Slam Poetry made its loud and unruly debut in early 1990s urban America, delivering vociferous, impassioned political postcards from the marginalised edge.
It’s argued that hip-hop was slam’s mentor. But there’s also a debt there to the jazz-drenched free-form prose of the 50s Beat artists. Then, of course, the potent raw energy of Punk played its part.
Today we’re at Slam Sunday, Dublin’s main slam show. The popular monthly event has Temple Bar’s Filmbase packed out as usual. It’s 6.30pm and the crowd of some 100, all armed with tea and biscuits, are primed. A handful will judge, others will perform. Some performers are nervous debutantes, others old pros. The lights dim.
Aidan Murphy, the main man behind the slam, jumps on stage. “If I say slam, you say Sunday.”
“Slam!” – “Sunday!”. The show begins. First up is a “sacrificial” poet. This is a slam ritual: someone not taking part in the competition gets up to break the ice. Always willing to sacrifice for society, Dublin.ie takes to the stage and delivers a little rant about the weather. Then things begin in earnest. There’s total silence as the first of the slammers takes to the stage.
Strikingly for the primarily young college crowd, the first poet is an inner-city grandfather in his sixties. He’s unaware that work must be delivered off by heart. But with a bit of improvisation, he gets by and delivers some heartfelt work on hard living. He stands out both in form and content from many of the others who follow. You see similarities in style with quite a few performers as they cover topics such as romance, Greek myth, suicide and sex. Lots of sex: sexual identity, sexual preference and sexual abuse.
The mood can shift from stand-up like hilarious to hair-raising traumatic in minutes. Funny, vibrant, scary, intense, whatever, Aidan says there’s always variety. “Because each performer has a max of three minutes, it’s like tapas; there’s always something that someone likes,” he says.
it’s like tapas; there’s always something that someone likes
Slam Sunday’s recent 4th birthday testifies to that. It started off in Accents coffee shop, but they ended up turning people away. So Filmbase was the perfect new home. It’s a theatrical venue with great acoustics and plenty of room for a 100-plus people. And despite initial worries, “the crowds kept coming,” Aidan tells us. “But we never know in advance who is going to perform. Literally, anyone can walk up and try it out,” he says. “It can be a bit scary because you’re putting on a show and you don’t know if anyone at all is going to perform. But thankfully people always do.”
Quite a few ‘name’ poets have emerged from Slam Sunday onto the national stage. But big names are not necessary to pack the house, Aidan says. “When you are running music and open-mic nights, there’s this rule of thumb where the beginner band or the least professional act is the one that brings the most people. And when you have 12 people performing, it’s easy to reach a critical mass,” Aidan says.
Aidan explains that the competition aspect is just a means of selecting poets for prizes without the perception of favouritism. “We can’t pay everyone so it’s the fairest way of doing it. I know it’s a bit weird to be judging poetry. But we have to have an open system,” he says. “With the audience judging, someone good generally wins.”
Ranting hipsters, freestyle rappers, bohemian drifters, proto-comedians, mystical shamans and gothy punks
US slammer Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz admitted repetition could be “excruciating.” “The same three poems over and over again: ‘I had it hard in life,’ ‘Racism is bad,’ and ‘We all like sex, right?’,” she said. But Slam triumphs in the end. “(Slam) poets always worry that something – a style, a project, a poet – will become so dominant that it will kill the scene, but it never does. Ranting hipsters, freestyle rappers, bohemian drifters, proto-comedians, mystical shamans and gothy punks have all had their time at the top of the slam food chain, but in the end, something different always comes along and challenges the poets to try something new,” she says.
Aidan said he too initially harboured fears of repetition and concerns that people here would mirror the dominant style of many of the US YouTube slam stars. His fears proved ill-founded however, as Dublin always seemed to bring some quirk to the show. He points to tonight’s first act as an example and adds that there is always something unusual and unexpected.
Curiously when the show first started the average age was 30 and now it’s 20. But Aidan says they recently had to make it over 18s as too many people in their mid-teens were turning up. The age restriction was motivated by concerns about “duty of care,” he says. Poetry is often a port of call for young kids struggling with serious issues. “Suicide attempts are common topics,” he said. “We highlight mental health services and offer leaflets, but we are not equipped to deal with such issues.”
There was another practical issue too. “Older poets would come and would not feel comfortable having three 16-year-olds doing their first boyfriend poem – I know that’s a horrible generalisation – but whatever poem they were doing – they would not feel comfortable getting up because they felt it was a children’s show,” he said.
The fact, however, that Aidan is in a position to be worried about the age and profile of the audience tells you a lot about this engaging, entertaining, moving and, sometimes troubling, evening out. So why not make a plan to go check out the next slam.
To find out more visit www.facebook.com/SlamSundayDublin