Inside: The 2019 State Poetry Slam Final at The Rosemount
In the grand tradition of artistic competition that brought us the rap battle, the Perth poetry community recently held the 2019 State Poetry Slam Final at the Rosemount Hotel. I was there on Saturday the 31st of August, to watch 8 of WA’s best poets compete against one another, with nothing but words as their weapons.
The Slam Final was the long-awaited culmination of 4 heats, held on each weekend of August. The heats saw poets from all over Perth share their most powerful and passionate poems, with the Top 2 performers of each heat being sent through to the endgame that awaited them at the end of the month. Tonight, the Top 2 poets of the State Final would receive cash prizes, and go to Sydney for the National Slam competition, where they would represent WA and compete against Australia’s best poets in the iconic Sydney Opera House.
When I arrived at The Rosemount, I immediately spotted a plethora of familiar faces from the poetry scene, and followed them through the outdoor bar area to the Main Room inside. There was already a line of people at the door, paying their entry fee, and being given numbered tickets, which would come in handy later.
Inside, the dark spacious room was quickly filling with people, all eager for the Slam to start. Some were members of the poetry scene, there simply for the love of the spoken art form, while others were friends and family of the 8 competitors, there to support them in this final race towards the Nationals finish line. While some lined up at the bar to get drinks, others snagged the few available chairs, leaving the rest to stand at the tall bar tables. As the room grew more and more packed, some of us sat ourselves down on the floor, in front of the stage.
The upbeat jazz music and animated chatter in the room quickly died down as Allan Boyd, AKA The Anti-Poet, took to the stage. Regular attendees of the Slams knew what was coming, and we braced ourselves gleefully for the familiar and distinct introduction that our host always welcomed us with. In one impossibly long, sustained breath, he cried out into the microphone:
“LADIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES and gentlemen!”
Spurred on by the cheers of the audience, he continued to hype up the room with his infectious energy, asking us, “ARE YOU READY TO SLAM?! ARE YOU READY TO SLAM?!”
Satisfied by our screams of affirmation, The Anti-Poet welcomed us to the Slam Final, marvelling at the crowd of over 160 people, who filled the room almost to full capacity. After a brief reminder of why we were all here (poetry!), Allan’s wife, Tonya came to the microphone, and carried out the Welcome to and Acknowledgement of Country, acknowledging the Whadjuk-Noongar people, and declaring Perth Poetry’s support of the Uluru Statement.
Next, Tonya explained the structure and rules of the Slam to us. There would be 2 rounds:
The first would be hosted by The Anti-Poet, and would feature all 8 competitors.
The second round, which would be hosted by Allan and Tonya’s son Jakob Boyd, AKA The Laundry Man, would feature the 5 poets who received the highest scores from the first round.
The Top 2 scores from the second round would go to Sydney. Each poet would have 2 minutes to perform their piece to the audience, with point deductions being made if they went over the time limit. To ensure impartial scoring, points would be given by judges picked at random from the crowd. There would be 5 judges for each round, and every judge would give a score out of 10 for each poet’s performance. Each score would be recorded, and Tonya would remove the “haters” and “lovers”, meaning the lowest and highest score given to each poet, leaving the middle 3 scores to create a poet’s total points out of 30.
Asking us to take out the tickets we were given at the door, Tonya pulled stubs from a hat, calling out the numbers which would decide who in the massive crowd would get to judge the competition. One by one, the 5 judges for the first round were selected, and given small hand-held whiteboards to write their scores on. The rest of us kept our tickets, in case we were picked for the second round.
Before the competition could begin, the tradition of the sacrificial poet had to be observed. The “sacrificial” is a poet who is not competing, but gets the ball rolling by reading first, removing the fear other poets may have of being the first one called to the stage. Our sacrificial poet for the Slam Final was well-known Perth poet Scott-Patrick Mitchell (SPM), who delivered a raw and emotional performance about the grief of his sister’s untimely death. Though his points would not be counted against the others, the judges took the opportunity to practice scoring his performance, showing their appreciation for his truly touching tribute.
Finally, the first round got under way, and one by one our 8 competing poets were called up to the stage to perform their poems. First up was Saoirse Nash, whose tender poem about train lines, changing landscapes, and gay bars painted an intimate yet frustrated picture of the Perth she lives in. Second was Daena H, who spoke with an activist’s righteous anger about political issues like border walls and fake news, and their detrimental impact on truth and tolerance. Third was Niel Smith, whose well-received poem was both comedic and condemning as it passed down judgement on the negative impact of social media and influencer culture. Fourth was Fable Goldsmith, who performed a vulnerable and visceral poem about personal trauma, recovery, and a culture of victim-blaming.
As the performances continued, it became clear how the audience reacted to the skill of the poets, and the scores of the judges. In moments where a poet said something that struck a chord with the audience, the sound of fingers clicking echoed through the room, showing the crowd’s appreciation. Clapping and cheers would erupt at the end of every performance, carrying each poet back to their seat on a wave of raucous admiration. As the anonymous judges gave their scores, the crowd would clap and whoop in agreement, or scream “HIGHER!” if they felt their favourite poet had been scored lower than they deserved.
The fifth poet on stage was Shab, who spoke both softly and sharply about not being owed or owned, and men’s impact on women. The combination of personal and sociopolitical content that is so integral to Slam poetry continued with Pax Azam, a young poet who spoke with an almost deafening passion about the next generation’s fears of impending doom, especially at the hands of environmental disaster. There was a change of pace with the arrival of Smiles, who delivered a poem about betrayal and heartbreak in a fluid, rapid-fire rapping style that set him apart from the rest. The last poet of the first round was Ben Mason, who touched a nerve in the audience with his relevant poem about FIFO workers, the police/military complex, and what constitutes “a real job” in a capitalist bureaucracy.
As the first round ended, The Anti-Poet announced a 10-minute break, during which the audience could grab drinks, use the facilities, and stretch their legs while Tonya added up scores. The minutes flew by, and soon we were back in our seats (or in my case, on the floor), ready for the second round to begin. Upon our return, 5 new judges were picked from the hat to score the remaining poets, who had been whittled down from 8 to 5. It was announced that Saoirse, Daena, and Pax had been eliminated, leaving Niel, Fable, Shab, Smiles, and Ben to perform their second poems. We were one step closer to finding out which poets would triumph and go to Sydney.
First up for the second round was Fable, who conveyed the heartache of experiencing homophobia and misogyny, and the indignity of a postal vote on marriage equality. There was, however, a bright glimmer of hope as Fable declared through poetry that regardless of the risks, freely loving who you love is worth it all. Next was Niel, whose thoroughly witty not-quite-a-love-poem about Australian politics and social commentary had the crowd laughing, groaning, and cheering from one moment to the next. Third was Ben, whose poetry shifted in tone, becoming more philosophical as it explored the differences between expansion of the mind, and expansion of consumerist industry. Fourth was Smiles, who once again brought his impressive ability to rhymically rap (and even sing) his words about his sadness at the sorry state of the world. The last poetic performance by a competitor was by Shab, who explored the boundaries we set in relationships, and the secrets and restraints that exist within them, even after a break-up.
As Tonya added up the final scores, The Laundry Man entertained the waiting crowd by reading a long poem from a book, while his father provided an ambient undercurrent in the background, repeatedly whispering, “Poetry is killing me. Poetry is killing me. Poetry is killing me. Poetry is killing me...” Finally, the scores were tallied, and all 8 poets were invited back up to the stage for the announcement. The room buzzed with anticipation and excitement for the final reveal. The Runner Up, who had won $250 and a trip to Sydney was... Niel Smith! And the Winner, who would receive $500 and also compete in the Australian Slam Competition at the Sydney Opera House was... Fable Goldsmith! The crowd erupted into applause as the two winners accepted their prizes and were congratulated by the Boyd family.
We all wish our State Champions, Fable and Niel, the very best of luck as they represent Perth and WA in the Nationals. Perth Poetry Slams will resume on Saturday the 28th of September, and will be held at the Rosemount Hotel in the Four5Nine Bar at 4:30pm. For information about upcoming events, check out the Perth Slam Facebook page. To read and learn more about the Uluru Statement, click here.