patriarchy’ and ‘politics’. End scene. My fantasy that such comical lack of nuance in political poetry could only exist in this fictional movie backstory is questioned when one of the performers proclaims, ‘So what’s the point of racism?!’
Some relief comes with a poem for the poets in the room, reminiscent of Stein’s Tender Buttons, one of the more timid contestants blurts, ‘the top of the line the paper. The paper, the line, the paper’. The relief of this shy but powerful performance is followed by a return to the comically theatrical, this time with hand gestures added. Exaggerating every word, the next contestant tells the story of an old friend smoking a cigarette, miming the hand action as she goes along. Suddenly this hand turns into a hand down her trousers as she recites an unintelligible story, with the attempted clarity of an actor. If this was intended to be shocking, I’m shocked however I fear it could be the clearest example of style over substance.
As the final scores are calculated, it is clear who the three finalists will be. The performances of Arielle, Paula and Demi were outstanding in a way which made them incomparable to the rest, it is no surprise to me when they are selected. What unites the poetry and performances of these finalists is their gumption, passion, anger and their ability to articulate these feelings into a beautiful and seamless performance. What they understand and what so many of the other performers misunderstand, is where the power lies in political poetry. This power does not lie in the opportunity to express anger for anger’s sake but rather the power of articulating our anger in a way that allows us to understand it and do it justice.
On my way home I see a sweaty man on the U-Bahn wearing a vest top that says, ‘Its Weekend Bitches’. I try mentally articulate why I find this vest top annoying. This statement is not just grammatically incorrect and sexist but for a Sunday night it is also highly misleading. After an evening of feminist lyricism I am swiftly brought back to reality.
Catch the Trans Europe Expression Slam Final in Manchester on the 14th of November.
For prospective slammers, the rules are available HERE