Still a good score

“Poets are huggers. If you’re going to spend a lot of time around poets, prepare to be hugged.” – Regular poetry slam attendee

I’ve already written about the internal reasoning that gets people from having a desire to do something potentially nerve-wracking – like reading their work aloud – to actually getting up and doing it. I thought the logical next step would be some fieldwork. What’s it like at places where people go and stand before a crowd and have their writing publicly judged? Is it as scary as it sounds? Probably. But as I am very brave, I went to a poetry slam so that you can know what the deal is.

When I’m introduced to the cluster of poets/MCs/organisers/supporters at BAD!SLAM!NO!BISCUIT! – the Phoenix Pub’s monthly poetry slam – they’re taking down names on the evening’s sign up sheet. I’m asked if I’m going to read. I state my mission tonight as an observer and not a poet. A little while later, someone else asks me if I’m going to read. I tell them I’ve had a rough week and am far too full of feelings to do a poem, which I’m told is impossible. After declining again and jotting down a few things in my notepad, another person comes up behind me and says, “Oh! You’re writing something! Is it a poem? Are you reading tonight?” I began to consider turning the job interview questions I had written down for tomorrow into some philosophical blank verse, just so I can please people.

I have good news for anyone who goes to a poetry slam and would like to read something – your doing so will be celebrated. You will be asked, encouraged and lured with the promise of fabulous prizes. If you have a sonnet in your soul, a haiku in your heart, or even a shopping list crumpled up somewhere in the bottom of your handbag, if you want to speak it aloud, the opportunities to do so will be legion. Being an observer at a slam almost feels as if I’m letting the team down – but maybe only because everyone here realises how easy it is to turn an observer into a poet. And did I mention there are fabulous prizes?

If you have a sonnet in your soul, a haiku in your heart, or even a shopping list crumpled up somewhere in the bottom of your handbag, if you want to speak it aloud, the opportunities to do so will be legion.

There are a number of prizes on offer, all of them first prizes. There is, of course, an actual first prize for the poem judged to be the finest, but this is the least impressive of all of the first prizes. Judges are chosen from the audience – I volunteer to be one (as a way of apologising for my failure to participate otherwise). The score range is vast, and I can pick any number between ten (being the highest) and minus infinity. A number of the regular attendees tell me that on most nights, the audience seems to disproportionately award sevens and that I should feel free to mix it up.

By the time things get started, the bar is getting full. And loud. But the MC is louder and encourages us to continue to be loud. Scores are shouted out after each poem’s end. The rules are laid down – such as the 2-minute-maximum-performance-time – and mild threats of physical violence are held up as enforcement. Heckling is roundly encouraged, but it goes without saying that it’s the MC we should be all be heckling, and not the performers.

The good news is that I wouldn’t describe the atmosphere at a poetry slam as fear-inducing. Raucous – yes. Rowdy – certainly. Structured by a loose handful of rules, each more puzzling than the last – definitely. But not really scary at all.

You will be pleased to know that, should you read at a poetry slam, you’ll only be heckled if you make it clear that’s what you’d prefer. Otherwise, everyone behaves themselves and listens. Beforehand there is warm encouragement, and afterwards there is always applause. I, despite feeling strongly about avoiding sevens, save my more creative scores for the seasoned performers. Still, I am decisively booed by the rest of the audience for any score I issue between minus 3 and minus 400,000. This is despite the MC’s protestations that, given the possible range, they are still very good scores. There is a general feeling in the room that we would rather make our performers feel loved, than judiciously ranked.

The good news is that I wouldn’t describe the atmosphere at a poetry slam as fear-inducing. Raucous – yes. Rowdy – certainly. Structured by a loose handful of rules, each more puzzling than the last – definitely. But not really scary at all. Between the shouting and the cheering, the musical interludes and friendly conversation along with a drink or two, it’s a bit like being at a fairly well-structured house party. The kind of atmosphere where, should the mood take you, you could step out of your comfort zone and do something bold. Should it go well, you will feel supported and loved. Even if it’s not your finest moment, your bravery will still be admired. And come the next morning, no one’s going to hold it against you.

Photo credit: All images by Adam Thomas.