How to write a scream. How to write the raising of hairs. The feeling that our skin understands something better than our minds could ever hope to.
Wow. What an incredible weekend. You would think that I would be a little more articulate but just about all of my words have been used up this week.
I have just spent 48 hours in an enclosed space with some of the most beautiful people and inspiring young poets I have ever met – and that is saying something when I have been running this project for the last decade.
On Friday March 30th, the 8 winners of SLAMbassadors UK began arriving in London from all over the country – from North Somerset to Northern Ireland – and were shown to their hotel rooms by the inexhaustible Ally Davies from the Poetry Society, who quickly labelled them and filed them in their beds.
What followed next morning was astonishing and life affirming. As I paced nervously around the Poetry Studio, the winners – all wild eyes and wide dreams – began to arrive. I performed. Did a few back flips. Showed them how to beatbox badly (anyone can do it well, this takes skill). And we then spent literally 24 hours creating professional spoken word sets for each of them – based on a range of writing and performance exercises I have developed over the last few years. I have never been more moved or excited by their responses. In fact, I know that we all felt like that. You know you have done your work well when a shy girl from Northern Ireland says a few sparse lines and the whole workshop erupts into cathartic release, paper flying and breast beating. Superb. Poetry should make you roar. And that energy and love was typical of all the poets gathered. Everyone was listened to, everyone was given the space to speak and everyone wrote themselves that weekend. Each of these young artists is a poem.
After spending the Saturday writing new pieces for Sunday’s gig, the evening was spent in bitten-lipped rehearsals – most alone on the edges of their beds, others down the telephone to me or hanging around the hotel lobby. Good times. Terrifying times. Same thing for a performer. To throw myself more fully into the spirit as their mentor, I also wrote a new piece to perform, and went through a similar process – even asking them to help me make it fit in more mouth more evenly. And that is at the heart of SLAMbassadors – it does not matter what age you are: it is whether you can write, and whether you can translate those words into a dynamic performance. We all help each other, irrespective of experience.
Horrifically early on Sunday morning we returned to the pieces that we had stuck on the ends of tongues the day before, and worked to refine them. There was also a film crew in the session, which helped to shape the show and will provide a valuable archive not just of their poetry but of the POWER of it, the emotional literacy. We even had one of the young winners interview a statue of John Milton, and I believe he is planning a rap battle with him for the near future…Milton is in serious trouble.
And then came the drum roll. Just when they thought that it was safe to go back into the rehearsal room, DIZRAELI made a special unsolicited guest appearance. Dizraeli had helped judge the championships alongside me, Ally Davies, and Bea Colley from the Southbank Centre – and wanted to check in on their progress. They performed for him again, noted his tips and ideas and soaked up the aura of a true artist.
Then on to the gig venue – the legendary 100 Club, a space that has hosted the best bands in the world since 1942, making it the longest surviving music venue on the planet. They team were immediately embraced by its slow speakeasy style, set against red walls tattooed with graffiti from every band that has stumbled across its stage: Johnny Rotten, the Clash, Oasis, the Rolling Stones, The Troggs, and every blues musician in history. The backstage area was a monument to live art. After a photo shoot with the immense Hayley Madden (www.hayleymadden.com) we washed our faces, and prepared for the biggest gig of their lives. The audience streamed in and the lights dimmed. Drum and bass shook the floors. Finally, my entrance music was cued and I half fell, half pirouetted onto the stage. That dirty and grubby stage that gives birth to beauty.
Slam is the most powerful and interactive form of art – it relies upon the energy of the audience to complete the poem. Being an audience is a performance in itself. And ours that night was made of the very best of people – drawn from across society, from across the country and all united by the power of poetry. Tables were thumped, whistles shrieked, hands clapped like one had offended the other.
I stated at the beginning of the gig that this was all about free speech, and it always is. Whenever someone puts words where there were none, when someone defines something in a few sentences that you didn’t understand or simply couldn’t see before, when your words change worlds – poets have been imprisoned for their words, because good poetry is dangerous.
And these were dangerous poets. Opening the set was the man we call The Voice, Gabriel Akamo. His intricate, alliterative speech danced through poems about books, about racism and faith. His lips are scripture. Son of David SAVE me!
Tamara Lawrance followed, easing herself onto the stage with a duet written via Facebook on the Saturday evening with Gabriel. Let me tell you about Tamara. Her warmth on stage is unparalleled, and she drags the audience forward to fall into her spiralling poetry. One of her pieces was Friends with No Benefits, an incredibly moving piece that had both me and Dizraeli in tears and hugging.
Harry Wilson, the man whose politically poetry reads like a love letter, entered stage left and took us on a journey from Gigi Ibrahim and the Arab Spring to a walk around a council estate. And then he did the thing that none of us had expected him to do and launched into what will surely become his signature piece, A Capella Hero – combining emcee bars with pure poetry.
The first half of was concluded with 15 year old Emily Anne from Buckinghamshire, whom I had met in a crowded library classroom during a workshop at Burnham Grammar School. One of Dizraeli’s favourites, this girl has serious flow. Each of her bars is constructed like a crossword puzzle, so that the words are not just clever but percussive. The whole of the crowd raised their arms and sang along to her final piece, formed around the chorus from Aeroplanes.
SLAMbassador Poet Mentor Chris Preddie sealed the first half, speaking about the circumstances that led to his OBE award this New Year. But the gig was owned by the current team, and they proved it as the second half kicked off.
Renne Pascal, the boy we call Mr Rascal, walked on to the stage and basically ripped it in half, folded it up and put in his pocket. I’m sure he’s got that stage somewhere in his bedroom now. So forceful, and smooth was his performance that it is hard to remember that this poet is only 14 years old. His final piece is my favourite, detailing his journey to the finals and ending with the line that this performance was ‘my OBE’. He was so comfortable on that stage that I had to wind the microphone cord into a lasso and drag the child off. It is little wonder that Renne won the Young Poets Network People’s Choice vote.
Icy Denyer, that pocket philosopher, is one of my proudest finds. We have known about Icy (or Aaron to his mum) for a couple of years and I had directly worked with him at SLAMbassadors Spoken Word Summer camp, along with Louise Hill, Holly Hopkins, Chris Preddie and Hussain Manawer. When he made the final cut I was ecstatic. And he did not let me down. One of the audience members described his performance that night as ‘electric’, and it’s the kind of electricity that powers things, that makes things work. From his American Insurgent through to Shopping List for the Modern Era, Icy is the heavyweight champion of the word.
And then, Charlotte Higgins. In a few years this blog may be found by someone with an interest in the arcane and there will be a moment of pure excitement when they read her name. Because she is going to be huge. Charlotte Higgins is a genuine Poetry Society discovery, a heartbreaking artist whose small words cause huge ripples, tsunamis, when dropped into the centre of the room. She is a true method writer and can imaginatively place herself in other people’s skin –writing with empathy and visceral teeth. The audience were raised to their feet, and the other poets in the room sank to their knees.
And finally, all hail the power that is Megan Beech! Artist, cultural terrorist, poetic activist and musician, Megan left the audience with mouths like empty stages. She is by far the strongest female freestyler I have ever had the infinite pleasure to witness, she responds so quickly and energetically to an idea that it leaves a person breathless. She is a multi rhymer par excellence, and at the heart of every poem is heart. It beats as fast as her tongue. And as hard as the audience claps. Outrageous. Stunning. I lost my voice at that gig, and I’m pretty sure Megan Beech has it.
Or maybe DIZRAELI took it. I wouldn’t put it past him. His ability to transform the political statement into a deeply personal moment is extraordinary. He is the UK’s last surviving folk hero, the last poet standing. And he spent half an hour guiding us through his folk-hop pieces, ending with the all time classic Bomb Tesco’s. Even though he totally tore the soul out of the stage that night, his gig wasn’t my favourite part of him: that was sitting next to him screaming, watching the tears flow for Tamara and continue through the rest of the gig. That was watching him stand and shout their names, blistering his hands from clapping.
We are humbled in his presence. And he is humbled in theirs. All is as it should be.
Catch Dizraeli on tour this summer or download his White Man Moves or Engurland albums from iTunes. Or just go and see him. Yeah, that: keep art live.
Our arms are open. Welcome to the SLAMily.
And now, check this out from Megan Beech, a piece she wrote within minutes of returning home and called There is Poetry:
Joelle Taylor, poet and Artistic Director of SLAMbassadors UK