Poetry slam

Winter nights sees me pretty much grounded for their duration, and with each year that passes the need to get active after them, becomes ever more apparent. Getting out and about keeps me physically and emotionally better, and attending the Headingley Literature Festival each March is often one of my first Spring evening jaunts.

LS6 always seems to buzz but the festival gives it that extra vibe. The programme of events is always extensive and varied, many events are free, of those that aren’t, they’re reasonably priced. This year’s theme was ‘Something Else’, and concludes on April 2nd  with, ‘Own Your Words’ …advertised as a poetry slam, see details here.

So far I’ve only managed to attend one of this year’s events, this too was also billed as a poetry slam, and named, ’One City – Many Voices’. For an entrance fee of £4 we were entertained by the internationally renowned poet, Lemn Sissay.Lemn Sissay

I’m not sure when the slang use of the word ‘cool’ became so commonplace. I don’t recall it being used in ‘my day’, and don’t feel comfortable saying it, BUT writing it occasionally seems expressive?,,,,Lemn and his performance were….. cool!

The word slam in ‘poetry slam’ is also slang, but this too I find expressive. It was used initially to describe a competitive poetry event, and was coined by Bob Holman. ‘a poetry activist and…slammaster’ who called the movement “the democratization of verse”…..he also said

The spoken word revolution is led a lot by women and by poets of color. It gives a depth to the nation’s dialogue that you don’t hear on the floor of Congress

The ‘One City – Many Voices’ poetry slam wasn’t competitive, but those who performed alongside Lemn were a group of talented wordsmiths from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. They were pupils of Leeds City Academy and Ralph Thoresby High School.  The flair and conviction of their words was astoundingly good. The young people had been coached by local writer and poet Michelle Scally Clarke.

Michelle told us how when younger, she’d struggled academically because of her troubled life, but she liked writing poetry and after sending some to Lemn, he’d encouraged her to continue. Ms Scally Clarkes’s performance, and presence were impressive. The Academy’s, Head of English, was an equally animated and motivational speaker, he spoke of the personal hurdles he’d overcome to be so. The teacher told us of his difficulties with a speech impairment and shyness when young, and then when older in a southern University, he’d faced ‘teasing’ for his Northern accent. I’m sure his and Michelle’s commitment and mentoring skills were a huge factor in the pupils finding their words and voice.

Most of the young performers displayed a confidence, beyond their years, they recited forthrightly, the young compere was dynamic and as an introduction demonstrated his moonwalking. The focus of the students poetry topics revealed many difficulties in their personal lives, they were angry at injustices they’d faced, but this seemed to spark the passion to expose it.

Though I like performance poetry, my preferred way of ‘hearing’ poetry is to read it silently to myself. Poets performing their own work however are most likely best able to add the nuance, or inflection which conveys their intended message. Lemn is a charismatic performer and he described writing poetry as ‘playing with the spirits’, that point alone inspired me to write about the poetry slam. Hopefully we who only listen to or read it, get to commune with them too.

Of the poems Lemn read, the following one stayed with me, as it spoke of the rejection he’d suffered. The poem also illustrates how when we’re a child, what it’s like to live in the land of ‘giants’ who sometimes get perplexingly angry. It was clear Lemn wrote the poem from experience but it wasn’t until after the event I found out just how difficult his childhood was. I also discovered that he’s an MBE, and whereas I claim letters before or after someone’s name mean little to me, I might have felt a little shyer inviting him to a World Poetry event elsewhere, or about his fee! Lemn, as the cliche goes, appeared to have ‘no edge’ and graciously, whilst not exactly accepting the invite, managed to appear not to rule it out.

Though childhood rejection wasn’t an obvious contributory factor in my angsty youth, it’s something many experience at some time, either as children or adults. Making it easy perhaps to identify with the boy in the poem who was misunderstood, and imputed with wrong motives.  It is only as an adult, and lately, that I’ve come to recognise the insidious ways certain groups are marginalised. If we find ourselves amongst them, choosing to re-frame the experience, see it as an advantageous place from which to act, gives the freedom to draw up inspiration from ‘that wellspring of creativity’.¹

Suitcases and Muddy Parks by Lemn Sissay

You say I am a lying child I say I’m not you say there you go again

You say I am a rebellious child I say no I’m not you say there you go again

Quite frankly mum I’ve never seen a rebellious child before and when my mates said jump in that puddle and race you through the park (y’know, the muddy one) I didn’t think about the mud.

When you said why you are dirty! I could feel the anger in your voice I still don’t know why. I said I raced my mates through the park. You said it was deliberate. I said I didn’t I mean I did but it wasn’t. You said I was lying, I said no I am not. You said there you go again.

Later in the dawn of adolescence it was time for my leave

I with my suitcase, social worker,

you with your husband, walked our sliced ways.

Sometimes I run back to you like a child through a muddy park, adult achievements tucked under each arm, I explain them with a child-like twinkle, thinking any mother would be proud…

Your eyes, desperately trying hard to be wise and unrevealing, reveal all.

Still you fall back into the heart of the same rocking chair saying

There you go again.

And I did.

And I have.

,Sue Margaret

1. Bob Dylan in interview.

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