Here’s Dr Helen Gregory – performance poet, lecturer and researcher – with her take on the atmosphere of the Shake the Dust Slam Final.
On my way to London I worried that I wouldn’t have anything to write about, wouldn’t notice anything new. After all, I was only making a flying visit to the slam final. Besides, I wrote a lot about youth slam and spoken word two years ago after WordCup 2010. I needn’t have worried. After sneaking out of the Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on my way to other engagements, I wrote almost constantly for the entire train journey home. 2 ¼ hours, 1 pen and 19 A5 pages later, I was stopped only by my train arriving at its destination. Here are some of my thoughts…
Keeping Calm and Carrying On at the Southbank Centre
I’m heading home from the Shake the Dust slam final, overflowing with words and energy and, yes, love; all that ‘slam family’ nonsense that’s easy to dismiss from the cynical outside-looking-in. I had been hit by the slamily vibe pretty much as soon as I caught sight of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the venue for the final weekend of this youth slam project. Before I’d entered the building, Dreadlockalien (one of the poet coaches and a regional ‘slam consultant’) had grabbed me and I was absorbed into the bubble of chaos that was Shake the Dust.
Walking around the hall itself was like trying to leave my own birthday party. There was no chance of slinking around unnoticed and no possibility of escaping the warmth and (exhausted) enthusiasm of young poets, their tutors and entourage. Once again, I was struck by how ‘centre of attention’ youth slam/spoken word events like this can make you feel. It’s impossible to evade the notion that you are important, that your actions are meaningful, that people are glad you’re there. You know it isn’t about you really, but it is, because it’s about everyone – all those voices, smiles and ideas spinning together. This all sounds unfeasibly fluffy, I know, and I’m a cynic right down to my slushy, heart, but you can’t fail to be captivated by this magic.
One of the things that struck me most was how this slam family has grown since WordCup 2010. New connections have become old friends, pre-existing friendships have strengthened, nascent poetry groups have fledged or passed the slam baton on to the next generation. I’ll admit to a slight dampening of the eye when I bumped into one young poet, Damani. Damani was one of the WordCup slammers I spoke to back in 2010. I swear he was about 2 foot shorter then, but his dazzling smile was unaltered and unmistakeable. In 2010, he told me that he would be back for ‘the next one’ as a poet mentor, and he proved true to his word. When I reminded him of this, he said that many of his dreams had come true since WordCup. He is now a peer mentor and young author, writing and performing regularly in his role as Birmingham Young Poet Laureate. A couple of hours later, Damani was stood on the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall theatre, performing a poem about striving to achieve your dreams. It couldn’t have been more fitting.
It is notable that a young man like Damani would dream of being a poet at all, let alone achieve this dream so compellingly. This is the continuity of impact that I wrote about at the end of WC 2010; the continuity that is achieved despite erratic funding and a lingering popular conception that poetry is the dull product of a by-gone age. It’s a continuity charged by the dedication and belief of the teachers, adult poets and young writers who work in youth slam and spoken word, shaking the dust.
Sometimes you remember that these young slam participants are still kids, and generally pretty new to this poetry lark. Someone makes a childish joke or a naïve comment, a casual sexist reference gets a giggle from friends, a performer forgets their lines or tries to walk off stage in the wrong direction. It’s these moments that make you realise just what they (and the adults/peer mentors who work with them) have achieved. The stumbled lines highlight how polished those choreographed, on-stage performances are. The kid practicing gang signs brings home how close to the bone and worldly-wise some of that poetry really is. The casual insult (I heard one young poet call another a paedophile) makes the many displays of love, support and mutual respect all the more remarkable. It’s easy to forget all of this when you’re being carried along by the youth slam wave.
When Artistic Director Jacob Sam-La Rose spoke to a room of a hundred plus young poets, poet coaches, shadow artists, teachers, peer mentors and general hangers on before the slam final, he had our (almost) undivided attention. This didn’t seem at all strange to me, until a couple of young slammers began whispering amongst themselves. A word from Jacob brought them back in line, but only then did I realise how remarkable it was that a packed room of hyped up young people were being so attentive to this lone man at the front of the room.
Jacob is a motivational speaker, to be sure, but I can’t help but think that something else was at work here too. This weekend was the culmination of months of work for those present and the event they were about to perform in was the cusp of this – their chance to shine after a whirlwind weekend of workshops and superstar poetry showcases. Once again, I was in the presence of converts to the spoken word mission.