- Attention conservation notice: I wanted to win something and got grumpy when I didn’t, but I’m feeling better now. Plus some thoughts on the nature of poetry slams.
- Keywords: slam poetry, psychobabble, rationalisation, competitive arts.
- Word length: 2,252 words.
So last week I competed in the Victorian State Finals of the Australian Poetry Slam at the State Library of Victoria. Which was nice.
About a week or so earlier I’d signed up to read a poem in the Castlemaine heat of the slam, thinking it’d be nice to get up in front of a crowd in a funky bar and perform. I hadn’t really done any readings since moving out of Melbourne almost six years ago, unless you count launching The Third Fruit is a Bird, but that was a very different kind of reading.
I had no real expectations about winning, but the prizes were pretty cool, so I had decided to approach the slam heat as professionally as I could, choosing to read “Are We There Yet?”, a poem that I thought fit the slam-poetry style well (based as it was on the monologues of early-’80s rap), and rehearsing the poem in the weeks leading up to the heat so that I could deliver it from memory instead of reading on the page, just like all the famous slam poets do.
I was really happy with my performance on the night. It felt like it had a certain energy to it, and it was fun adopting the persona of a big old arrogant ego-poet while I read. I got a pretty good score from the judges, and because I went on quite early in the night, it meant that I could spend the rest of it basking in the glow of a good performance well scored while sinking a few sherbets and enjoying the rest of the slammers’ words.
In the end I came second, which was lovely in a self-affirming kind of way. I could have used the $100 first prize, but the winner, Luka Lesson, was certainly much more of a slam poet than me – charismatic, impassioned and political – and anyway the second prize of a membership to Australian Poetry was probably what I would have spent the $100 on.
I got a bit of a shock when the MC, the redoubtable Emilie Zoey Baker, announced that first and second place winners had both won places in the State Final. I had joked earlier in the week with friends about keeping the date of the State Final free because I didn’t know if I would be in Melbourne or not that night.
I spent the weeks between the heat and the final writing a new poem called “Second Comes Right After First”, a word-play-laced satire in a similar style to “Are We There…” all about how coming second is philosophically and mathematically superior to coming first. I memorised the hell out of it and mumbled it to myself over and over again in the shower, mopping the kitchen and cycling to the station. I started to imagine what I would do if I won the state final and ended up in the nationals. I liked the idea.
As the final approached I started seriously thinking about winning strategies. I recited both poems one after the other to see if they felt good enough to win over a crowd of strangers. In the end I decided to go with “Are We There Yet?”, which felt stronger somehow, more able to cut through any indifference an audience might harbour. It made sense, too – “Are We There Yet?” was a proven winner, the poem that had got me this far. The other poem felt a little bit like it was being too clever and self-referential, like you wouldn’t really get it if you didn’t know that I’d come second in the heats, and with the rules of the slam denying me the luxury of providing necessary context with an introduction (you’ve got two minutes to perform and the clock starts as soon as you say your first word), it felt like too much of a risk.
The final was pretty nerve-wracking. I was scheduled to perform as the second poet in the second half of the evening, which meant that I spent most of the night pacing up and down, mumbling the poem to myself and not taking in as much of the show as I might have. By the time I got on stage I was pretty wrung out. I paused for a moment and then went straight into it, and it wasn’t long before I could tell that the audience wasn’t digging me as much as the home-town crowd had been a couple of weeks earlier.
I left the stage happy with how I’d performed – not ecstatic, but happy – but I wasn’t surprised when the scores I got were kind of meh. I don’t know what they added up to but I remember seeing a seven-point-something and a six-point-something – enough to know that I hadn’t placed anywhere near the top two scores of the night so far.
What surprised me the most was how upset I was at not winning. I don’t like to think of myself as a competitive person, but as I watched the rest of the night unfold and saw the two eventual winners take the stage to rousing applause I was deep in a spiral of jealousy and recrimination. It was pretty confronting.
I tried to work out for myself what went wrong. First I externalised the blame. The acoustics were shit. The judges were idiots. The audience too. How was I supposed to follow a mid-show stand-up routine with something smart and subtle? The whole setup was crap – slam poetry was an inherently simplistic phenomenon that rewarded bland, obvious platitudes and rejected sharp, insightful intelligent writing.
Then I internalised it. I had read badly. I had been too nervous. My poem was actually crap. I had foolishly performed an ironic, overly wordy too-complex poem in front of an audience expecting honesty, straightforward language and passion. I was an idiot.
I wasn’t really comfortable with either conclusion, though. I wanted to try to find a way to resolve my feelings about not winning without resorting to either blaming myself or Slam Poetry Itself for what had happened.
I spent a good chunk of the weekend working through the emotional miasma, and in the end I think my poor showing comes down to a combination of things. I still think that “Are We There Yet?” is a good poem, but I also think it was the wrong poem to read that night. I don’t know how I could have avoided reading it, though – it was the only piece I had prepared to read apart from “Second Comes Right After First”, which I think would have gone down even worse. I also thing my nervousness lent a tension to my performance that accentuated the arrogance of the poem, however satirically that arrogance may have been intended.
(When I was talking to some of the other slammers I got the impression that they had more than one poem under their belt ready to perform, so that if they thought the audience was veering more toward the personal than the political, they could bring out their “I want to be a better person” piece and leave their “Land rights now” piece for another show. Maybe if I had prepared a range of poems about a range of subject matter I would have been more able to give the audience what I thought it wanted.)
I also think that I’m not really suited to slamming. Throughout this experience, part of the excitement of being involved at this level came from feeling like I didn’t belong, like I had somehow scammed my way into something. To be honest, the reason I chose to perform “Are We There Yet?” was partly because the style of the piece seemed to suit the slam format, but also partly because I wanted to take the piss out of slam poetry. So the prize going to someone more respectful of and dedicated to the form seems like justice.
I’ve performed my poetry a lot over the years, in front of friendly and unfriendly crowds – one spectacular night at Bathurst University Engineering Club’s O-Week ball comes to mind – but if slam poetry tends toward the musical and rhythmic side of things, then when I perform my poems it’s more like stand-up or a recitation. If slam is exemplified by the late, lamented Gil Scott-Heron, then I’m standing at the Emo Philips end of the spectrum.
Another thing to take into account is the subjectivity of the whole “judging poetry” thing. It seems obvious to say “they just didn’t like it”, but when you have one group of five random judges selected from the audience give a poem one score, and then two weeks later a totally different random group of strangers drawn from the audience gives the same poem a different score, you shouldn’t really be all that surprised.
The whole premise of competitive art is a contentious one – witness the controversy that arises every couple of years about the Archibald Prize, or the Booker. Whenever anyone says “this example of the artform is the best” there are plenty of people to shout them down and argue the point. Which is as it should be. Art is subjective. Any time you try to apply an objective measure of quality to a subjective quantity you’re going to have trouble.
But even though people get all het up about which painting or book or poem they thought was the best, they’re all still having a passionate conversation about that artform. And that’s pretty fucking cool if you ask me.
I think the thing that most prompted me to try to find another way to deal with the cognitive dissonance caused by my performance at the final was the way my mind kept coming back to the idea that it was slam and not me that had somehow got things wrong. Whenever an anti-slam sentiment surfaced I couldn’t help noting its similarity to some of the more ridiculous arguments put forward by anti-slam campaigners, most recently Mr. Christopher Bantick on the pages of The Australian in response to an article by Emilie Zoey Baker about her dream of poetry slams on prime time TV.
Bantick’s been ably put in his place by both Emilie and Alan Wearne, so I won’t go into too much detail in my response to the sentiments that he and other anti-slammers have put forth over the interminable years, except to say that while I think there is some truth in the assertions about slam poetry’s limitations and the kind of poetry it encourages people to write, I never wanted to be one of those “you kids get off my lawn” types, so when I found myself internally ranting about young people today and the dumbing down of poetry I made an executive decision to stop thinking like that. I mean, I’m not a huge fan of bush poetry or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poems either, nor am I any good at writing those forms, but that doesn’t give me the right to say that they’re pointless or that people should stop writing that way. It’s all part of the depth of the artform, yeah?
In the end I came to the conclusion that it doesn’t fucking matter who won (stunning, I know). If you remove the “wah wah I didn’t win” part and kick the “slam ain’t real poetry” complaints to the kerb (because they’re asinine sour grapes and self-interested garbage), the whole night was pretty damn spectacular: a packed house, a dozen poets bringing their A-game to the stage, bonus performances by stand-up comedians, high school slam teams and musicians, an audience roaring and cheering and hooting and hollering for poetry.
So big, big ups to everyone who competed in the heats and the finals. The words I saw on display at both events were all spectacular in their own way, from odes to bladder control to slam meditations on World War I, paeans to Zooey Deschanel and invocations of peace and tolerance in our time. All good.
It’s good. I’m good. I got two nights out at some pretty special poetry gigs, I saw some amazing writers do some amazing performances, I got to talk loudly about myself in front of lots of people, I got to hang out with some old buddies, I honed two poems to within an inch of their lives and I ended up walking away with the (self-appointed) title of Highest Scoring Local Poet in the Castlemaine Heat of the 2011 Australian Poetry Slam, and if there’s one thing I like, it’s an overly long qualification-laden epithet.
The old Welcome to Chewton sign at the outskirts of my home town includes the snappy, “Formerly Forest Creek, home of the world’s richest alluvial goldfield ever”, so why not add “Home of the highest-scoring regional poet at the Castlemaine heat of the 2011 Australian Poetry Slam” and then go for the trifecta by finishing up with “Home of the most qualification-laden Welcome sign in Central Victoria”?
You know it makes sense.