For one reason or other, lately I've been having the same conversation: do poets really care about slams? It got me thinking because I help run the Hammer + Tongue Bristol arm - which features a monthly slam - and I'm a part of the team behind the National Team Poetry Slam run by Jack Dean. On top of that, I've competed in my fair share of slams over the last couple of years with varied success.
This repeated conversation got me thinking about whether I care about slams. Ultimately, I do - it's the competitive nature in me - but, I never mind losing or getting a low score. When I try to explain this to people I compare it to speed dating: the evening comprises a snippet view of a multitude of different poets and you, the audience, choose your favourite to see more of. It's a great way to see lots of poets without having to see too much of someone you don't like. And it's a great way for poets to meet each other and get their names out. But, is putting a score on a piece of art wrong?
I asked the two current national slam champions Adam Kammerling, Hammer + Tongue National Slam Champion, and Harry Baker, Farrago National Slam Champion, what they thought about it all.
Harry began by coming joint first in the Edinburgh slam with (the now viral) Mark Grist and, he says, "from then on I was hooked."
"It makes the poet consider the audience", he says. And this has to be one of the strongest arguments for slam. Short of heckling, there is no other way to express an opinion about a poet than at a slam. "Poetry has a danger of seeming self-indulgent...slam is the antidote", and it is clear to see he has a point. Poetry is so often typified by self-centred teenage angst and heartbreak. By slamming, you are forced to engage and consider the audience, and invariably this makes you keep that stuff inside. But does this dilute poetry, stopping people writing what they want to write?
It is often quoted that, "the point is not the points, the point is the poetry", and this is what saves poetry from dilution. If a poet falls into the trap of points counting, or pandering to audiences, then that dilution is their own fault. There is a fine line between writing what you want, and sharing what you want. Slam makes you walk that line by teaching you to only share what should be shared, regardless of what else you have written.
Adam Kammerling has mixed feeling about slam. "They're great," he says, "and I love them and they work so brilliantly at engaging audiences. But they are flawed."
When Adam started out he said he was far more interested in slamming than in going to open mics because there was a competitive element involved. But, he points out, "Often the most transparent, trite, clumsy, over-performed dog turd of a poem wins a slam", so "If you just treat it like an open mic and genuinely couldn't care less about the score then that's alright."
Harry mentioned something the poet Raymond Antrobus once said to him: "the people who like slams are the people who have won slams." And there is some truth in that. Slammers do open themselves up in a way no other performance does. You take a gamble that what you think is good will have the right effect on an audience. And if you score badly it can be pretty crushing and make you not want to slam again. But, that's all part of the brilliance of slams, it teaches you to learn from this.
The one thing I've learned most from slams is how to read an audience - though I still get it wrong an awful lot. In a room of young, energetic twenty-somethings, your poem about your grand-child might not have as wonderful an effect as your poem about the things that annoy you about riding on the tube. And, as you never know what an audience will be like until you get there, you can't write for that audience so you have to just be prepared with a variety of poems. What a great test!
At the Hammer + Tongue national final, I was interviewed by some guys with a camera who asked me what I liked about the day. I told them that my favourite thing was how this competition actually brought all of these amazing poets together. Some of the loudest cheers on the night were for one poet from another because they know what it's like to be up there.
Both Adam and Harry said something similar when I spoke to them. Harry, who is off to the World Cup next week, said, "Whilst anyone would love to be a world champion, what is more amazing is these different voices and cultures wouldn't be on the same stage in the same way if it wasn't for slam."
Adam spoke of the Hammer + Tongue final at which he claimed victory with utmost warmth, "there were so many different styles and voices, and they were all brought there because of the slam. It was like a poetry festival! Yeh, it's a gimmick, but a gimmick that works well".
That seems like a good way of summarising it: a successful gimmick. There is a clear progression for poets starting out to slam for a few years until they've made a name for themselves then give up to focus on headline shows, and this epitomises the joy of slam. It's about meeting new poets, sharing work, engaging audiences, and all with a 3 minute timer. Sure, some people hate it, but there are few better ways of getting your name out than by entering slams and pushing yourself to learn from them.
And if you've never been to a slam, go. You never know where it might take you...
Watch James perform his poem 'Conkers' on The Huffington Post here.