Monday, 21 March 2011

York Poetry was slammin' on 18th!

They said it couldn't happen, but it did... After the demise of the York Literature Festival, you could be forgiven for thinking that no one in York WANTED to show up to literary events. York's first ever Poetry Slam, on 18th March, proved the detractors wrong by packing out The Basement at City Screen Picturehouse and attracting 31 contestants from the local area and as far afield as Newcastle, Manchester and Coventry. After a high-energy Grand Final, Harrogate's Tim Ellis was named York Poetry Slam Champion 2011 and took away a prize pot of £44.62 kindly donated by his fellow performers.

It seems appropriate to set down my thoughts on the Slam while they are still fresh in my mind. So here goes!

I have to begin by thanking the people who made it possible - Helen, my co-host at Speakers' Corner; Jem and Nicola at Harrogate's Poems, Prose and Pints for designing a fabulous poster and plugging the event with all their might; Rose and Alan of Stairwell Books for providing much of the motivation for getting the slam going in the first place; and performance poet Ash Dickinson, our guest judge, for invaluable advice and also for providing a guest slot which was one of the best poetry performances I've seen in ages. Without you guys, there really would have been no slam - we owe it all to your dedication, enthusiasm and energy.

I have to thank the performers too - all 31 of them. Several (including one of our finalists) had never read their poetry in front of an audience before, and deserve massive respect for having the courage to stand up and make themselves vulnerable that way. A great many travelled for miles just to take part. The feedback I've had from the performers was universally positive. All of them seemed to think it was well worth the effort, even if they didn't make it to the final.

The mix of material was gloriously diverse. Our three prize winners truly earned their accolade, but there were some stand-out performances along the way which have left an enduring memory. Some of them were pretty off-the-wall, like the guy who performed his poem lying down on the stage with a sleep mask over his eyes. Some were moments of unintended comedy, like the lady's handbag which inadvertently became the most entertaining stage prop of the evening. Others were quieter, simpler. A poetry slam can be a noisy affair. Everyone expects to have a good jeer at bankers, warmongers and upper-class members of the Cabinet. But sometimes a quietly alliterative poem of lost love, or the image of a young woman in a hijab describing her face, can have a more lingering effect.

Mistakes were made along the way, of course. I thought our publicity was crystal-clear, but there were still inquiries coming in right up to the last minute about who needed to buy tickets, where to buy them from, and what time we were due to start. We had an unforeseen partial clash with another poetry event elsewhere in town - though if anything, we may actually have ended up boosting attendance at each other's events, by providing enough incentive to drag poets from far and wide into York on a Friday night. Not being aware of "how other people do it" led to a couple of complaints, from people who had been to other slams and expected, not unreasonably, that ours would run the same way. But these were very minor niggles, and soon forgotten in the general enthusiasm of the night.

For me, perhaps the best endorsement of the night came from the anecdotal evidence of people scribbling down words and ideas throughout the evening, of conversations overheard in the toilets that people were inspired to get writing. This is what it's all about. If we've given people ideas, encouragement, inspiration - if we've sown seeds that will germinate into new pieces of writing - if we've prompted people to get writing, perhaps for the first time - then I don't think we could want anything more.

It's great to bask in the applause (as Tim will, I'm sure, testify!). It's great to have the reassurance that we sold enough tickets to cover our costs, plough a bit of money into our respective organisations, AND have enough left over to donate £50 to Comic Relief. But we don't do it just for the applause, the self promotion, or the money. We do it to spread the germ of writing - that subversive disease that undermines, inspires, and offers alternatives to a grey, mediocre, recession-ridden world. If we've done our bit to spread that disease, then I'm happy.

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