“We come to it at last. The great battle of our time”, said Gandalf, or something similar, in The Return of the King. Wednesday night’s Roundhouse Poetry Slam was appropriately epic. The host and judges were as accomplished as the UK poetry scene had to offer; David J on hosting duties, with Polarbear, Kate Tempest and Indigo Williams given the task of separating the ten contestants. No-one envied them. The only thing that the finalists shared, so diverse in style and material, was their quality. “I am from a town where the buses divert and the trains terminate”, lamented one writer; and she didn’t even make the final. Yes, the 2011 crop were that good.
Malik Marland, a prodigy who has starred here for the last three years, showed such an elegant command of the facts surrounding our economic crisis that he should shortly expect a call from Vince Cable. It’s almost impossible to stitch dry statistics into a compelling narrative, but Malik did it flawlessly. And he didn’t even make a podium finish.
Neither did the excellent Vanessa Kisuule, who spoke poignantly of a friend whose life was in freefall, and of being stereotyped by her own race. Kanye West should take the laser from her wit and use it for his live show. Maria Ferguson, reading a piece she had composed the previous evening, treated us to “Taxman”, which is one of the best new pieces I’ve heard this year. Bristling with anger, she called out a society that tripled tuition fees so those from working-class Essex would be unable to pursue their dreams.
These were just some of the highlights from the seven finalists who didn’t end in the top three. Throughout the evening, the quality and intensity of the performances rose and rose: in the second half, in particular, there was a moment when I almost rose to my feet in applause. All around the auditorium, as the night progressed, there were people leaning forward, tears in eyes, or rocking on haunches, roaring with laughter.
Cyrus Kian, who came in third, spoke in slow Old Testament tones of life in Kilburn; “I’m from a place where smiling ain’t a good thing…I’m a connoisseur of long nights and clouded minds”. Chloe James, who at just fifteen is writing with more polish and authority than those three times her age, came in second with writing as fine as any as I have seen on the poetry circuit. She finished with a piece about a dead lover who returns to her widow in the form of dust, settling upon him and in “the crevices of his memory”, describing how when we die our souls become “waltzing fragments” in the night air. Similarly, it was joyful to witness her talent taking flight.
As for the winner, Zia Ahmed, there cannot be high enough praise. His style was stumbling, staccato; inconsistent in its rhythms, consistent in its brilliance. We listened as he slowly unwound himself, speaking of his anxieties at filling his dead father’s shoes, of being an unwitting and bewildered target of police stop-searches, all the while seemingly rambling off at tangents about Children’s World and European football. He was shy, awkward, uncertain: and fully, beautifully human.
Seeing all of these artists in action was a rare pleasure; I can’t wait to see what they go on to do next. We’ll be featuring their work on the Poejazzi blog in the weeks to come, and you’ll see them on our future lineups and the lineups of many festivals and radio shows to come. Happy, happy times for poetry indeed.