In Defence of Slams
At the question and answer session after a Michael Horovitz gig on Friday I asked him what he thought were the differences between the live poetry scene of the ‘50s and ‘60s and the scene now. It will not surprise anyone who knows him to hear that his answer was quite long and rambling and enjoyable. He said the scene of the ‘60s was part of a general democratic movement and that some of those poems actually precipitated various protests and movements. Now, he said, not enough young poets are dealing with the political issue of wealth/class inequality and that there are these ‘dreadful’ things called ‘slams’, which perpetuate, instead of challenging, hierarchies, making it seem like it’s all about being the best.
Or at least that’s what I remember him saying. When I later told him that I run slams, including the slam that he took part in for some 2009, slightly pompous BBC programme with Griff Rhys Jones, (from which they used part of Kate Tempest’s performance of Cannibal Kids) he told me that you don’t have classical concerts where any old Joe Bloggs rushes up to the stage and performs their piece. I pointed out that there aren’t many classical concerts to which any old Joe Bloggs goes.
I genuinely really enjoyed Michael’s performance on Friday. I like his poems and I like his view on the world. But my defence of slams goes deeper than just that it’s making poetry popular. Hierarchy and competition – the bugbears of the ‘60s liberal era – are things to challenge indeed. Yet, even Michael talked that night, in answer to a different question, about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ poetry. Surely there is such a thing. According to T.S.Eliot, the job of the critic is the “elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste”. At a slam the judges don’t have much time for elucidation – they simply provide a score. The correction of taste, as I think Eliot is saying, is an endless debate. Is Eliot better than Pound? McGough or Patten? LKJ or Jean Binta Breeze? There may not be an answer but it’s worth having the debate because by discussing the merits of one poem over another, that’s what leads us to the elucidation.
Poetry, as Michael rightly said, has been for a long time (although only for a few hundred years of its 10,000 year old history) made into the property of an educated elite. Children go through their schooling feeling like there is this thing called poetry which is practised by generally posh people and there are some secret answers about what the poems ‘mean’, guarded by teachers and exam boards, which if you can learn and reproduce correctly, you will get an A. The ’60s, says Michael, changed all this, which I think is true to some extent; but the revolution is not yet complete. Slams encourage people to feel like their opinion on poetry counts for something. Most times when I give someone a scorecard they immediately say they don’t know anything about poetry. And I say, ‘you know what you like, though’.
The reason I wanted to be part of Jim Thomas and Steve Larkin’s Hammer & Tongue and the reason I still believe in its format was (and is) because it combines live sets from talented, professional poets, whom tragically no one has heard of, and provides a chance for ‘Jo(e) Bloggs’ to try out his/her own poems and receive instant feedback from her/his peers. It certainly helped me develop as a poet and I know there are a lot of others who would say the same.
Michael mocked the scoring system with its decimal points. Ridiculous, he said. Why not just call it a 7, 8 or 9 and be done with it, why do you need to be discussing fractions of points in judging poetry? It makes the whole process a farce. And here he has missed the subtleties. The decimal point is meant to be ridiculous. We all know that the scoring doesn’t really matter. I once had a woman who had been to one of the Camden shows arguing with me in the pub for what seemed like an hour afterwards, complaining that the wrong person had won. Eventually, I managed to get a word in and said, ‘yeah but it’s meant that we’ve been talking for an hour about what makes good poetry’. Open mics don’t do that. They also indulge people in this most indulgent of art forms – “Here’s a poem about me, it’s called ’76 pages’…”- politeness isn’t always the most useful way to raise the standards of art.
That Hammer & Tongue BBC slam was won by the excellent Rob Gee. But the one whom people most remembered, and the poet that the BBC used on its documentary, was one of the losers. No harm done to either poet.
P.S. Hammer & Tongue’s National Slam final will be at Wilton’s Music Hall on 31st March 2012. It’s an all-day programme of slam poetry events, including inter-city team slams in the day (Oxford vs. Cambridge vs. Brighton etc.) and an individual competition in the evening. If you book them early you can get a ticket to see any and all of the events for just £10. Click the link!