Packing a punch with poetry: Impro slam

Article published on Aug. 16, 2012
community published
Article published on Aug. 16, 2012
Edinburgh international book festival enticed a younger audience in on Wednesday evening with an improvised poetry slam. The slam, a concept devised and produced by students at Edinburgh Napier University, pitted performance poets against each other in a battle for the audience’s votes. The catch? They were handed their theme just a moment before they picked up the microphone.
Three lessons to take away

Lesson 1: Don’t be over-inclined to rhythm and rhyme

With the exception of the memorable first minute (more of which later), the lesson the poets learnt fairly quickly was – forget the poetry. Just improvise. It’s far better to have words of any nature spilling out of your mouth than to endure awkward pauses as you try to make something scan. (Somehow the girls seemed a lot better at this than the boys. Read into that what you will.)

Or shall I re-write that and say… Forget what you think poetry is. Forget about rhyme and metre and alliteration. The pieces that stuck in my mind – Catherine Brogan’s eco-rant about our ‘oil orgy’, Sophia Walker’s description of the day she saved the world – had less in common with a sonnet or a limerick than I can say, but as the performers got into their stride, repetition and assonance and some kind of natural emphasis made their speeches so much more than just a dramatic monologue. However, you do need to wade through a sea of meaningless (or meaningful) words to reach that point.

The day I saved the world it was raining with metaphor. There were puddles of motto. Have you ever tried to wade through a sea of meaningless words? (Sophia Walker)

Lesson 2: When ladies who lunch meet poets who...punch?

I stuck out somewhat at the first book festival event I went to this year. In an audience of a couple of hundred, I was one of just a handful of under 30s. The few other young uns were hiding behind large, fashionable glasses or even larger and more fashionable headphones. Behind me, beside me, in front of me were mainly middle aged, middle class ladies of a certain type (Morningside ladies, for those of you who know Edinburgh). Which of course is fine. I shall probably be one of those ladies in thirty years or so, so perhaps I’m just getting in there early.

Poetry slams however have a rather different demographic. We are (in Sophia’s words) ‘the delusional, the easily confused’, we are the adrenaline junkies and the dreamers. We probably have similar political leanings to our book festival-going parents (left-wing, feminist, liberal) but we are more idealistic or more cynical or both: more radical, more wide-eyed and hopeful, more pissed off and disillusioned. It is all personal. We rage against the system and we talk about the person we went home with last night. Quite possibly in the same poem.

So it was strange to be at a poetry slam which was not held in a grungy pub but in a festival tent proudly sponsored by the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), particularly when the poems got political.

Fuck RBS. Fuck BP. Fuck Shell. (Catherine Brogan)

Generally, this worked well. A good library contains something that offends everyone; a good arts event shows everyone something they weren’t expecting. Nonetheless, I was always aware of the awkwardly straight back of the very polite and slightly bemused older lady sitting next to me, as the younger crowd whooped away at any double (or single) entendre.

Lesson 3: Sex sells (sex doesn’t sell)

Ah yes, the double entendres. We like these. We like sharpening your pencils, faxing your slacks and dragging you over the partition during a secret love affair in an open space office. (Yes, that was one of the themes.) Undoubtedly the best minute of the slam came right at the start, as Catherine breathily rhymed what she wanted to do to her imaginary colleague while practically riding the microphone stand. Despite some fabulous later performances, no one managed to spurt any kind of traditional ditty so effortlessly and enjoyably after this first moment.

‘Is it just easier when it’s dirty?’ I wondered out loud as we were leaving. ‘Everything’s easier when it’s dirty,’ was my friend’s immediate reply. Ah well, there we are.

Adam Kammerling from London, Sophia Walker and Matthew MacDonald from Edinburgh and Catherine Brogan from Northern Ireland competed at the slam. We’ll hear more from them in the coming weeks!