Photo credits: Exeter Phoenix
Sitting on red cushion chairs inside the BikeShed theatre, I looked down on the stage: yellow lights on the poet’s faces, as we waited – unexpectedly nervous – for the fifth annual Poetry Slam to begin.
Hosts Tim King and Morwenna Griffiths explained the rules: each poet had three minutes to perform, with a prize of £50 plus a slot at Spokes Amaze. As for the judges, they included last year’s winner Saskia Tomlinson and poets Daniel Haynes and Graham Burchell.
“Losers will go home feeling depressed,” Tim joked, before explaining the Slam is about good poetry, not competition. Names were pulled, and first up was Quen Tock. “This is so intense.” someone muttered.
Quen – a purple-haired, passionately-voiced lady, who later told me her first poem was published by Razz (not counting the one published when she was 9 ¾ years of age), performed her moving work about doctors and pills.
Robert Garnham performed an unapologetic piece about sex between unattractive neighbours, with Morwenna’s laugh breaking across the room. Also inspiring laughter was Mark Woodward, who, thanks to his whimsical-but-morbid style, now has a special place in my heart.
Julian Isaacs – the ‘punk balladeer’ and star of 70’s band Auntie Pus, performed three poems: one about a cleaning lady, “one for all you vegans out there”, and one about Australia (it’s nothing like you’re expecting). Speaking to Julian outside, he said, “It’s my first Slam, so it’s a bit nerve-wracking, especially having to sit on the stage.” However, Julian’s no stranger to performing, explaining “I cut my teeth performing to 1,200 unappreciative punks, throwing things about. It might sound cheesy,” he continued, “but I prefer making word-pictures, the juxtaposition of unusual things.” When I asked him about his writing, he said, “I have bursts of inspiration – I’m never sure if my constant revisions are better than the original thing.”
Stepping back into the cosy theatre, it was time for the semi-finals – and due to a little mathematical mix-up (we’ve all been there), there were more finalists than expected. First to perform her haunting piece about hospitals was Rosie, while Graham Chillcot spoke about why he writes. A hissing “that’s harsh!” came from the back row as he was scored.
“Oh, for a box of those hands…” Morwenna sighed after Mark Woodward’s poem (I’ll leave you to figure that one out). Ian Beach, also taking a humorous tone, wrote about Formula 1.
“He’s a weird one, but we love him dearly.” Morwenna said after Robert Gardanum’s coming-out poem, earning him third place – and up last was James Turner, whose previous poem about the anti-fungal cream Sporanox had won him the first top score. Again speaking about Sporanox – the crowd bursting into laughter – James took the audience on an abstract journey into the “shrinking universe” and doctor’s letters of a fungal-infected patient.
The finalists were Ian Beach and James Turner; “This is another love poem.” Ian said before performing his piece about sixth-form lovers, someone behind me whispering “I’ve got goose-bumps”.
James Turner’s poem was – you guessed it – about Sporanox. A hearty laugh erupted next to me as James’ word-play about everything from prescriptions to the nature of reality won him this year’s Slam competition.
As everyone trickled out of the theatre, I asked Tim King how the Slams have changed over the years. “The thing that keeps changing is the quality of writing and performance,” he began, “which is rising all the time. More and more people are getting into spoken word across the country, but there’s a particularly healthy scene here in South Devon. Taking the Mic, which is the free event Morwenna and I run at the Phoenix every month, exists primarily to give folks a chance to have a go at performing and to try things out in front of an audience.
Despite the competitive pretext of the Slam,” Tim continued, “most of the competitors are doing this out of a love of performing and an appreciation of what their peers are doing. The Slam introduces members of the public to an art form they may have not considered or appreciated before. The event invariably confounds expectations and wins new converts to poetry, and to performance poetry in particular. Beyond the existing poetry scene, I think it’s empowering for audience members to experience an art form which is both accessible to enjoy and very easy to participate in. It’s not uncommon for folk to turn up one year as audience members and a couple of years later as competitors.”