Most recently I have run slams and judged them rather than participated in them. So I was a bit nervous about competing in the Wenlock Literary Festival Slam. I don’t get anxious performing on stage, but after several bad experiences, I had stopped going to slams that were part of a literary festival programme.

For those that don’t know a slam is a competition for performance poets where numerous hopefuls recite a poem and the judges select the best ones to go through to a semi-final then a final before crowning a winner. The aim of slam isn’t to win (though that’s nice), but to make poetry entertaining for the audience. A secondary point that is often missed is that slam should also be fun if a bit nerve-wracking for the competitors.

I shall mention no names but I have entered slams where the judges knew nothing about performance poetry. The worst one involved an expensive and long journey by train followed by two buses to get to the venue. The front desk then tried to get me to pay for a ticket to the slam, and wouldn’t let me in to recite without one. I might have few principles but not paying to perform is one of them. I should have taken this as a sign and gone home. Instead I used skills long dormant from my teenage days of sneaking into gigs, to slip in through a side entrance to get into the venue.

Inside the two people running the slam had a chocolate teapot level of competence. I know us poets are not the most organised of folk, but to run a slam you need to have planned in advance. It also helps to be a performance poet and have competed in a slam yourself. Neither of these points applied to the numpties handling this particular slam.

The final nail in the slam’s coffin were the judges. One of them was a page poet who must have been press-ganged onto the judging panel. He gave the impression (and no doubt the marks) that showed he was above all this lowbrow nonsense pretending it was poetry. The other two judges were representatives from companies sponsoring other events at the festival. Needless to say they had never been to a slam before, and had as much experience of performance poetry as I have of the Eton Wall Game.

The judges marks were erratic to say the least. Clever performance skills went unrewarded, as did comic tricks of the language. None of the poets who I expected to progress made it to the semi-final. I managed to finish with the second lowest score, only the poor poet who forgot his words ranked below me.

The semi-final consisted of one performance poet and five who seemed to be using writing as part of their therapy for some deep personal traumas. The latter is of course valid poetry but if it is so personal your audience can’t connect with it and you don’t have the performance skills to engage them, it is hardly suitable for a slam. The audience was restless and squirmed in their seats like they were back listening to poetry at school, but the judges loved this stuff.

Needless to say I’ve never been back to that particular slam. So I was facing the Wenlock one with a bit of trepidation. Thanks to Spoz, Dreadlock Alien, and the judges (who were all performance poets), the night was wonderful and restored my faith that literary festivals can do slams. The audience seemed to enjoy themselves and I hope my fellow competitors did as well. Talking to people at the end there seemed to be a positive atmosphere around the event, so cheers to everyone involved.

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