All about slam poetry: Tim Tams optional

20:49, Aug 16 2012

Slam poetry seems to be getting some well-deserved attention at the moment, so I thought that might be a nice topic to begin with.

You see, I learned some things at the inaugural Nelson Slam Poetry Finals on July 19, when Dan Allan was kind enough to explain how slam poetry works and where it originated. It was illuminating.

Usually found directing Body in Space theatre company, Dan attended the finals as Doctor Hieronymus Dandelion and brought along his slide projector. With less difficulty than you might expect, he found a member of the audience to operate the projector and then leapt into a “slide-roulette” lecture.

Slam originated in Finland, quoth the Doctor. It underwent a complicated process involving the Queen of Poets herself, a descendent of the Norse god Thor, before becoming available to us at the School of Music.

Apparently, not many people are aware that the word “slam” is actually an acronym. Luckily Dr Dandelion’s slide projector had an appropriate picture for each letter:

“S” stands for “Sanitation,” as it’s very important to wash your mouth out after using bad language.
 “L” could be “Lesbian” or “Lesson,” depending on your preference.
“A” refers to “Apartment block,” because poets can’t afford houses.
“M” gave the Doctor trouble, but eventually he figured out it stood for “Mmmmm.”

I thought the turnout was pretty impressive for a Thursday night poetry gig. Most of the school’s space was filled with spectators and little tables, and comedienne Penny Ashton filled in as MC for organiser Mark Raffills who had to pull out due to “a bad case of no voice.”

Penny’s incredible leopard-print shoes almost overshadowed her performance for me, but she’s a genuinely funny, wickedly clever lady who did well to stir the crowd up. The audience started out quiet, but soon got the hang of things - as the name suggests, slam is supposed to involve a lot of noise and audience participation. There’s a nice guide by NZ slam founder Ali Jacs on the website she set up, but the essence of the game has five lay judges from the audience rating performers out of 10.

Points start getting deducted if a poem runs over three minutes, but there’s no minimum time limit. Runner-up Em Hofstead used brevity really effectively in her set, carefully reapplying her lipstick and chatting with the crowd before releasing each tiny bombshell of a poem.

Something about Em’s measured, compelling style made her my personal favourite, but cheeky balladeer Roger Lusby had the whole room hooked right from the start. He leapt into performance with great energy, acting out rollicking rhymes about domestic shenanigans in the Pam Ayres tradition.

To avoid any undue advantage, each performer is drawn at random. Penny chose to judge the Nelson performers herself and picked out four other audience judges to join her. Of the seven brave souls who first stepped forward to perform, the judges selected Em, Roger and the very passionate Redwood Rider for the final round.

Roger brought the house down in his winning performance with a piece about the difficulties of aging, and celebrated with a mischievous poem which involved well-known poet Sam Hunt getting stuck in Penny’s bathroom under distressing circumstances.

Roger will now be competing in Wellington against 11 other finalists from around New Zealand at the national finals on September 29th. Ali says the finals last year were a huge success, with Cuba St’s Fringe Bar completely packed out – this year’s event has since been moved to a larger venue, Meow Bar.

Slam poetry is growing really, really fast both in New Zealand and internationally, and it’s not hard to see why. It incorporates traditional poetry’s passion and individuality but repackages them in a completely modern, approachable format. It’s fun, and I hope it sticks around.

I’ll leave you with a slogan from the NZ Poetry Slam website: