On the stage and off the page

If poems always sounded dull to you, do not go gentle into that good poetry slam – the words were meant for the stage, not the page and whoever excites the audience most, wins. This week the top 12 spoken word poets from around New Zealand compete for the National Poetry Slam, no music, no props, no costumes, and a three minute time limit. Two of Wellington’s top seeded bards tell Amanda Witherell how they wouldn’t be poets if it weren’t for slams, while two well-published poets question if they’re worth the ink. 

Traditional poets don’t have very nice things to say about poetry slams. James Brown, award-winning author of five poetry books and a Victoria University lecturer on the topic says, “It’s probably got a place somewhere, just let me know where it is so I can avoid it.”Fellow poet and Vic professor Harry Ricketts wrote a disparaging limerick after he attended an Auckland slam: “This poem’s almost all about me:/my body, my journey, my chi./The next line, it’s true,/makes a mention of you;/after that, it’s all me, me, me, me.”

Though he’s intrigued by the risk involved to perform a memorised poem on stage, he says, “They’re almost invariably egotistical displays. They have a performance aspect that’s usually integral and the people who have won are the people with the best moves.” Whereas, he adds, “A poem on the page has to do all the work on its own.”

And it’s not doing a very good job, says Randi Eaton. “We have to win back a generation to poetry. We lost them along the way. I didn’t grow up with poetry.”

Three years ago the novelist wouldn’t have called herself a poet, but she stumbled across poetry slams in Asheville, North Carolina, followed it up during a trip to Australia, and bested the rest in the Wellington heats to perform in this year’s National Poetry Slam.

She’ll be up against several national talents, including Ali Jacs, who won second place last year, then went on to found Poetry in Motion, a monthly spoken word event in the courtyard of Heaven Pizza.

Jacs spent a year touring the city’s poetry events before she launched her own and says, in spite of its growing popularity, “It’s a challenge to get my friends to come, but every single person who isn’t into poetry who comes says ‘that’s not what I expected.’ They love it.”

The same challenge holds for traditional poets. “Some are more open than others. Particularly, those in academia, there’s a feeling that what we’re doing isn’t real poetry. They don’t recognise it as similar to what they’re doing.”

Maybe they’re missing something – Poetry in Motion has outgrown the back courtyard of Heaven Pizza and will use the entire restaurant for this month’s gathering, on November 7 with Auckland’s Michelle Bolton, who’s in town to emcee the National Slam.

“People have a pretty solid idea of what they think a poetry show would be like and to be frank it’s pretty boring,” says Jacs, who always wrote poetry but never considered performing it until she discovered poetry slams while living in Saskatoon, Canada.

“The slam is a very different event. We are appealing for a younger demographic interested in a lively night out. Integral to spoken word and slam poetry is audience interaction. At a traditional reading the audience is really quiet. At a poetry slam the audience is encouraged to make a lot of noise and let the poet know what they think.”

That’s the part Randi Eaton loves. She never played sports, but she’s competitive when it comes to poetry and already planning her strategy – which poem to open with, which ones to hold back for later rounds. She’s drawn to slams because “something so calm and intellectual and academic as poetry traditionally seems, comes to life a little more when you have this competition.”

“I’d love to see slam poetry become pop culture. We’re getting away from the page,” she points out, with smartphones and iPads, and that’s the very premise of spoken word. “You can listen to music anytime, anywhere. You can read a poem anytime, anywhere, but that doesn’t happen. Maybe we don’t have the time or the patience to sit and read and this is entertainment, but it makes you think. My flatmate went to a slam and said afterward, ‘you know, I’m going to start painting.’”

Jacs self-published a chapbook, predominantly of her spoken word poems, and Eaton’s open to the idea, though she’s also drawn toward multimedia. “At this point, I’d like a DVD with a booklet of words. I have a lot of people who say after I perform, ‘can I see that in print?’ That’s where I see poetry on the page with a purpose.”

Originally published November 7, 2012 in Capital Times

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