this collection FRIENDLY POETRY SLAM: the fallout

Cat Dean
Slam virgin Cat Dean wows the slam crowd at the Banshee Labyrinth.

I’ll admit – I was worried about how this event might go down. My aims for the slam were manifold. Firstly, I wanted to drag a few more “page” poets (i.e., poets who are normally more at home publishing in journals and books, and reading at traditional stand up readings) kicking and screaming into the performance scene – mainly to show them that hey, it’s really not that different or scary and look, there’s good poetry to be found here. Secondly, I wanted to get the message across to the performance crowd (although they do tend to be more receptive to stuff outside their own field of literary experience) that page poets can be fun, and that they can – sometimes, at least – perform. Mostly, I wanted to try and narrow the divide that – in spite of the best efforts of fabulous folk like Jenny Lindsay, who has been organising very open and approachable performance events for years – still stubbornly exists between page and stage in the Scottish poetry community.

As I say, this was by no means the first friendly slam that’s ever taken place. Indeed, I’m proud of the fact that Scotland seems to be at the forefront of new and innovative thinking when it comes to slamming and other performance poetry events. Over the past few years there have been one or two “sotto voce” or “quiet” slams about the place – the now-sadly-defunct VoxBox held a “quiet” slam specifically for page poets, and the Scottish Poetry Library also did a sotto slam in 2009, which yours truly here somehow managed to win. Working in this tradition, I wanted to further mess around with the traditional slam format, and by doing so, I hoped to chip away at some of the myths and misconceptions surrounding the phenomenon.

The main difference was in the scoring of the poems. I’m defiantly against the “traditional” slam scoring method, which involves the audience getting involved in rating each poet. In the US, where slams are always well-attended and often patronised by folk who are not either a) poets or b) friends of poets, I can see how this system could work… but in Scotland, where almost everyone in the crowd is a friend/enemy/editor/publisher/workshop buddy/love interest of at least one of the performers, it makes for skewed results. The poet with the most mates wins, to put it simply. The other traditional slam scoring option is the use of a judging panel. But this was a this collection event, and this collection is very much anti-hierarchy, anti-quality-control, anti-curation. To gather a panel of “esteemed judges” for the poets to impress was really not our style.

Instead, we decided to let the poets score each other. Each poet received a personalised score-card, which bore the names of all the poets performing, except for their own – so they could not award points for their own performance. Scores were out of 30 (10 for content, 10 for delivery, and 10 for that individual’s particular “overall opinion”), and recorded at the end of every poet’s performance. At the end of each round, all the scorecards were collected up and the scores anonymously tallied. Poets with high scores progressed through the ranks; poets with lower scores fell by the wayside – but everything was on a democratic, peer-review basis, and thanks to the wide variety of poets performing, we were confident that there would be little-to-no bias.

The scoring system did throw up some issues. Most obviously, it was a logistical nightmare. It wasn’t until I received the first batch of scores at the end of the first round that I realised: I was going to have to add up sixteen sets of scores out of 30 for sixteen poets within fifteen minutes. In round one alone, poets were competing for up to 580 points… that’s a hell of a lot of adding up. Fortunately, I had the help of two glamorous calculator-wielding assistants (my poor, long-suffering flatmates), and we managed, but if I were organising another event of this type, a more simplistic scoring method would have to be devised!

Secondly, several of the poets told me afterwards that they’d found the quick-fire nature of the scoring rather tricky. With only about 30 seconds or so between poets, they had to make snap decisions about the numbers they entered for each. Some said they appreciated this – it prevented them from getting bogged down in thinking and re-thinking their decision, and it meant that their responses were instinctive. Others said they found the whole thing rather stressful, and would have liked a bit more time to reflect on what they’d heard in order to give a score that they felt was reasoned and fair. Next time, I just need to spraff a bit more between performers, I think!

Finally, a couple of people said afterwards that they felt the poets-only scoring left the audience a feeling a little bit surplus-to-requirements. I was really pleased with the enthusiasm the audience were willing to give for each performance in spite of it being quite a long night, but I did note that things cooled off a little in the middle. I’m now thinking that perhaps a compromise of some scoring being done via audience reaction and some done by just the poets may be an interesting avenue to explore.

Otherwise, I was really pleased with the outcome of the scoring experiment, and really interested to see how poets reacted to other performances. Some folk were clearly being very harsh across the board, with some poets scoring certain performances with a big fat zero and never venturing into figures much higher than 6. Others seemed more than happy to dish out perfect 10s across the board to poets they really liked, and – my favourite part of the adding-up process – many of the scorecards came back with doodles, marginalia or explanatory notes decorating their margins. Overall, scoring was extremely close. Numerous folk have noted in their feedback about the evening that poets like Andrew Philip and Dave Coates deserved to move up to the second round, and I agree on both counts. However, it was literally the odd mark here and there that separated 10th place from 11th and 11th from 12th, etc. It was almost too close to call in some cases, and at one point my glamorous assistants and I actually did a re-count to ensure that the right person was getting the correct score. Poets who came lower than they would have liked – or perhaps lower than some of those in attendance felt they deserved – will hopefully be ever-so-slightly placated by the fact that it really was very close indeed.

The main discussion taking place in the aftermath of the slam – and may I take this opportunity to say how happy I am that so much healthy discussion has been generated by the event – concerns the old chestnut of performance vs page. Who had more of an advantage on the night? Who in attendance counts as ‘page’, and who counts as ‘stage’? Did one camp score the other unfairly – was there a bias for or against either side? And so on and so forth. Personally, while I am watching these discussions with interest, and chipping in every so often (of course), I’m kind of sad to hear these questions being raised. As I said above, my aim for the evening was to temporarily erase – or at least blur – the dividing line that exists between page and performance poets; to see the two sides of the poetry world come together and yes, compete… but also to listen to and acknowledge each other. And it felt like this happened on the night itself. In many cases it was difficult to ascertain who belonged to which camp – over at Tonguefire, commenters are scrabbling to define poets like Alec Beattie (whose set was decidedly performance-esque, but read from a book and something of a departure from his usual work), Colin McGuire (a poet who performs with great gusto but who normally shies away from performance-heavy gigs and whose stuff works brilliantly on the page too) and Emily Dodd (a poetry slam virgin… but one who embraces audience participation). I think it’s only later that the feeling of never-the-twain-shall-meet has begun to slink back in, which perhaps is inevitable. For me, the night itself did exactly what I wanted it to: it picked up the traditional make-your-own-slam kit and gave it a bit of a shake, and it got page-folk and stage-folk up to the same mic, and forced them to rate (or, indeed, slate) one another… all of which involved everyone listening carefully to everyone else. The array of talent on show was refreshingly varied and – if you ask me – of excellent quality, and everyone seemed to have a damn good night. It might take a few more of these things before folk really start thinking differently about how poetry is performed and received in Scotland, but for now, I’m really quite pleased.

Responses to the this collection slam:

“A great learning experience for us novices and some wonderful poems and performers.” – Alec Beattie

“It was a great success, with consistent quality and entertainment, from a controlled crowd of temporary human beings and poets…I think there may be more this collection SLAM nights to come. I hope so. Let there be mic!” – McGuire (more here

“I loved that Claire did something new with slams, and particularly that the ‘friendly’ tag encouraged folks to take part who usually wouldn’t touch slam with a barge pole. A couple o the scores raised my eyebrows - but that’s always the case with competitions isn’t it?” – Jenny Lindsay

“stand-out poems of the evening were Colin McGuire’s “Wrap the children in white”, Mairi Campbell-Jack’s “The Book of Antonyms” and Stephen Welsh‘s newspaper poem in the last round. Colin’s poem set me in mind of some of Neruda’s work, with its combination of surreal imagination, incantatory impetus and political edge. Mairi’s poem seemed to me to mark a significant and exciting step forward in her writing, and I was really impressed with how well she read. Stephen had cut up a Sunday Herald report of the weekend’s protests in London and blanked out certain portions, creating a beautiful, strange, quirky, lyrical, powerful poem — perhaps not so much found poetry as released.

Hearing those poems alone would have made it a worthwhile evening, but there were others. I particularly enjoyed “Scotland as an Xbox Game” by Andrew C Ferguson — just the sort of witty, imaginative examination of the hame nation that appeals to me. Dave Coates also read good work but unfortunately joined me in the junkyard after the first round; that’s just the risk you run at these things. And I liked the sci-fi poem that Russell Jones read in the second round.” – Andrew Philip (more here)

“I know what you were trying to do [at the slam] and there is movement in that direction we can see in the quiet slams that have been held. It’s fair enough and I really liked the poet judge thing.” – Tickle McNicoll

“The night was an enjoyable one, though, holding a friendly atmosphere and quick pace that kept things interesting. If you didn’t like a poet you only had to put up with them for 2.5 minutes, much like my love life.” – Russell Jones (more here

You can find photos of the event here.

Anyone else want to offer feedback? If so, link me to your thoughts or drop a line to claire@onenightstanzas.com. All comments welcomed!

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One Response to “this collection FRIENDLY POETRY SLAM: the fallout”

  1. Andrew Philip Says:

    One point I keep meaning to mention but have left out so far is that I left this slam feeling more likely to participate in another — certainly another organised along the same or similar lines — which contrasts with how I felt after previous slams I’ve been to.