Spoken word has had a massive influence on my life in the past three years, and Writers’ Bloc has a very special place in my heart, so to see the Elgar Concert Hall filled with poetry lovers and supporters was truly something I appreciated. It was also a pleasure to see that people came for the poetry, not simply to support the University of Birmingham’s team: the final was certainly the most popular of the rounds.
From Tony Campion’s first poem, it was evident that the Edinburgh team was coming out fighting. Toby’s poem about his name (or lack thereof forty-one days into his life) was incredibly funny and witty. With the timing of a professional comedian, he created a piece that was hilarious. However, he ensured that the poetic elements were maintained: using a poignant image of a glass bottle, Toby completely won the audience over. This performance was by far my favourite of the final.
Edinburgh’s other star was Agnes Torok, a poet who admitted that English was her second language. Her first poem, in which she subverted questions and stereotypes attached to homosexual or bisexual people was incredibly clever, funny and delivered an important message without preaching. Her second, a poem about heritage, was a little more difficult to follow, but her ability to explore complex emotions indicated her range.
When Edinburgh’s Freddie Alexander took to the stage, I was initially a little disappointed. Freddie was versed in the American style of slam. Lots of American spoken word often employs a very similar rhythm and syntax, so it can be quite easy to feel like you’ve heard a poem somewhere before. The sentiment behind Freddie’s poem for his father was touching, but the regularly employed images of stars and fires were a little predictable. However, the audience generally loved his performance: Freddie was met with clicks (a way of applauding in the middle of a performance) and a massive round of applause. His second poem – possibly one of my favourites in the final – in which he turned a relationship into a comic book strip (complete with puns based on superhero names), was original, funny and incredibly entertaining. Likewise, Rachel Rankin’s poems about mental health and the uncertainty of her future were crafted from extended imagery and provided a good variety, completing the team.
MMU’s Calum Dwyer recovered from his mishap in the semi-final to perform a poem about fetishes and the awkward situations that arise from them. It goes without saying that this was met with roars of laughter from the audience, but it is a credit to Dwyer that his refrain: ‘How did I end up here?’ was deployed with impeccable comedic timing. His second poem, in which we learned the significance of his name, had more emotional impact but was unfortunately less well-written. The framing device was a little confusing, and it was often very difficult to pinpoint Dwyer’s meaning.
Hannah Wilson was a crowd favourite with her poems about unrequited love and the social stigmas attached to writing poetry. She gave confident performances, but I felt that the subject matter she covered was quite typical for spoken word, and her writing sometimes lacked the originality such popular topics need.
Ciaran Hodgers tackled social issues with poems about the impact of technology and improper maternity care in Ireland, while Olivia Hicks introduced a completely different style of poetry to the slam. She adopted the persona of a bat to give a boisterous, loud performance. Whether or not this was poetry, I cannot actually be sure, but it was most certainly a crowd-pleaser. There also seemed to be a lack of communication between the team, as Hicks also performed a poem about the impact of technology. As both these poems appeared in the same round and from the same team, it was a little too much, and the message seemed tired.
After some great performances from the Round House Collective, who had acted as sacrificial poets in the preliminary heats and kindly entertained the audience while we waited for the scores, Edinburgh were announced as the winners.
I believe that the judges chose the right winners, but I must admit that I was a little surprised at the choice of teams for the final. I personally prefer poetry that is personal, or that makes a move towards the personal. I am not saying that biographical, confessional poetry is the best – my poetry rarely falls into either of these categories – but poetry that takes a personal stance (whether that be of the poet or of a persona) is far more interesting, in my opinion. I personally did not enjoy the poems that tackled social issues without a personal or original slant: saying that poverty is bad, for example, is something that most people would find it impossible to argue with. Having such subject matter does not instantly make a good poem.
There are several criteria which make a good poem (which I believe were reflected on the judges’ scoring sheets). However, I often found myself disagreeing with decisions made or the audience’s delight at ‘social issue’ poems. My favourite poem of the whole day was (and call me biased if you want) UoB’s Ben Jackson’s ‘Cocaine’. It was original, used a persona to create a personal and simultaneously universal message, and was incredibly well-written. It is interesting and frustrating to watch a judged slam; I suppose it is a credit to the poets that I become so impassioned.
But the final, most important point I should make is this: as compere Bohdan Piasecki said, it is not the scores or the ranking that matter; what matters is that poetry is being given a platform, and that people can be united in a love for it, and share the result of their passion. The Writers’ Bloc committee should be applauded for the organisation of this fantastic event; I am certain that they have created a legacy.
by Jenna Clake