…and so it begins
It is 2002. We are in a dusty half lit hall in the east end of London. I have been there most of the day with former Poetry Society Director Jules Mann, cleaning toilet cubicles, laying out chairs and sweeping litter and lager cans into black plastic bags. We have scrubbed toilets and our smiles. It’s all glamour. It’s all terror. That night we made UK history by holding the first London wide youth slam championships. As the doors opened so did their mouths and so did our hearts.
Back stage we have managed to gather together some of the most powerful names in contemporary performance poetry – the whole circuit is behind the initiative and wants in some way to become involved. Some of the poets lead workshops, others help spread the word, and even more perform for free at events. Slowly, the idea of slam grew. It started as a whisper at the back of the classroom and soon developed into a beat on the black tarmac of the playground that turned into the uneven flooring of a west end stage. The poets who helped make this project a verb, a doing word, were Dorothea Smart, Steve Tasane, Charlie Dark, Malika Booker, Skorpio theNemesis, Crisis and of course me.
A decade and 5,000 entrants later and all but one of us still standing – we lost the great and mighty Skorpio the Nemesis in 2011. The man who inspired hundreds of young people to use a microphone instead of a knife passed away in 2011. This decade update is dedicated to him.
The poetry and the politics of SLAMbassadors were always hand in hand. In fact, the very first London slams were held with the support of the now compromised GLA and the Mayor of London – Ken Livingston at the time. Livingston and the Poetry Society both believed that poetry could be used to defeat racism and to celebrate difference. Poetry is at the heart of the revolution because revolution is at the heart of the poet. We wanted to change worlds not just words.
And thanks to an incredible, energetic and ethical woman from the Mayor’s office we managed to do just that. The woman in question is Teresa Askew. If you check the fine print beneath left wing politician’s names you will see hers there, like a palimpsest.
Back then, believe it or not, no one was interested in this thing called slam. This strange thing. This shouty thing. This working class thing. This thing where audiences are as important as the performers. This thing where people who would not ordinarily write suddenly do. This thing without stanzas or scanchion or assonance. This thing with heart and mouth and dreams. I asked for help and support from a number of literature development organisations but was told, clearly and frankly pertly, that slam was unethical. How can we judge poetry?
Well, yes. How can we?
In 2008 SLAMbassadors became a national youth slam championship, pioneering the use of digital technology. This enabled us to hold the first online poetry slam to gather together the 8 overall winners who would come to London and work with me in a master class that would generate the poetry that they would perform on a stage as big as their ideas at the end of that weekend. As always we have been supported every step of the way by the visionary and passionate Benjamin Zephaniah who has been a powerful advocate of SLAMbassadors in all its incarnations.
But the greatest and strongest advocates of SLAMbassadors have always been the young poets and rappers who have dominated stages ranging from City Hall to the 100 Club, from the 02 Arena to Jackson’s Lane Theatre, from the Soho Theatre to Trafalgar Square, from the Oval House to Buckingham Palace.
Many of them have gone on to become regular faces on the spoken word circuit, others have released debut collections, still more have recorded records – one or two with their childhood heroes. They have appeared on television and featured on radio, they have stared back at us from newspaper pages, and they have written the very houses they live in.
But what we are proudest of is those who have become Poet Coaches for SLAMbassadors. No one teaches young people better than young people. And if you have been following this blog you will know that one of our young poet coaches Chris Preddie was awarded an OBE at the beginning of this year. Another has spent the summer in LA coming up with creative scripts for a Hollywood actor, and another has formed her own powerful theatre company which she tours the UK with.
Spoken word and slam poetry have never been more powerful or more valued. Words change worlds. You only need to click on to the Poetry Society’s You Tube page to journey the world through the poetry of our youth. Everyone one of those poems is about freedom of speech. Every one of those poems understands the limits of the page, and that the bars across the creased exercise books in which they write can translate into real bars across a cell for many writers across the world.
The SLAMily of young and old may have completed the poems that you find on You Tube, but now each are undertaking the biggest and most important editing process of their lives: that of writing themselves.
Your mouth is a door. Walk through it. Something wonderful waits for you there.
Judges and Spoken Word Icons 2002 – 2012
Skorpio the Nemesis
Linton Kwesi Johnson
Bea Colley (Southbank Centre)
SLAM Alumni Poet Coaches:
SLAMbassadors will be celebrating its decade the only way we know how. Gigs. Workshops. And gigs. Then some gigs. Possibly a gig. In the meantime please go to Decade Update to see what has happened to the thousands of young spoken word artists who have passed the microphone like a baton to each other in the longest relay race in British history.
We all won.
Joelle Taylor – Founder, Artistic Director and Team Coach.