Chris Kerr compares the “slam” and traditional poetry scenes, chatting to a few of Canberra’s notable poets in his last post as Blogger in Residence.
[Photograph by: Brianna Laugher]
This is the second of two blog posts looking at the Canberra poetry scene. The first one explored the sometimes overlooked world of Bush Poetry. In this post I’m asking whether “mainstream” and “slam” poetry can peacefully coexist in Canberra and Australia.
I spoke to three poets with different perspectives on the slam scene. Andrew Galan is an internationally published poet and co-producer of BAD!SLAM!NO!BISCUIT!. Melinda Smith has published four collections of poetry, including Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call which won the 2014 Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards poetry category. Harry Smith started participating in slam poetry in 2015 and has reached the South Australian state finals.
I’m not assuming that terms for poetry scenes are fixed and have meanings that everyone agrees on, with slam and performance lined up neatly on one side facing mainstream, conventional and page poetry. When I asked Andrew Galan to define Slam poetry, he rightly questioned my use of the term in his answer: ‘I don’t use the term Slam Poetry except when others use it, the essential part of a poetry slam is that anyone can perform whatever poem they have from a stage to an audience.’ So bear that in mind when I refer to slam poetry in the rest of the article.
I also asked Andrew if he thought there’s a trade-off between the ephemeral energy of slam poetry and serious dedication to poetic craft:
‘I don’t know if energy and engagement costs poetry. So many people come to BAD!SLAM!NO!BISCUIT! who I don’t know that I’d never hazard a guess at their reading habits. Of those people who come or have come to BAD!SLAM!NO!BISCUIT! I do know, well they read extraordinarily widely of poetry, listen to a diversity of poetry, watch all kinds of poetry, some of them even study poetry. But they also read, watch and listen to a host of things that are not poetry.’
It’s hard to see how this omnivorous embrace of all kinds of poetry and media could be anything other than positive for poetry.
Next, I asked Harry Smith if he thought conventional poetry scenes had anything to learn from slam poetry:
‘I think that some (certainly not all, but some) traditional poetry scenes/events/groups have forgotten that poetry can and should be fun. I’ve been to events where even if the material is playful and upbeat, the event and audience are extremely sombre which I think can alienate some people, particularly young people. I think the other thing that could be learnt is that some poetry is not very good. While you never want to hurt someone’s feelings, giving value and praise to a bad poem is pointless and hurts the form, the voting system in slam reflects that to an extent.’
One of the standard attacks on slam poetry is that the quality is weak, so it’s striking that Harry makes a case for slam’s voting system showing quality is important. Out of the chaos and comedy of a slam night emerges a beautiful and serious lack of preciousness. Slam poets know that when you admit a poem is bad, poetry wins.
Finally, I asked Melinda Smith for her perspective. Melinda is a page poet, and she’s very open about having performed at BAD!SLAM!NO!BISCUIT! and Canberra Slambouree. I asked her what she thought we could do to encourage increased collaboration between Canberra’s poetry scenes:
‘It is worthwhile considering why there are multiple scenes and whether this is in fact a bad thing.
They [performance and page] are in effect two genres within the one art form and are necessarily presented and appreciated differently.’
As Melinda says, we shouldn’t lose sight of the qualities that are unique to poetry scenes even as we encourage collaboration. Melinda also suggested an intriguing way to move beyond the dichotomy between page and performance poetry:
‘Having said that, nights like The Salt Room are going some way to encourage cross-pollination between the scenes. I think what works about The Salt Room (and equivalents in other cities like La Mama Poetica) is that it is a dedicated night at a neutral third venue, with a commitment to variety in programming between ‘page’ poets and ‘stage’ poets. What this allows to happen is for the fans of both kinds of poetry to have a chance to encounter something from the other scene.’
Rather than viewing slam and conventional poetry scenes as an either/or proposition, there’s plenty of room for both to thrive. Moreover, there’s space for them to fulfil their unique identifies while also benefiting from surprising crossovers as well.
Whatever your usual poetry scene, why not try out another one next time? The Salt Room might be a good place to start.
Chris Kerr is a poet, reviewer, editor, publisher, former technical writer and budding copywriter. He co-edited issue 62 of UK Poetry magazine Magma and edited a book forDead Ink. Chris is an assistant editor of the April 2016 issue of Meniscus. He wrote a poem about Chernobyl that appeared in Ambit just after he’d moved to Canberra from London. He’s currently working on a series of collaborative code poems and aspires one day to write a poem about tennis that’s good enough not to bore readers who couldn’t care less about tennis. Chris is still happy that Lana Del Rey set T. S. Eliot to music on her last album. You can follow him on Twitter @c_c_kerr.