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Almost Eighteen Years On - How Poetry Slam Arrived in the UK!

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I've been writing poetry and short stories seriously since my teens. Getting published in little magazines and small press, just after I started college, led me into London's performance poetry scene in the early 1990's. I started out reading at open mics at places like The Hard Edge Club and marvelling at the likes of Jean Binta Breeze at Apples & Snakes shows.

I was studying at Thames Polytechnic/University of Greenwich and inspired by many of the people I met in small press and performance clubs I started a college creative writing magazine called Verbal, setting up performances to promote it.

Farrago Poetry started life as The Farrago Collective Press in my final year at college. By 1993 the collective part was no more, everyone else had scattered following graduation, the focus had switched to performances and I was putting on shows at Chats Palace in Homerton. Here I met a Texas based Australian itinerant poet, and ex-member of a 1970's psychedelic space rock band called Gong.

Thom the World Poet told me of this American spoken word revolution called poetry slam that was attracting hundreds of people to shows. I was getting decent audiences but not that many; so I put aside my initial scepticism and decided to find out more. This was pre-Google and early days for the internet so info came via packages from Thom filled with scrappy photocopies of the International Slam Newsletter.

Piecing it together the best I could I got planning for a poetry slam involving most of the London writing community, from Charlie Dark's Urban Poets Society to Survivors Poetry, for 19th February 1994 in the Chats Palace theatre space. The event was a huge success, drawing a capacity audience of well over 150 people.

Formulated as a challenge to academic poetry in Chicago by Marc Smith poetry slam is an open mic format that poses the question to the poet appearing in the public space, if you're not engaging and reading or performing the best you can, just who are you kidding? There is instant feedback from judges with scores, who often get cast as the villains. Over the years in London our slams have become more laid back, everyone is welcome and everyone wins a prize, but three minutes to get your best work out still remains the challenge.

2012 will see 18 years of UK poetry slamming. When I organised that first UK poetry slam, for Farrago Poetry, I had no idea how influential it would be or how many amazing poets I'd see and shows would result. We've consistently drawn large audiences and successfully run both the UK and London SLAM! Championships throughout.

I didn't realise either the amazing connections that would be made with the International poetry slam community, that have lead to me performing through out Europe and the US. Highlights have included performing at and hosting the Nuyorican Poets Café Slam, competing in the US Nationals, organising the London team for the first ever International Slam in San Francisco on Good Friday 1995 and a Farrago show inspiring the setting up of poetry slam in Poland and getting to perform there as a result.

The connections also mean that Farrago Poetry audiences get to see the biggest stars of International poetry when they're in town, incredible nights with the likes of Taylor Mali, Shane Kozcyan, Andrea Gibson, Ainsley Burrows, Buddy Wakefield and on one occasion the entire Asheville US Nationals slam championship winning team,

All throughout we've been supported by London's poetry, literary and music communities, probably the strongest and most diverse in the world. But just as, or more, important are the literally hundreds of poets that have slammed. These include some of the biggest names on the UK poetry and spoken word scene, many who've started out their careers performing at our shows and the poets and writers who've had something they needed to say and found Farrago the kind of supportive place where they felt they could say it.

Slams are now happening all around the country and youth slams like the Jersey Inter School Slam I run for Jersey Arts Trust and The Poetry Society's Slambassadors are now changing the way poetry is taught and perceived in schools. We've come a long way but the key principle remains the same - the slam is open to anyone who wants to give it a go at sharing their poetry and it is the poetry that matters.

Our first show of 2012 is the annual Farrago Zoo Awards and New Year SLAM! at RADA Foyer Bar on Friday, 27th January. (http://www.facebook.com/events/218392861570441/)

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