Hammer & Tongue Poetry Slam
The Zodiac, 07.09.04

Born October 2003 in the basement of the Cowley Road’s lovely Brickworks bar, Hammer & Tongue was immediately too big for its boots (so packed that there was zero floor space, and people listened from the street - at what other venue could a poet stage dive?). Talk of a larger venue was rife, as was fear that the lesser concentration of the punters would do for the very lively atmosphere. H&T’s first regular night at the Zodiac proved this theory wrong: on an out-of-term night in Oxford, the basement was fuller than I’ve seen it on many a music night, and the crowd as enthusiastic as ever.

If you don’t know the format of a poetry slam, here’s a quick guide to the H&T setup. Before the show starts (8pm sharp), poets from the audience sign up to perform. You don’t have to be a performance expert – the audience is supportive and friendly, and first-timers have nothing to fear. The show starts with a guest poet – in this case, Dreadlock Alien, ‘anti-racist, reggae cultured flow poet’ from Birmingham’s New October Poets group, whose mix of mile-a-minute emotionally hard-hitting material – some of it MC-d in a reggae style – certainly got the crowd thinking. After a short break, it’s on to the slam proper, which commences with a ‘sacrificial’ poet – a more experienced slammer who shows the following contestants how it’s done. (Peter Witten did this extremely well with his hilarious tale about Hadrian’s Hole in the Wall, delivered like a true centurion.) Each slammer then has their 3 minutes on the stage (beware - run over time and points will be deducted), and after they’ve finished, points are awarded by randomly selected members of the audience in a Eurovision style. (‘And it’s… a 7.9!’ ‘Hooray!’ ‘Boo!’ etc.) An average is calculated by the elected scorer of the week, and a single score deduced. And so it goes on.

9 contestants took to the stage this time, and though all deserve a mention, space allows only my personal favourites (sorry!). Richard Brotherton impressed us all again with his new material, one of which I cannot mention as it would ruin the punchline, and the other about his dead goldfish. Another regular, Johnny Hoggart from Reading charmed us too with his laconic observations on surviving life as a gay poet working for Customs & Excise. Newcomer Ed regaled us with a scatalogical ode to toilet tissue, performed in a Shakespearian style (or was it Monty Python’s Terry Jones?); Shakespeare came up again as Tim subverted Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be?’ into a relationship-related lament; Lizzie Mac spoke on the virtues of having an evening with oneself, from a single-mum-perspective; and Xavier Zapata, off to Cambridge Uni shortly, won the slam with his cute tale of Fine Ants (and their money-avoiding activities). A final mention must go to Hazel, the queen of blagging, who unashamedly wrote her short but sweet offerings in the toilet at St Giles’ Fair earlier in the day in order to get her free ticket for next month (all slammers get in free next time around).

After another short break, punk political poetry pioneer Attila the Stockbroker took to the stage for some rants and mandola playing. A professional poet for 20 years, Attila (stockbroker’s clerk was his last office job) is fortunate enough to make his living travelling the world performing – an example for all wannabe bards. Though ‘Punk Night at the Duck’s Nuts’, an account of a night out on an Ozzie tour, reminded us that even the high life has its lows.

All this, and then dancing to DJs til 2am – with a smoking lounge (the main venue is smoke-free), wheelchair access and veggie/vegan pizza on sale too? Not too good to be true - just the first Tuesday of each month at the Zodiac from now on. If you love live literature, put ‘Hammer & Tongue’ in your diary now, and be part of the most vibrant new element in Oxford’s cultural scene.

More details and exciting info at: www.hammerandtongue.blogspot.com

Su Jordan, 09.09.04

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