Swindon Slam – the real elephant in the room

14 May
Swindon Slam winner Joy-Amy Wigman

Swindon Slam winner Joy-Amy Wigman

“Poems are no longer dangerous enough; risk-averse…” shouts Brenda Reed Brown, Swindon Slam contestant. And, as the evening comes to an end, I must agree she may have a point.

For the 25th anniversary of the Festival of Literature (and the 22nd Swindon Slam) previous winners – normally excluded from entering – were invited back.

That was good news for 2017 winner, Joy-Amy Wigman, who took the 2018 trophy with her poem, Hell Is Empty; a political poem documenting an encounter that Joy had with a Tory MP who advised ‘disability cuts will not affect you’. This statement promoted her pennings and sign off – it will affect you, maybe not, you are a Tory.

Fellow finalist Chris Osman, meanwhile, competed with his poem, Even Daily Mail Readers Die.

Is it true that only political, amusing, moving and relatable poetry is the recipe for success as audience members call for instant gratification and understanding?

Yes, this is my first Swindon Slam. Therefore, I appreciate I am in no position to question its legacy or its preceding years of audiences votes by clapping,  foot stomping, whooping, and heart shapes made by hands.

However, I played witness to the loss of sugar-spun cages, pizza cutter voices, and purple poetry in a sea of laughter and supportive cheers to all who bared both soul and political opinion. And, it caused me to wonder: if Tories (at times presented under the guise of privilege), Daily Mail readers, and dating were banned would we see a different Slam?

In her first poem, this year’s winner spoke of the ‘elephant in the room’: a large mass that follows her in daily life always present even at the most inopportune moments until, eventually, she realises the elephant is not new and has been with her for years, for it is ‘privilege’.

Joy’s poem was well read, engrossing and worthy of its place in the heat, but it was not dangerous. It was cleverly structured, but did not cause me to think anything new.

Other competitors did challenge my thoughts with their original use of words and structure, but their impact did not hit me until much later when I had time to process their sentiment.

No one likes to feel stupid; I count myself as one. Does this mean that challenging poetry, which is not immediately understood, receives less applause because we do not instantly appreciate it? Or am I just overthinking the Slam?

A poet friend once tried to explain to me the meaning of her favourite poem, The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams. I still don’t get it, but I am not ashamed because by trying she encouraged me to seek out more poetry and with it my own understanding.

So, playing to the popular vote is not wrong, although, should it come at the loss of the abstract and original? It is sometimes easier to not have to explain. To know that people like me ‘get it’ and can relate.

Dating, politics, mental health: we all know them. However, when I woke this morning the poems that remained in my mind were not those of the finalists but those I am still trying to understand, such as the first reading by Melanie, who wished to suck the jam from the dough of pregnant women’s stomachs and bake herself a home; or the words of Sarah, who read her poem on ADHD at a speed I’d wished I had a slow-motion button.

Over a cuppa, I shared my dilemma with the long-suffering (aka husband), who is not a poetry fan. He surprised me by listening and suggesting that the poems were printed for the audience prior to the Slam for reading. Would this destroy the immediacy and spontaneity of the evening, or provide a fairer platform for the ‘braver poets’ amongst the noise of the topical themes?

This year the rules were changed to allow previous winners to compete. Can the same happen for the 23rd? A radical shake-up to provide more opportunities for the abstract poetry against the backdrop of the popular? Or, as a friend suggested, should those who are less topical learn to engage their audience more through performance?

Honestly, I do not know. There is no right or wrong answer, for a poetry slam is very much based on opinion, and who is to say mine is right?

The 22nd Swindon Slam was held at Swindon Arts Centre on Saturday May 12. It was hosted by Sara-Jane Arbury and Steve Rooney. 

Words by Emma Smith. Images © Fernando Bagué

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