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Slam poetry started as a bar game in Chicago in the ’80s and it’s reassuringly international, which means that wherever you attend a slam, anywhere in the world, they’re going to play by the same rules.
The rules go like this. There is a sacrificial poet who performs so that the judges get to practice. Then the poets who have signed up get three minutes each for a poem, no costumes no props. The five judges, selected at random from the audience with the proviso they’re not shagging any of the talent, hold up scores out of 10, like Simon Cowell but with cardboard. The audience be vocal and encouraging and the MC totals up the middle three scores for each poem to see who progresses to the next round. By round three, three poets are left standing to battle it out for top ranking. Everyone cheers, pretty much all the time, except when the poet is poeming and then it’s thumb and middle finger clicks for all the emotions.
It’s brutal. It’s a gut-wrencher. Stand on stage and speak your heart out and have your work literally judged by strangers. And yet, it’s hilarious. It’s compelling. It’s heartfelt. It’s deep. It’s political. It’s persuasive. It’s private. It’s public. It’s worlds inside worlds inside worlds.
I went to compete at the Otago Slam in Dunedin last weekend and the slammers were extraordinary. I went because it was part of the very brilliant NZ Young Writers Festival, which I went to because of the very brilliant Otepoti Writers’ Lab / the very brilliant Otepoti Theatre Lab which I went to online during lockdown and that became the best kind of habit. By very brilliant I mean all the deep words I can’t muster which is ironic, right, because writer. By the best kind of habit I mean if you are into words and meaning then find them and do this, too.
I’m not naming people because there are too many names, which is an excellent problem to have, more people to be joyful for than column space allows, since the magic extends from audience to judges to poet to workshop to friends you first share your work with to your self who you meet in the words on the page and the voice that says "yes! nailed that!" or "if only I’d done it that way".
Like theatre then, or reading, by which I mean the layers and the interaction are the thing. Though the words might be identical, no experience of them will be the same. Also, spare a thought for slam as a metaphor for some of the curly intersections of a writing life between competition and community.
Battling a cough cough cough and the cold I made it back past the cute lambs before the miracle snow to help host our own slam in Wanaka at the start of this week. We’re doing three heats around the region thanks to the Across the Bridge Festival, with a final in Bannockburn on October 7 and the privilege of sending a Central/Lakes representative to the National Slam. By we, I mean us who are Poetic Justice Wanaka, who are another tour de force of support for me. And by privilege I mean I felt really fortunate and part of it and proud to be there by the fairy-lit stage at Rhyme and Reason. To see our local poets, erm, rhyming and reasoning. Getting up there with the main stages.