Superheroes of slam - Bolton Leg
The Stranglers once asked ‘ Whatever happened to - all those Superheroes (of poetry)…’ or something like that. Well, none got their ears burnt, or watched a Rome burn - instead, they gathered at Bolton’s Octagon theatre for a Radio 4 Slam heat. The winner of which will move on to a regional final at Manchester’s The Green Room next month. So, briefly (cos I don’t get paid).
Degsy Jones, who I always refer to as 'Merseyside’s self proclaimed poetry activist', was looking every inch a ‘He-Man and the Masters of the Universe’ character, and was therefore doomed by being the first poet to perform.
Seemingly, this is the poetic equivalent of Ted Robin’s, the live studio’s warm-up man, whose sole purpose in life is to lubricate the Judges’ ears canals and their subjective cogs. Few have succeeded into the second round from a premature appearance, which is often unfair. But nobody said 'Slams are fair' - those that enter, are well aware of the rules.
Degsy surprised me. I’ve heard and seen him perform several times now and more often than not he’s exploded into a tirade of linguistic ranting. So, it was a pleasant surprise to listen as he methodically delivered his piece in deliberate and comprehensible tones that allowed an audience to make some sense of his work. Lines like;
‘Moving like a shuttle in a loom, in and out of the weave…we have discovered the atom, and split it. Unravelled the double helix, the pattern to life itself and began to manipulate it’.
It was an intense piece which implied that even though as a species we can do all this - we still lie and cheat. Killing and murdering our way through life. Serious, thought provoking stuff. It was never going to win.
He received the mandatory weak opening score 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 6
Winston Plowes was next onto the streets of Gothtagon. He performed a tragic piece titled ‘decree - nisi’ and judging by the emotion carried in his voice, there was little poetic license in its words. Real and very raw.
‘I am still tasting the whiskey and blood, mixed together in a final kiss…I have listened intently as your words unfold, you are killing me gently, with those eyes of old. And the glazed soil slips away beneath me…’
His words striking a chord with laser like accuracy were not enough. In a world of Superheroes - it’s always a fight to the death, but here was little ‘performance’ in what had now become a gladiatorial ring. The crowd wanted blood. Not just in words - in actions.
The Judging Emperors gave a thumbs down 5 - 5- 7 -6- 7
Most tragedies have their moments of comic relief. Jimmy Andrex, another Yorkshire poet, provided it on this occasion with his ode to the ‘Cillitbang’ T.V commercial. Sounding like he belonged on that other equally annoying piece of television ‘The Comedians’ Jimmy has both a natural comic voice and timing in his delivery and performance and his second poem about a beggar asking him for money because he assumed he was a secret millionaire as he wore a suit and gifted the beggar money. It swayed from comedy and then back toward the darker more intense side. He finished with a short, humorous poem about ‘spiritual mediums’ that evoked much laughter, due, in the main, to his delivery. However, after 2 minutes and 30 seconds he finished his set. Proving that Andrex can be soft, strong but NOT very long.
His scores of 5-6-7-7-7 may have moved up a notch, had he taken full advantage of the available 3 minutes.
In fact, after Jimmy’s performance, it was highlighted by the evening’s compére, Julian Jordan, that each poet had 3 minutes in which to impress the Judges and that thus far, that often familiar honking sound had not been employed by the official time-keeper and possessor of most things that honk - Paul Blackburn. Armed with this advice, reinforcing her already Superhero qualities, we had Wigan’s very own Wonder women - Louise Fazackerly.
‘Daisychain summer’ concerned itself with when Louise was 14 years old, and had a relationship with a boyfriend, who, by her own admission, was a ’bit of a bad lad’. In fairness, it’s a piece that I’ve heard on more than one occasion and each time the poem’s actual performance becomes more and more liberated. What was once a nervous energy, is now channelled into a theatrical performance and Louise has such an expressive face that it’s hard not to become too involved in her animation. Her dialect is that of a humble Wigan lass, another endearing quality but she too failed to make the most of her 3 minutes, perhaps relying upon the strength of a single performance to spin her into the circle of round 2?
The judges, who up until this point had not been the most benevolent, arrived at scores of 6 -7 -8 -7 - 8 and at this point, the scoring appeared to be a more appropriate for the performance. Which again, in my opinion, highlights the distinct disadvantage of having to perform during a Slam’s early stages.
Sophie Hall is a modest poet who I know little about. She recited her work quickly with very little eye contact with the audience and I assume - the judges. Her poem about ‘dictionary.com’ was well crafted but I wasn’t engaged by her persona. This probably had more to do with that nemesis no Superhero of Slam should kow-tow to. The dreaded - Lord Nervousness. She rattled along for just under 2 minutes before finishing what turned out to be her only piece. Squandering a good third of her available time to anxiety and inexperience.
If Superheroes of Slam are to arm themselves with anything, then begin with a Golden Fleece of experience before setting off on such a voyage. The dangerous, unforgiving waters of the Octagon are usually relentless. However, those playful, judgemental Gods sitting above (on uncomfortable seats) showed not only compassion, but the flaws in a scoring system that sent bolts of lightening through my rationale. Scoring Sophie 5 -7 -7 - 7 - 6 reinforced my theory that Slams are nothing more than pantomime… Oh yes they are.
Sophie has the potential to be a great performance poet but scoring her higher than Degsy Jones had even more potential to make the rest of the Judges scoring look like it had fallen from between the join of ‘Champion the Wonder horse’s’ hind legs. And if things couldn’t get any worse, the compére commented ‘you just can’t get the judges these days’ in a tone that implied that these scores were way too low! These kind of remarks must surely have the potential to cause some kind of affect, subliminal or otherwise, to encourage the judges to award higher marks. Whether intentional or otherwise - or maybe not?
Luke Truppin, another unfamiliar Superhero of Slam to my eyes and ears, was a lively character. He resembled a character from a Tolkien novel and he finished his introduction with that irritating statement. ‘I hope you enjoy it…’ So do I mate. So do I. It’s difficult to be subjective about what was nothing more than a shopping list of names. It confused the audience. Who were unaware it was complete until he said ‘and this is my second poem’. This is were things improved. Titled ‘one - two’ its early part whizzed along, perhaps too quickly for many people to absorb what was being said. I interpreted it as a counting poem of sorts but he lost me half way through. The judges on the other hand counted scores of 4 -6 -6 -6 - 7.
At this point, I was beginning to wonder if the tag of ‘Superheroes of Slam’ was a ruse. I wanted to see epic performances. The swash and buckle of light-sabers. The spinning of any-size poetic super-webs. The mild and meek ‘ Dr. David Banner’ types exploding into a hulk of unforgetful performance. Degsy let me down. He should have turned into Hong Kong Phooey not remain as ‘Henry, that mild mannered janitor’. I wanted Superheroes. Even a man wearing his knickers outside and over his pants talking bananas would have sufficed. Until this point, I just felt like I’d seen the biggest of the fish from the smallest of ponds. I’d paid for Superhero performances so I’m well within my rights to DEMAND Superhero performances.
Another new face - Chris Jam. Come on Chris, give it to me. Give it to me large.
There’s always a moment in movies, usually at one or both of its extremes, that is its defining moment. Luke Skywalker plopping some futuristic ordnance into the Death Star equivalent of the eye of a needle.
Clark Kent discovering that he isn’t really a mere mortal from an Amish bloodline but a man of steele and all this entails. And Chris Jam; performing his poetry.
I’ve only recently become aware of Chris. I’ve listened to his poem ‘The Mancunian Way’ which features on WOL’s site, and I felt compelled to make a comment about it, but until the Octagon, I’d never seen him perform. Let’s not mess around here. The guy is a fantastic vocal performer. He was dressed in garb that made him as an unimaginable Superhero that you could image - (does that make sense?) but as we know - our Superheroes arrive in many shapes and sizes. Performing from memory, he produced from his Superhero utility belt; a wire of measured lines, bomblets of intonation, smoke screens of assonance before silently disappearing among the heads of an audience’s city.
He left a card. It said 7-6-8-8-8 , penned with the blood of five irrational judges.
Even Superheroes have their parodies. ‘Bananaman’ may well have fantastical powers and do amazing tricks with a box of Fyffes finest - but as a real Superhero? Nah.
Jefferama, on the other hand, already sounds like a Superhero. Jeffo’ is no stranger to Bolton or its Octagon theatre. He is however, relatively new to performing. Not that you can tell. He best fills his Superhero fishnet tights with words of comedy rant and he told us in no uncertain terms that his neighbour is nothing more than ‘an old trout’. While I find the image of a Superhero crossing swords with a giant mutant trout (my words - not Jeff’s) I think that Jeffo’ also missed a great opportunity to fill his allotted time. There was room perhaps, for a less vocal rant? Something to display both sides of a poet’s poetic coin. He also slipped into his own ‘compére character’ mode too, when after his performance he said, ‘thanks very much - have a good night’. I nearly winced. In fact - I did - but not as much as Jeffo’ when he heard his scores of 6-6-6-6-8. Again, perplexing both me and one or two others.
John Darwin said that he had a ‘miserable poem’ and duly performed it in a miserable sounding voice. It began something like “I wish - I was a fish - inside a bottle - so I could suck this sacred spirit through these gills, cocoon myself from friendship’s disappointments…” It sounded like the type of poetry I love to read. Where I have the advantage of mulling over words and their syntax and how those words join hands and have an association or a bond that no performance can ever do justice. There was no carnival atmosphere when John read. It was purely poetry. His poetry. Poetry that he was reading to receptive listening ears. The intensity of his words bore through me like Superman’s laser vision. The judges were at last beginning to score more appropriately 7-7-7-7-6 . He should’ve have scored at least five 8’s otherwise I’m a Dutchman. Well, I’m not - but the next poet is - a Dutchman.
Reading and performing for the first time at the Octagon, he read his poems in a convincing Scottish accent. If things couldn’t get any more confusing this generated him a score that contained a ‘5’ among his 5-7-7-6-7. A five!! A Dutchman speaking with a Scottish dialect, reading crafted poetry, live for the first time scores? 5. Ooh, c’mon.
Gemma O’ Neil is a well respected, multi-talented individual who seamlessly fits into the brightly coloured tags of Superhero of Slam. She performs in a distinct Manchester dialect, making wry and often acute observations concerning a poets greatest nemesis - ‘real’ life. I’m not sure if, like Dennis Norden, the clip board she carries is a prop (not allowed in slams!) because she engages the audience with eye contact and other theatrical skills that are great powers at a Superhero’s disposal. Not only that - her poetry is often humorous and tragic at the same time. Another skill. It was no surprise to hear a box of 8’s come tumbling from the Judges’ cupboards - with one exception - a maybe tad too generous - ‘9’.
Bloody hell! Is that the time?
Briefly, making it to the final round were John Darwin, Gemma O Neil, Chris Jam and Louise Fazackerly.
After which, Chris Jam buttered the other three with more of the same. It was a close run thing between him and Gemma with Louise having to settle for the bronze. John was awarded the ‘thanks for coming’ certificate and we were treated at the end with some wonderful poetry from David Johnson. A Bristol poet who was both engaging and humorous - in a flowery kind of way.
Are Slams fair? Are they balls. Real Superheroes would baulk at the way they can be conducted - but we ain’t dealing with those half - baked real Superheroes. This is ‘Superheroes of Slam’. Proper heroes. Heroes you can touch...
Photograph of Chris Jam taken by Darren Thomas