Peter Ross: The bloodsport of slam poetry

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Whether it’s an adrenaline rush or a bloodsport, slam poetry is more than a metaphor for a growing band of literary combatants

‘LAY-DEEZ and gentlemen! Welcome to Literary Death Match!” Down a dark lane, in the ornate upstairs room of an ­Edinburgh pub, Adrian Todd Zuniga – a young American who somehow manages to look at once cherubic and ­cadaverous – is introducing the latest in a wave of live spoken word events which are sweeping the nation’s capital.

Compere Adrian Todd Zuniga in The Voodoo Rooms. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Compere Adrian Todd Zuniga in The Voodoo Rooms. Picture: Ian Rutherford

Dressed in a dark suit, tie askew, a giddy flash of polka-dot socks above dagger-sharp suede brogues, Zuniga epitomises a certain type of bookish chic, as do the four Scottish writers – two men, two women – who have come here tonight to compete against one ­another, reading their poetry and short fiction in the hope of impressing judges and audience. “I want a good clean round,” Zuniga warns. “No dangling ­participles, and keep your exclamation points under control.”

All the writers are pretty good, but a special word, perhaps, for Andrew C ­Ferguson, a 50-year-old Fifer whose combination of tweed waistcoat and skull ’n’ crossbones cravat has already marked him out as one to watch. This impression is confirmed by his hilarious short pastiche, The Slime Of Miss Jean Brodie, which reimagines the teacher of Muriel Spark’s novel as a many-tentacled beast perched atop Marcia Blaine School and devouring staff and pupils.

Ferguson, who lives in Glenrothes and works in local government, is part of the spoken word performance group ­Writer’s Bloc, and wrote sci-fi until he reached the limit of his scientific knowledge (a biology higher gained, in 1979, from Auchmuty High) since which point he has focused on horror and dark ­fantasy. His story Isabel Allende Goes To The Cowdenbeath Game has been performed across Scotland to great acclaim though never, for some reason, in that douce burgh itself. What, then, is his tip for winning over an audience? “Alcohol,” he considers, “usually helps.”

Drink, at Literary Death Match, is taken in liberal quantities by an audience of liberals who, by the final round, are ready for just about anything. What they get is a version of Play Your Cards Right with literati instead of face cards; Daniel Handler – better known as ­Lemony Snicket – is the joker. On a ­previous occasion, the winner was ­decided by throwing crumpled pages of War And Peace through a basketball hoop. It is all a far cry from the traditional idea of the book event with its tepid Chardonnay, obvious questions and polite applause.

A winner holds up his Literary Death Match medal. Picture: Ian Rutherford

A winner holds up his Literary Death Match medal. Picture: Ian Rutherford

“This is totally crazy. I love the anarchism of it,” says one audience member, Andrew Sclater, a 63-year-old Stockbridger with his left arm in a stookie after falling over on Burns night, an incident he insists was not whisky-related. He is a dry-stane dyker, having previously worked as an editor of Charles Darwin’s letters, precisely the sort of ­career path that one might expect from a regular punter on the live poetry ­circuit.

Literary Death Match is just one of several such nights in Scotland, especially in Edinburgh, which are part of a booming spoken word scene: TenRed at The Persevere in Leith; Blind Poetics at the Blind Poet; Rally & Broad at The Counting House; Inky Fingers at The Forest; Illicit Ink at the Bongo Club; Shore Poets on Lothian Road; Neu Reekie at Summerhall, a night which is itself named after the late performance poet Paul Reekie.

That is by no means an exhaustive list, and each is different, some offering open mic slots, others a mix of newcomers and established names, and others still music and cabaret in addition to live ­poetry. It is notable, too, that these nights have a dedicated audience with a wide age range. There were 80 people at the Voodoo Rooms for Literary Death Match, mostly younger hipster types with thick-lensed glasses and boho (or in some unfortunate cases, hobo) hair. As grassroots live music continues to struggle in Edinburgh, largely from a lack of small, cheap venues, poetry seems to be flourishing. But why? What’s the attraction?

“I love how personal it can be,” says Harry Giles, 26, an Orcadian now living in Edinburgh and a member of the Inky Fingers group. “With performance poetry, you have to make a direct connection with the audience if it’s going to come off. It’s very powerful for people who have been marginalised; spoken word can be really empowering and give them a voice. It also taps into centuries of oral tradition. Homer was a performance poet. The Odyssey and The Iliad were spoken out loud first. It feels like you’re part of something going back hundreds and hundreds of years.

“It does take a lot of guts to make it happen, but I think just about anybody can give it a shot once you’ve got over your initial nerves. You’re always sharing a part of yourself, which can be tricky, but I see how exciting it is for first-timers. It really is like doing a bungee jump. You’ve just got to get over the edge.”

While most live poetry events are welcoming, nurturing and non-competitive, there is an element of the scene for which competition is the whole point: slams. Poetry slams – in which poets perform their work in front of an audience and to a strict time limit – were invented in 1984 at the Get Me High Lounge in Chicago. The phenomenon is now worldwide, and sometimes takes place in a raucous, bear-pit atmosphere which can seem at odds with the stereotypical image of poetry as a quiet, intensely discipline favoured by shrinking violets.

Robin Cairns, a fiftysomething Glaswegian who runs the Last Monday open mic night at the Rio Cafe in Partick, is also in charge of the Scottish Poetry Slam Championships, which this year will take part at the Pleasance Cabaret Bar, Edinburgh on March 28. “It’s intensely competitive,” he says. “Someone always goes away cursing at the grim injustice of it all, while someone else is dancing around in glee. You ­really do put yourself on the line, and people do get hurt. I call it a bloodsport. If we did this with badgers we would get banned. I have had competitors coming up and howling at the judges at the end, and I’ve had to stand between them. Aye, it’s great.”

Jim Monaghan is a veteran slam poet who works as administrator (“the janny”) of the Govanhill Baths Community Trust. He is 50 years old and looks rather like the actor James Caan during his Sonny Corleone pomp; as though he might at any time make you a metaphor you can’t refuse. Born and bred in Cumnock, he started writing in his late teens, on the supporters’ bus heading to Celtic games. The Ayrshire coalfield had a tradition of local rhymers, old miners whose poems on such varied subjects as pit disasters and Jock Stein would be up on the walls of local pubs. These men – Ranter McDonell from Galston, Skipper Hutson from Cumnock, Archie Leach from Auchinleck – were never ­published in any anthology, 
yet Monaghan found them a greater inspiration than Robert Burns. For him, therefore, the idea of performing poetry seems quite natural.

“I’ve been involved in left-wing politics for most of my life and I find this is a much better way of communicating those ideas than in political meetings,” he says. “I used to talk about these things in an empty hall with no one listening, and I can talk about them now in a packed hall with people actually paying attention.”

A few days after Literary Death Match, I attend Rally & Broad at the Counting House on West Nicolson Street. It is busy, the audience are attentive, and there is a cabaret feel – red drapes and seductive lighting. A young man called Jamie, wearing a white dinner jacket and black lipstick, circles the room, lighting candles. A young woman called Charlie, in top hat and gloves, takes money at the door. A wry and intense “anti-folk” musician called Lach tells a story about dropping acid and watching The Wizard Of Oz.

Rally & Broad, every third Friday, offers a mix of spoken word, music and performance art, and is promoted by two poets, Rachel McCrum and Jenny Lindsay, flatmates in their early thirties who are stalwarts of the scene. McCrum, originally from Northern Ireland, also runs Stewed Rhubarb, a publishing house for spoken word artists, its ­titles including her flatmate’s splendidly titled pamphlet The Eejit Pit.

What you get from attending nights like this is a strong sense that something as simple as the human voice speaking beautiful words sincerely meant can cut through all the snares and distractions of our modern lives. For the poets themselves, of course, the ­attractions are sometimes more visceral.

“It’s a massive rush of adrenaline,” says McCrum. “The first time you do this there’s usually a piece of paper clutched in sweaty, shaky hands, and you can just about get the words out. But you will get a response. There will be empathy, there will be sympathy, there will be laughter and applause.” Jenny Lindsay, from Maybole in Ayrshire, won the BBC slam last year. Starting out as a singer-songwriter, in thrall to Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, she became a poet by default – thieves stole her keyboard and so she was forced to speak her lyrics, in Glasgow’s Nice ’n’ Sleazy, without musical accompaniment. To those robbers, those thieving jaikey dobbers, she owes the discovery of her vocation.

“I can’t imagine not doing this now,” she says. “The power of one person with a microphone is astonishing.” «

Twitter: @PeterAlanRoss

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