LIVE REVIEW: Working the Crowd @ the Poetry Grand Slam
Full disclosure: I was late to the slam. I walked into the Four5Nine bar just as The Antipoet, co-host and co-founder of Perth Slam, boomed “ARE YOU READ TO SLAAAAAAAAAAAM!? into the mic. It’s his customary way of letting the audience know it’s on. The poetry is about to happen. Pay attention. And, as the packed crowd responded with a chorus of cheers and applause and whoops, it was clear they understood. And I was more than ready to join them.
I’ve watched Perth Slam grow over the 3 years it’s been running, but you could feel they’d been building towards this moment during last Saturday’s event. The winners of each of this year’s monthly slams had come together (along with 4 random sign-ups) to compete in this, the Grand Slam. Tonja Boyd, co-founder and score keeper (and scientist), described these poets as the ‘cream of the crop’. Every performer taking to the mic that night had honed their voice over the past year. They’d each faced judgement and come out on top. But they all knew the truth: you can never predict the outcome of a slam. Something which felt especially true as the audience’s claps and stamps simmered to silence in anticipation of the opening performer.
The first two poets actually received some commiserative sighs from the audience before they’d even taken the stage. Since the order is decided by picking randomly from a hat, many believe that going first puts you firmly on the wrong side of the score creep as the judges slowly warm to the format and vibe of slam poetry. It makes sense: the judges are picked at random too. They’re just as likely to be someone’s supportive but sceptical uncle as they are a slam aficionado. And the former seemed to be behind the scoreboards on Saturday as the initial performers racked up some conservative scores and polite applause.
Things changed when veteran, Becky Monks jumped on the mic with a snappy, ironic piece about negging. The crowd loved it. The judges loved it. It seemed that, now, they really were ready to slaaaaaaaaaam.
Slam is its own artform with few rules. The fundamentals are this: you have just two minutes to impress, inspire or instigate the audience using only your voice. So the competition took a strange turn when Casey followed up with a remix of ‘Old McDonald had a Farm’ performed largely in Auslan. Fellow contender, Scott-Patrick Mitchell described a signed slam poem as ‘a beautiful concept’ and it left the Antipoet suitably speechless.
Our host recovered in time to spruik the evening’s prize: the Perth Grand Slam Cup, a one-of-a-kind mug fresh from the Vistaprint store. As he raised it above his head, the audience collectively hummed a single, sustained note. Much like the cup itself, this moment was weird, funny and a bit strange. It’s times like these that remind why the Perth poetry community is my chosen family.
The night proceeded with a piece about magical skin. Then one on ‘eating the rich vs jazz bar’ vibes. Then one from 2018’s WA Australian Poetry Slam representative, Niel Smith. And each time, the cup was praised and the anticipation built.
The Laundry Man kept the crowd bubbling when he took over as host in the second half. Daniel Hansen delivered big with a piece exploring the line between his Nyungar and Christian spirituality. He was followed by C.V the African Spice, a relative newcomer but designated one-to-watch. C.V has an energy that hits you right in the chest, and bars - bars on bars on bars. Perhaps too many bars: I’d seen her spit fire before, but this spitfire performance seemed to leave the audience behind in her wake.
A few more staple slam performers brought some oldies-but-goodies to the mic. They were quality performances, but the audience seemed cautious. And I understood: a big part of slam’s appeal is its immediacy. I’m a firm believer in keeping your content fresh.
Ana invoked the impending Pride celebration with a punchy poem which included the unforgettable line, ‘He still thinks pride is one of the deadly sins.’ I heard a few ‘oofs’ and clicks rise from the crowd around me. At this point, we were on the home stretch and things were getting real. The crowd was leaning in. Enter the night’s last (and youngest) competitor, Bonnie. Her poem about the struggles of anxiety took guts and she delivered it with maturity beyond her seven years. It was a great way to finish out the competition.
When the final scores were reported, it was no surprise that Bonnie had landed in third place. She has a command of performance that even the most experienced speakers that night could learn from. Excluding Daniel Hansen, perhaps, whose ability to work the crowd saw him into second place. Hansen is a performer knows when to growl, when to speak and when to let a line linger. It’s a skill shared by the Antipoet, who aaaaaaaaaalways like to draw out announcing the winner..
And who else could it be but our current national slam rep, Niel Smith. Niel’s poetry is certainly triumphant. Only he could deliver a smile-stimulating piece consisting almost entirely of similes that swerved clichés without sinking beneath its silliness. Still, it never hurts to have a few friends on the judging panel, as the Antipoet cheekily pointed out.
But this the beauty of a slam. It’s not the orderly rhyme-fest you’ll find at your nanna’s bingo night. It’s organised chaos. Everyone backs a poet to fight and scream and howl for their clicks and claps and whoops and stamps and, yes, points. Naturally, there’s always disappointment when your favourite doesn’t place. But, at the end of the night, our noble host reminded us of the sentiment that echoes throughout the Australian and international slam community. It’s a feeling that drives organisers, participants and audiences alike, from the battle-hardened seven year-olds to the un-initiated uncles.
There is only one true winner at a Poetry Slam.
Header image: Rachael Barrett