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Nil By Mouth

13An aggressive life-sized badger (the mascot of the Bristol Poetry Festival Slam), and a pixie-sized deranged masked ninja (mascot of the Overload Poetry Festival Slam), the impromptu staccato sound-poetry caused by technical glitches and web-cammed rooms of mad, excitable poets evidently weren’t bizarre enough for Overland Overloaded’s Simonne Michelle-Wells. Embracing the true chaos of Slam, Simonne emerged from the Overload-Bristol Skype Slam on Saturday evening seriously lamenting the lack of commitment to mayhem and disorder:

The idea was a great one. In theory. A cross-continental Skype slam, replete with warring mascots, muscle-bound Aussie alpha males and pudgy, pink-shirted Englishmen. Not all good ideas are destined to come together though, are they? I mean, there’s mayhem and then there’s just plain annoying.

Not that the Overland Slam was ever touted as being anything less than slightly organised mayhem: you get beaten by a ninja (the Aussie mascot) if you stay on stage too long, the scores are between 10 and negative infinity, and they’re judged by people who ideally have no interest, or better yet, a slight disregard for, poetry.

The four brave finalists who made it through the heats ended up at ACMI on Saturday night, going head to head with a slightly less pandemoniacal crowd in Bristol for a skyping slam-off of disappointing proportions.

randall-skypeIf you’re going to commit yourself to chaos, commit, people, that’s my beef. If you’re going to dress in full ninja gear than BE a ninja with the commitment of a Shakespearean actor. If you have technical issues, don’t stand there and call people c*nts and laugh at how funny it is that nothing’s going to plan. Not that the technical issues seemed to be anybody’s fault. It’s just that every poem by the English team sounded like this: Th.. te.. ba.. ee.. fft.. spt.. tug.. pls.. th..  Yup. Riveting. Although, we did get to hear almost the entire rendition of a spunktastic extravaganza Nil By Mouth by Bristol’s Molly, which was all about how long a girl could hold onto a mouthful of cum before having to spit it out on the kitchen floor in front of her parents. It was a hit. As I’m sure you can imagine.

Our guys rocked, of course. Randall Stevens, Michael Reynolds, Timothy Train and IQ all seemed ninja-skype-slamvery worthy finalists to me. Timothy Train’s global financial missile midlife crisis poem was a well performed word-flurry. Michael Reynold’s list poem elicited several ‘God Save the Queens’ from the audience (a mark of great acclaim). Randall Stevens was the performer of the evening for me, with a deliciously husky delivery of his poem Meet Me, chock full of textured lines like ‘…when frayed ends of sentences left unfinished, bit back.’ IQ’s words gave me goosebumps and he was the only poet from either continent to command silence with a lyrical and inspiring piece about music: ‘It’s music. We owned it once… We all wanted to have a Ben in our life… The world is a tongue… put the needle on the record, sing along.’

Who was the ultimate winner? I don’t even know. I think it was a draw between Michael Reynolds and Molly. Did anyone care? Not really, by the look of it. If Overload wants to bring poetry into public view, I’m not sure this event, populated mostly by poets, is really the way to do it.

Photos: Randall Stephens Struts his stuff before the skype screen, and the ninja listens to a Bristol slammer, poised to karate chop.

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Comments

  1. You and Alec should get shirts made up, Simonne, “Don’t shoot the messenger.” There seems to be a clear problem with poets connecting to an audience of non-poets all the way from the Melbourne street scene to the upper echelons of the Very Important People. I wonder if this is something we should worry about and if so what we should do about it?

  2. Thanks Simmone, for an honest and insightful review.
    With apologies for the e-whelm I’m about to inflict on everyone but you’ve moved me to speak.
    I’ve seen how the poetry slam can connect non-poetry-savvy audiences to poets in a very real way. Along with poets and producers I’ve run individual and team poetry slams, from little community slams to big (like the Word Wrestling Federation team slams at the SWF where we packed out the Bangarra Theatre) – I’ve seen people aged 16 to 60, who’d never considered a poetry gig in their lives, walking out of a slam Buzzing. That’s what got me into it, that’s why I like it, it brings people together.
    The whole point of the poetry slam, as its inventor Marc Smith intended, is to bring poetry back to the people, it’s meant to be a no-bullshit, happy, vibrant, free-for-all. And it’s also meant to be a Competition – it’s designed to weed out the brilliance from the noise. It’s actually Not meant to be a Piss-take. It’s a Celebration – not only of skill (to capture an audience’s hearts and minds in 3 minutes with your words, Is a Skill) but also of sheer passion, and whilst there’s a gladiatorial element to it all the atmosphere has to be positive. If it’s allowed to become a negative experience it quickly turns into an awkward freakshow. When this happens, it’s usually because it’s been hijacked by an ego.
    This night (and at the final) the audience was encouraged to be negative from the get-go. Additions to established slam rules (like ‘negative infinity’ scores, getting the judges to comment on their own scores, encouraging the audience to shout if they ‘hate the poem’ – none of these things are in the international Slam rules) coupled with the who-gives-a-fuck attitude … it all dissipated any potential for shared energy between audience and performer, and made the whole thing ultimately confusing. There were some great poets giving us some great poetics, but none of it felt like a celebration and the energy just slowly drained from the room (from both rooms, in fact)
    The problem had nothing to do with the technology – a Skype performance was always going to be weird, and it could have been a whole lot of fun in the right hands.
    I don’t know if this is a symptom of some kind of Australian trait which makes us approach things with cynicism (cultural cringe, anyone?) but I don’t really think so – all you have to do is go check out a heat at the Australian Poetry Slam (happening right now – http://australianpoetryslam.org/) to see the thing working as it’s meant to, with respect to its tradition, and with respect to the poets who get on its stages.
    I think this night is best summed up by the choice Crazy Elf made as the final scores were being tallied, when he said ‘oh, let’s call it a draw, who cares anyway’.
    Right. Thanks for wasting our time, then.

  3. Dear Simmone, Paul and Lisa,

    This was a first step, an experiment. The feed back you are giving is enormously valuable and for some parts I agree. The major point of dissipation I found was in the judging. Watching it happen I realised we needed a third party in a conference call, from a neutral country.

    As far as our objectives go, we achieved something substantial: the beginning of a relationship with a sister festival in the UK. Four of our poets found an audience on the other side of the globe as did theirs. I heard, and was impressed by at least two of their poets. We have the potential to develop an exchange program out of this and that is very positive.

    As far as the skype goes we do not have $12,000 for a video link up. And if we did, we’d fly the poets over here instead. We are doing our best, with limited means, to widen the net, to widen the audience, to grow.

    I’m sorry if you were disappointed but not everything works beautifully the first time round. We’ll work on it though and your feedback, as I said can only benefit this process.

  4. James,

    Just want to clarify that my comment has nothing to do with the actuality of the Skype Slam – and I don’t think that Simmone’s review is throwing a negative light on the festival as a whole either. I’m fully supportive of and love what you’re doing and think everyone here is.

    The Skype (or video link) slam idea has great potential to make great connections (especially given our distance, and the future of transport!) – what I was talking about had nothing really to do with the technology, which I found kind of poetic, in it’s way..

    My point is about the experience of the slam in itself, which is something that is important to me, because I’d love to see slam really take off here, but not with that negative vibe.

    In my experience (and it’s just my experience after all!) if you have 5 audience judges and they are encouraged to be Honest and Positive, rather than encouraged to be negative (for eg, they are allowed a negative infinity but no positive infinity score… that’s kind of balanced to the dark side, eh?) and if they’re given a sense that somehow, their scores actually mean something, they’ll score with a bit more thought. ..

  5. I was at the Friday final at Dante’s, and I’m surprised to learn from reading this review that Timothy Train competed in the skype final at all. Sure, his performance on Friday was certainly a crowd favourite, and perhaps in another slam he would have clearly been in the top four. But, with the rules as they were, he attained the lowest score of the field. What happened to the fourth guy who actually should have been there?

    If he was unable to compete, shouldn’t the fifth person have stepped up?

    Is it due to rule changes like this that kept the established slammers from entering the competition in the first place? It’s certainly enough to make me double think even attending a future Overload slam, I can only imagine what competitors think.

    A massive shame too, because every other event I attended was fantastic.

  6. I hear what all of you are saying. The thing is that, in Australia at least, a slam is not a slam is not a slam. Crazy Elf’s slams are renowned for their absurdity and almost anti-poet atmosphere. The ‘Believer’ slam is noble-minded, but invite-only and, some may say it’s somewhat censored. MWF’s Poetry Idol claims not to be a slam at all. Some slams are judged by every member in the audience, some by members chosen at random, some by ‘established’ poet judges. I think there is room for all of them, and if poets don’t like the way a slam is run, they won’t turn up. I guess the question really is: what kind of slam SHOULD a festival like Overload, which is clearly growing, thriving, supportive, and here to stay, have?

    I understand Lisa’s frustration in relation to looking at the slam scene in the States but perhaps the UK is more comparable, even though we obviously want ‘home grown’ talent on the slam scene here to be able to slam up against the best any country has to offer. I wasn’t at the Skype slam, but I hear tell that Bristol had an enormous angry beaver mascot, and that the ‘spirit’ of their slam was similar to that of Crazy Elf’s. So perhaps the way in which the Overload slam was engineered, with a view to culminating in this event, was fitting? Just thoughts…

    In any case, James, this was yet another first, another ‘poetry’ risk, another wild clutch at something that I’m sure will grow to be fantastic. Congrats again.

  7. First, Thanks to Overland for even coming to review the slam and share with the world opinions on the event.

    Almost no slam runs without a glitch, and budgetary constraints included, the slam was a success if for no other reason than it created a bridge between two festivals worlds apart.

    The top scorers, Micheal Reynolds and IQ, were tied. The team slam for now is a draw. We hopefully will find funding and get to visit England and their team can come to Melbourne.

    The crowd was enthusiastic, which every poet appreciated. Even more fun was the happenstance that all the poets on the team had been in workshop less than a month before, seeking to improve their skills as poets and performers.

    We all hope in 2010 Overland and Overload continue to support the efforts spawned this year. Hopefully we’ll see you at a slam soon. Let’s keep sharing thoughts, please.

    If not Show up on 26 October at Passionate Tongues to see the top scorers Michael and IQ in a joint feature sure to satisfy poets and punters alike.

  8. I was host at the Bristol end.
    Everyone here seemed to have a good time at the slam and view it in the experimental spirit it was intended.
    From what Simone says, it seems that we were getting better sound at this end, which is a shame, and I feel for the Melbourne judges being asked to score what must have sounded like mobile phone calls in an area of poor reception.
    I’ve only managed to see one feedback form so far (as I had to leave Bristol straight after the slam) and the answer to the question ‘What did you enjoy most about the event?’ was ‘almost everything’. I don’t know how big that ‘almost’ was, but that sounds like a pretty happy customer to me and I’d like to view that random member of the audience as the critic at this end.
    Big thanks to James, Joey, Randall, Michael, Timothy, IQ and the Ninja for taking part and agreeing to even attempt this thing.
    (BTW, I think ‘pudgy’ is a bit harsh – I’m not sure the physical stature of the host has anything to do with the slam)

  9. Thankyou Pete and to all your performers! We had a wonderful time. The fairly even and high scoring is, I think, a testament to the good-will from both ends (note, there were no negative scores!). I certainly hope we can work on this/make it better (involve a neutral country like Switzerland) and more importantly put our respective poets on some real aeroplanes and kick off a live exchange!

    In response to Tania’s question, the fourth finalist could not get off work and it was up to the slam convener to find a replacement at very short notice.
    I’m not sure why more established performers did not enter – I’d certainly like to know as I’m personally completely green when it comes to slams and am relying on people in the know.

    I like Maxine’s question: what kind of slam SHOULD Overload have? Perhaps you will help us answer this question? Developing and refining a better slam for next year is a high priority.

    And thankyou Lisa for all your encouragement. I think Maxine responded well to what you have raised. The negative dimension of Crazy Elf’s slams seems to have both fans and detractors.

    From what I saw I was greatly entertained/consternated/dismayed/elated. My thanks to Crazy Elf and the Ninja for keeping the energy high. My main question remains why some of our top slammers did not enter?

    This forum, by the way, is fantastic!!!

  10. Well, from what I’m reading in here people are having good experiences, and that’s the main thing. Each to their own.

    Maxine and James just to shift that argument back off my shoulder slightly, I wasn’t really saying we should clone the US competition, just cited from the original intent – that it be positive and inclusive. I don’t mind if people mess with rules, my point’s about attitude. I’ve yet to hear a good argument for negative scores really… or to see it happening in the UK slams either (correct me if I’m wrong there, Pete)

    What I’d like to know, IS there a slam in the country that kind of takes itself seriously enough to get a team happening? Because I’d like to see that craft develop here, from what I’ve seen the poets are pretty good at it.
    ….. I know that, there is, in an office somewhere in Melbourne, the WWF team slam title belt … the previous conveners issued a challenge a while back for someone to pick the belt up and keep organising interstate team slams that correspond with those international rules so that teams can get invited by, for eg, the PSI …. that challenge is still ringing far as I know … if anyone’s got the time … how about you..? : )

  11. @ Maxine: I’ll email the poets and see if they can send me their texts (although one of them usually doesn’t have copies of his work on paper – I’ll try and persuade him) although there may be an even better option in the pipeline in a couple of weeks … I’ll let you know.
    @James: I think that it would be great to do something again next year and I know the poets would definitely be up for a real-life exchange.
    @Simonne: Thank you. My ego could have coped with ‘big boned’ ;-)

  12. @Lisa: I think, to be honest, this is the first slam I’ve ever come across that has negative scores, however as this slam was about chaos and fun I think that was ok and didn’t really expect anyone to use them – it was simply a guideline.
    A few years ago there was a slam run by a small TV company, which was meant to be the best of the best. It was not an open competition – slammers were selected for their diversity of styles – and the audience, in order to make it more like a rap battle and therefore more exciting, according to the production company, were encouraged to boo if they didn’t like what they heard. Which lead to one poet running off stage in tears half way through her poem…

    In the UK there are many different slams run in many different ways. I started slamming in Bristol where we were using the PSI rules, as the guy running the slams then was a regular visitor to Austin Poetry Festival and adopted the rules from there. However some slams in the UK have a scoring system from 1-100, some don’t have 5 judges, some go purely on audience response (with a noise-ometer) some have mini-heats (3 poets perform, are scored and one goes through; then 3 more perform, are scored and one goes through etc etc) and there are plenty of variations inbetween including different time limits etc (I am currently helping out run a nationwide BBC Radio 4 slam, the first 2 semi-finals of which were held this weekend just gone and the final will be in a couple of weeks time. As these are for national radio broadcast there are content restrictions – no use of bad language or defamitory statements etc and the time limit is 2mins 15 secs, so we can fit 9 poems into a 27 minute radio show. BTW they will be broadcast on Thurs 24th Sept at 11pm BST, Thurs 1st Oct at 11pm BST and the final on Thurs 8th Sept at 11pm and can be listened to online here:http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/ )
    Personally I have always felt it to be a bit of a shame that the UK has never had a unified slam run under the PSI rules (as PSI have worked hard on getting a format that is as fair as possible – although there will always be complaints – poets!). There are a couple of competitions that claim to be the UK title (a bit like boxing has several organisations with world titles), and these are often well subscribed and fiercly competative but mainly local. About 12 years ago there was a national competition held in Bristol where teams from all over the UK came along and slammed it out, and there was a winning team. (Bristol I think (sic)) but this was never followed up.
    There are also ‘Dead Poet’ slams (competitors read out/perform poems by dead poets), short story slams and rap slams (not battles).

    I generally agree with your point about being supportive and celebratory, although the very nature of a slam is that someone is deemed a ‘winner’ and other poets can go home feeling they haven’t made the grade, or (as is sometimes the case) that there was some sort of unfairness involved in the results (we are dealing with artists egos here! – I see it again and again and was guilty of that myself when I first started out).
    Then again, a decent slam title on one’s performance poetry CV can have some weight and I have been booked on the strength of certain slam titles (as a side note, I was ‘Houston International Poetry Festival Slam Champion 2005′ which looks great on the CV, but was in fact a competition with 5 poets, 7 audience members, 3 drunk judges and the only reason the Slam was advertised as International was because a friend and I were in the US on tour from England!)
    I would encourage you to get an interstate competition going, as long as it’s all unified and dignified and you are prepared for the criticisms from ‘proper poets’ who will no doubt snipe at the popularity of slams ‘dumbing down’ poetry. It’ll be a lot of work so will need to be funded but could generate a lot of interest.

  13. Thank you James for your response. I guess it makes sense there would be teething problems the first time this is run.

    I’m not sure what might make it better. I did have a lot of fun on the night, and even though others are commenting about the negative aspect, there was a feeling that the competitors were aware of the nature of the slam and were enjoying being part of it. Maybe it’s that in itself that keeps the bigger names out, the fact that it is more about fun than beng serious? But it’s good that all the slams are not exactly the same.

  14. James, I’m not even sure why I didn’t enter. I was so excited about some of the events I kind of forgot about the slam. And it’s almost slam burn-out time as well I guess. I’ve been in some of Crazy Elf’s slams before and always done well, so it doesn’t have anything to do with that. Last year at the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival, Cam Black held an ‘exhibition slam’ (a one-off poetry slam with a hand-picked team). Could be a thought? There’s probably room for both.

  15. Okay, I’ll talk.

    Poets mean nothing in a slam.

    Oh, sure, there are a lot of poets that THINK it means something, and THINK that they’re important for having won one, or THINK that it has to be fair, but let’s look at this in more practical terms. How do you get money from running a gig? Do you have to get an arts grant every time you want to run a show?

    I sure as fuck don’t, and you know why? Audiences. Big fucking audiences that come into the shows and pay their way. You know why they come to the shows? Because they’re fucking entertaining, that’s why. Have you ever been to a poetry show where there’re over sixty people in the audience and only five of them are actual poets? I have, and I ran it, and it was fucking awesome. That’s pretty commonplace the first Wednesday of every bloody month at Bar Open 8pm sharp. Ever heard of a poetry show that runs on time? You have now.

    The show is completely unfair. People get judged because they don’t like the shoes that the poet is wearing, or because they look like someone from TV, or whatever. It doesn’t bloody matter, because after the scores are given everyone has a laugh about it and enjoys themselves. The audience yells and screams at the stage the entire time, and they’re free to do so. As a result of this the crowd is largely made up of people with actual jobs rather than poets. The majority of the people that we have coming through the slams are engineers and accountants. You may not understand what that means, but it essentially means that they work for a living. You may not know what that means either come to think of it.

    The winners walk away with TEN DOLLARS and everyone has a fucking blast. If you think that’s shit, tell it to Marc Smith. That’s the prize at the Green Mill. It gets people in off the streets to see exactly what’s going on in that place, and it works. When it started a lot of poets got angry, too. Poets such as… um… well I can’t remember any of their names because THEIR OPINION ISN’T IMPORTANT BECAUSE THEY NEVER GOT IN FRONT OF THE LARGE CROWDS BECAUSE THEY WEREN’T FUCKING GOOD ENOUGH! HA HA HA!

    I run a show with no money or funding that gets big crowds week after week. If I had a sniff of the resources that most other events and publications and other arts grant sinkholes do I’d be packing in hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people into various venues every week. On top of that I’d have more resources from ticket sales that I’d be able to push back to performers that brave the stage. Features and the like already get paid, though, because I’m already making money from these gigs. All that money goes right back into the shows, but what the fuck do I care? I work for a living.

    A lot of arts related people have been very negative towards me and the gigs recently, which is fine. I don’t care because they seem to be doing it all behind my back. They never say anything to my face because I can break them like a twig, and am unstable enough to do just that. The crowds, however, haven’t dropped off. They’ve remained the same in terms of numbers despite poets not attending.

    Poets don’t matter, folks. Crowds do. Stop thinking about what is fair for the poets, and what would be best for the arts scene, and start thinking about getting fucking people on seats. Once that happens I may listen to your opinion, although I probably won’t.

  16. Could you run a slam without poets Elf. And I don’t mean that self-importantly, I’m serious. What would happen? Would audience member get up on stage and essentially ‘become’ the so-called ‘poets’ they’ve arrived to make a spectacle of? Isn’t it one of those ‘one hand clapping’ things: if no poets turn up, other people have to become the poets therefore making the poets that doesn’t matter essential…or maybe making them totally inconsequential as anyone could stand in for them…my brain hurts.

  17. Actually, Maxine, that’s exactly what happens. Plenty of the poets that hit that stage never hit the stage until coming to a few slams. It’s self populating.

  18. Interesting discussion. I enjoy being in Elf’s slams because they are tremendous fun and they are unashamedly a pisstake. That doesn’t mean I don’t take other slams seriously. To me the magical thing that happened on the night was when IQ’s performance was so sublime it cut across all barriers and everyone experienced a world class slam performance. Hence the silence. Melbourne just doesn’t realise how much IQ has to offer.
    Back to pisstaking. It’s what the audience at Bar Open comes to see and so it’s what the poets give them. So the audience IS important. You play to an audience. I go in the Faith-Friendly slams. Tim Train came second in a recent “normal” slam (was it Poetry Idol or National Slam? I forgot). So are we not regular slammers? Can you tell me IQ isn’t?
    Serious slams need a serious audience. I believe that audiences need educating as to what is “good” slamming just as much as performers need to hone their performance skills.
    Well, that’s my 20 cents worth anyway.

  19. Michael, of course you are ‘regular’ slammers – if there is such a thing. The amazing thing about your own poetry in slams is that while the slam form esily lends itself to quite forceful political soapboxing (not mentioning any names here, but if I was, they would be my own), the poems you read at slams seem to defy this assumption. And IQ. Where to start, he can wipe the floor with me and you know it. I don’t think I’ve heard TT read much outside Overload, but I hope to. I have emy fingers crossed for funding for you guys. It would be great to continue these discussions on next year!

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