‘Why not?’ – the thoughts running through my head moments after submitting two poems for this year’s Roundhouse Poetry Slam. Aware of its prestige and status, I think it was the combination of an application that asked for written, page material to be entered instead of purely youtube/visual performance footage, mixed with the feeling I was ready for something that would truly ask me to step up, prepare and stretch myself, that made me click ‘confirm’ to sending off my application.
Reacting to my selection for the second heat revolved around realisations that totally reminded me of the reality of this opportunity and that oh yes, I was going to have to step it up, in a big way. (Having never known how a slam plays out, or even fully memorised a piece, as examples.)
What followed was two weeks of editing my selected poems for performance, rehearsing in a dusty garden shed with moth’s and woodlice for audience, gaining feedback from family and friends, gradually learning how closely I valued the voice and message of my poems, no matter how they were changed or adapted, the one thing I knew needed to stay was that voice.
Slam day arrives: head leant against the window of a London-bound National Express rammed in M1 standstill. I kept thinking how comforting it was to feel the event itself would have to be something really special to match the impact of those two weeks preparing, in terms of the sheer confidence and self-belief that had grown within me.
Naturally, the night was invaluable. Judges and contestants listened, supported and encouraged one another and the atmosphere was sizzling. There was material from all angles and the sheer diversity of contestants allowed for revealing conversations about the different scenes and strands of the poetry/performance movement with a positive vibe that things were happening across the country. Everybody from crowd to participants to judges, really valued whatever it was you wanted to say.
Though in truth, the real feeling that struck me most as I waited for the results from the judges, one that will be my lasting impression of the night, was how little I cared about them. (The results.) In the sense that, even from the moment I was selected, it was never about where I ranked more that I was a part of it. As easy as it would be to say this is down to the whole ‘it’s the taking part that counts’ thinking, I felt something deeper.
See, the night following the slam I attended a low-key open mic night in Derby, my home city, and was moved by the quietest elderly gentleman, stumbling through a performance that spoke louder than any poem I could remember hearing this year. He fumbled his words, held a crumpled page with weary fingers and shuffled on his feet but boy, did his heartache strike with a strength that shook me and many others in the audience to pieces.
I knew at the same time this man would perhaps never feel comfortable being in the crowd for a poetry slam, let alone partaking, and in some ways if he did his voice may be found washed out amongst the more capable performance-driven spoken word artists out there. It made me feel like it’s hard to clearly ‘judge’ a poem or compete with another, for me anyway, and I wonder if the most immediately engaging/accessible work goes down more successfully in judging environments such as slams.
All of these are amazing questions to find myself asking and exploring , so I can begin seeing where my words ‘fit’ or if there even should be a concern about ‘fitting’ a certain arena at all.
Ultimately, my experience of the night was one that really allowed me to understand how important I find the written and spoken word within my own and other’s lives, strongly feeling it was such an open space for young people to actually express how they think and feel, not just on the stage but also through meeting and connecting with one another in the scene. Freedom doesn’t even do it justice.
Most importantly, it’s cemented my focus to keep writing, to keep creating and keep pushing expression, rather than pressing it inward or leaving words unsaid.
And for that Roundhouse Poetry Slam, I guess I’m forever in your debt.