Poets are as much dream dashers as they are visionaries. Ben Fagan’s opening gambit proves the point: “There is no such thing as a slam poem”. I close my notebook and head for the door.
He draws me back in with his follow-up. “Any poem can be performed at a poetry slam”.
This set-up and pay-off speaks directly to slam poetry’s genealogical line to stand-up, but to hip-hop too for its quick and cunning style, its cynical twist, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, sometimes darker.
“There’s a whole bunch of different cultural traditions that led to slam,” explains Ben, who with partner Sara Hirsch is running Battle of Hastings, Hawke’s Bay Poetry Slam 2019 at HHBAF. He lists Jamaican dub poets and the Beat Poet generation in the whakapapa.
“The big movers of making poetry cool and non-academic. Very cigarettes and whisky!” he says.
The first ‘Slam’ was in Chicago in 1984 and it caught on. The spoken word dealt out at a Poetry Slam is honest and heart-felt, but with entertainment value and audience participation up front. Some will say anything for a laugh or a gasp, or an enthusiastic snap* from the crowd.
Slams bring a sporting element to poetry, a bit of fun competition. Although Ben reinforces the competition bit is the biggest joke in the room. Five random audience members are given score cards and allocate arbitrary scores to poems. In spite of the fact that everyone in the room – poets, fans, newbies, organisers – know it’s impossible to rate poetry, no one can help themselves and the crowd amps up in support of their favourites.
“What you’re getting is super excited about poetry. Slam is a gateway drug!” jokes Ben. The sporting element attracts people in, the poetry makes them stay, and come back. Hard-core fans say they started out thinking they were there for the competition having never attended a “poetry reading” in their lives.
Like a sport event there are three rounds of three minutes each. Twelve competitors in Round One, then half that, three in the final. It’s fast paced.
“You aren’t meant to get it all, you won’t. It’s like jumping into a river, you grab shiny bits out to look at and while you’re looking, a whole lot more of the river goes past,” says Ben.
Technology has meant that poems performed at slams all over the world have gone viral, and certain styles, voices and techniques have circulated through the global slam community. But having slam up-close, being present to the intimacy and immediacy of the poets and their work beats the virtual experience hands-down.
For Ben, who performs in slams all over the world and teaches slam workshops, it’s the best bit: “Being in the room that I know is the best room in that city on that night,” he says. “It’s a certain electricity”.
*A quiet signal of agreement or appreciation used when clapping would interrupt the poet’s flow.