A few weeks ago I got an offer to be a part of something really fun. “How would you like to do the Anti Slam, a competition where poets stand up in front of judges and, instead of trying to do the best they can, they try to be laughably, gloriously shit and lose”. “Easy!” I thought and, without thinking much further, said “I’m in”.
But the process turned out to be a lot harder than I expected. My first attempt, a tongue in cheek praise of the mining industry called ‘The Mines’*, was basically the anti-Calling New Geordieland (a collection of my poetry which embraces the North East in the 21st century). I thought it would be funny to do the opposite and go on a rant about the regions glorious industrial hay day and, in the process, try to make a point about how hard life really was back then.
But with a day left to go I started to have second thoughts. Is a parody of a topic really enough? Did the poem not still have some artistic worth if it pointed out what was wrong with something? Was it, in essence, slightly too good? (slightly being the key word here).
So I decided it would have to be even less well put together, in short: even shitter. And that’s what was quite fantastic about doing the Anti Slam because it also forced me to ask myself what a good poem, as well as a good performance, actually is. So I made the subject even duller, with no point to it in the slightest, and wrote one called ‘Dust’*. I decided to perform it extremely nervously, with no emotion and with an almost robotic pause at the end of every line. I realised that these are the worst things I think a performer can do and working it out made me not want to do any of them even more than before.
As an audience member the whole night was absolutely hilarious from start to finish. Steven Frizzle was a well deserved winner and goes on to the final in London, having created a fully formed character, Godfrey Staples: a spoilt American youngster who writes angry poetry about his dad, the head of a stationary enterprise. I’ve been familiar with his musical parodies for a few years now and this was a brilliant piece of stand up in its own right, something I really hope he keeps going. Other highlights for me were Emma Whitehall‘s completely cringe worthy erotica poem, Sarah Hammersley’s truly terrible rhyming and Chrissie Petrie‘s contribution, which was basically a very disturbing shopping list.
I caught up with Paula Varjack after the show, the co-founder of the Anti Slam which started in Berlin and is currently touring throughout the UK.
Was there anything about the nature of poetry slams that made you want to create the Anti Slam?
“Well the whole thing started because a lot of my German friends were poets on the spoken word scene and a lot of my expat friends were English-speaking comics on the stand-up scene and I wanted to do something that brought the two groups together. I don’t have anything against slams! I’ve always enjoyed them, though they can get very heated sometimes. Even if you say you don’t want to win, you’re always a bit upset if you lose. I wanted to do something that totally took that away and made it as fun as possible.”
Do you think doing something like this can teach us anything about poetry?
“I think it takes a lot of craft and thought to intentionally write a really terrible poem, not just a bad poem, but something truly embarrassing and cringe worthy. And in doing so you are challenged to think about what a good poem is and also how you write one. I’ve thought about this for a while, that there is something very liberating about embracing failure, it’s a big part of the ethos behind the Anti Slam.
Then a few months ago, I took a performance workshop with a mentor of mine, Stacy Makishi, and we did this exercise where we had to think about what would be the worst criticism we could receive about a performance: what we were most afraid of. Then we had to make and perform a short piece that embodied that. So, for example, if you were scared of being self-absorbed you would make the most self-absorbed piece you could imagine. Every single piece presented was hilarious.
Now, this group were all phenomenal performers, many very established, but that wasn’t the only reason the performances were so fantastic. I realised then that that’s what it is that makes the Anti Slam work: the act of permitting yourself to embrace what you try to avoid is not only liberating but it frees up all kinds of creative energy.
It’s also really enjoyable and that makes it enjoyable for the audience as well. Essentially what happens for the audience is they are watching a group of performers having lots of fun and that energy can only be infectious.”
Sure enough, by the end of the night two really interesting things had happened: I understood myself better as a performer and also felt closer to the other poets who made complete tools out of themselves as well.
The Anti-Slam grand final will be coming to London later this year and, whether you’re in to poetry or not, I guarantee it’s the best worst thing you’ll see in a long time!
My Granda said it was propper fine
when he worked down in the mine.
The hours were long but he didn’t mind
they ate ice cream all the time in the mines,
the mines, the mines, the mines,
the miney, miney, miney, miney, mines.
The people that ran it were really kind,
they gave you hats with shiny lights,
there was a safety inspector assigned
before the poisonous gasses made him blind
in the mines,
the mines, the mines, the mines,
the minedy, minedy, minedy, minedy, mines.
They were yours! They were mine!
My heart still pines for the joy of the mines!
HOW COULD THATCHER BE SO BLIND?!
Like pouring away a fancy wine
the day they closed down all the mines,
the mines, the mines, the mines, the mines
AND THE DOCKS! But mainly the mines,
the minedy, minedy, minedy, minedy,
minedy, minedy, mines.
I found dust on my table the other day,
I got out a feather duster and tickled it away
but after a few days the dust had come back
as if I had not dusted at
Where does dust come from?
It is dead bits of skin said someone
But I have never had a dusty leg
or a dusty arm, that’s what I said.
So I decided to sit and wait
to see how dust accumulates.
I went to my table and stared into space
looking for dust all over the place.
After a while my wife came to say
that she had to go away for a long time
and didn’t know when she was coming back.
I asked her if this conversation could wait
I was looking for dust all over the place.
But she just said goodbye and left.
And would you believe that since that day
I never saw any dust there again.