Hammer and Tongue

The heart of Oxford's live spoken word scene. Open poetry slam and guest performers.
The Old Fire Station, second Tuesday of the month

April 13, 2016
I started to feel that live poetry might not be just for laughs - it might address deeper issues in a way comedy rarely can

Call it a sheltered upbringing but I'd never been to a performance poetry gig before. Those in the know describe Hammer & Tongue as 'the best' so it seemed a good place to pop my live poetry cherry.

Started in Oxford, Hammer and Tongue has spread to Bristol, London, Brighton and Cambridge. The format is a quick-fire poetry battle where performers get scored by members the audience. My thinking was Hammer and Tongue would be like rhyming stand-up comedy, and, as mentioned in a previous review, there are few things worse than bad stand-up. So I entered Oxford's Old Fire Station with both excitement and trepidation.

First on was Edinburgh Festival sell-out Rob Auton. There can be few people who can call themselves a 'professional poet' - Auton is one of them. His demeanour was endearingly unassuming but his banter was smart and funny and his poems were somehow both touching and absurd. Next came the 'slam' - following Rob was never going to be an easy task - luckily the masterful Stroud poet Jonny FluffyPunk was there to show the way. There was something unexpectedly and inexplicably soothing in his poem about giraffes and Hitler.

Seeing him and Auton I started to feel that live poetry might not be just for laughs - that it might address deeper issues in a way comedy rarely can. Clare Ferguson-Walker continued in this vein - 'The man who wanted to be a chaise longue' seemed pure comedy gold but contained an unexpected parting wisdom (I won't spoil it for you!)

The best of a varied but accomplished bunch of poets who followed were Peter Norris (not his real name) and his incongruously touching ode to being a horny but ageing gay man. My favourite however was the understated Dave Allen (not that one) whose poem married references to masturbating and pearl necklaces to the infinitesimally small probability of his own existence - inspired!

It seems Hammer and Tongue poetry slams reflect life - laughter is important but it's not all there is.

June 9, 2015

2015 Oxford Hammer & Tongue Final, Tue 9th June 2015

Hammer and Tongue was created by Steve Larkin 12 years ago and has now become entrenched in Oxford’s cultural landscape. It’s poetry, but not as you know it, it’s raucous and democratic, with random audience members deciding which performers rise to the top. At its best, Hammer and Tongue gives you surprising or uproariously funny performances, at its worst, formulaic preaching-to-the-choir stuff, but its hit and miss quality is part of its charm. With sets lasting a maximum of three minutes, there’s no time to get bored either.

Last night’s final was typical, going from the sublime with Rehema Njambi, a performer whose raw honestly made the room stand still, to the awkward humour of Ken Rich (‘where do you put those beads / up there / I see / Indeed’). There was Lucy Ayrton’s gorgeous ode to her bike, which she loves ‘like festival goers love a yurt’, to Webster's grosser interpretation of love ‘when the apocalypse comes, may you graze on each other’. Tony Bicat gave a moving account of cancer, ‘an egg that may be hatching’. Paul Fitchett explained that in Oxford you can tell the weather by the tourists, before launching into a rousing anti-racism poem. The showstopper of the night for me, probably has to be Dan Holloway’s rant against professors believing dead poets are safe, listing all the ways in which they are perverse before ending: ‘Dead poets are pleasant… / You know fuck all about the past / just like you do about the present.’

The featured performer, Sally Jenkinson, hailed from Doncaster, and performed only a handful of poems, most of the time being taken up by (often funny) preambles. Her standout poem, titled ‘Not so bad’, about northern ways of expressing love and happiness, ‘mining love from the grey days’, was just the right side of adorable. She also performed a poem about two people in a relationship not being in love ‘this is not love that you can pack into tupperware’, which I liked until its overly predictable ending:

‘This is not love
This is not
This is

After two rounds of poems, the top three performers were Rehema, Dan and Ken, who each had to perform a final piece. Dan chose Hungerford Bridge, a poem that captures the feeling of stillness that comes from being in love:

‘Like balletic bullets in a John Woo film
We toured the stillness.
Skateboards and blades played our private soundtrack
Scored from the clacketing
Backbeats of the Thamesside track.’

Rahema performed a poem about her church community, admitting ‘there are times I don’t feel forgiven’. Ken gave us a poem about hair in its various guises. When the total number of points added up, Ken emerged victorious.

December 14, 2011

Kate Tempest, Dead Poets & Open Poetry Slam | The Old Boot Factory, Tue 13 December 2011

Hammer and Tongue is one of the jewels in Oxford’s cultural crown, a homegrown event that has spread to eight venues across the UK, each of which take it in monthly turns to host the mix of open poetry slam, support act and headline poet (for whom this comprises a mini tour). This month’s headliner was Kate Tempest, billed as the UK’s queen of hip hop. Having watched pretty much every clip of her mesmerising poetry on YouTube, she was the reason I walked half an hour through rain and gales to The Old Boot Factory, a deliciously scuzzy shell of a warehouse venue replete with outside loo, buckets to catch drops from the leaking roof, and a door with no catch to welcome in the elements.

Support came in the shape of The Dead Poets, a double act with a delightful backstory (one was a grime MC, the other the poet laureate of Peterborough - and then they swapped roles). They were an engaging, entertaining way to warm up a crowd on a very cold night, their set giving humorous spins on not quite fitting in. They were very good at what they did, though they sometimes veered towards the territory occupied by a lot of contemporary performance poetry of not really having much to say beyond the laughs and the clever rhymes - yet each time they put a tyre on that curb they managed to steer back onto the road. This was unlike a few of the open mic slammers who were rooted firmly in an aesthetic that didn’t quite get past stating that the government was crap. In rhyme. That said, the overall quality was very high, and the winner’s quiet, mesmeric meditation on time, fragility and grief was something very special.

Kate Tempest was something else altogether. Her Teflon-fluid delivery served up rhymes that had depths within their depths within their depths. But whilst the word play and rhythm was exceptional, and the erudition beyond anything you’ll find on the pages of Faber, what set her apart was her desperate, soul-wrenching passion. The audience felt every word of her world with her. And it’s a world that embraces a glorious panorama of humanity, from awkwardness to despair to frustration to joy. She belongs, like the very best hip hop - and unlike so much superficial, slick, performance poetry - in the ecstatic spiritual lineage of Ginsberg and St John of the Cross. She is one of the UK’s most precious gems. Do anything you can to see her.

Hammer and Tongue is one of the oldest established poetry slam events in the UK, starting life at The Brickworks (now The Library) on Cowley Road and now based at the Old Fire Station in George Street. For many people, spoken word events or 'slams' offer a more exciting alternative to live music, and Tuesday's final - featuring the winners of seven earlier heats, along with one 'favourite runners-up' spot - provided a fair showcase of the range of styles comprising the poetry-cum-performance spectacle that is Slam.

Tina Sederholm and Lucy Ayrton, our hosts - both talented poets - kept things moving nicely, and judging was (as usual) delegated to the audience, the poets being allocated a three minute slot in each half of the show, with the two highest scorers going forward into a head-to head final.

First to perform was slam veteran Pete The Temp, who offered an uncannily accurate impression of David Cameron rapping politics to the nation, followed by his similarly absurd signature piece Angry Pedestrian - with all present encouraged to raise their arms and "...stamp their feet on the (stomp-stomp) PAVE-MENT!", an exercise either engaging or excruciating, depending on your temperament. Pete is energetic, comedic and unashamedly provocative, and I liked him, even though he tends to push rather obvious political buttons.

Paul Askew, the 'self-styled sex symbol of Oxford slam' served up the evening's riskiest encounter, describing the moment of falling in love: 'You were getting that treatment thing/Where the little fish eat the dead skin off your feet/And your face looked like you/Were having a dildo slowly/Inserted into your vagina'. The gasps from the audience revealed Paul to be walking a socio-political tightrope, but I admired his courage and his surreal, imaginative and honest story-telling.

Aubrey Muvula's I'm African centred on the media's depiction of Africa solely in terms of tragedy. However, images of 'The rivers of the mighty Nile' flowing 'deep within my skin' felt as dated as the themes being parodied and while Aubrey's delivery was smooth and assured, there was little poetically to take root.

Anna McCrory put her rhymes to the fore, coupling the sweet, surreal, and supply delivered Wizard of Argos with a side swipe at 'feel-good' movies as a substitute for genuine living. There was pace, precision and inventiveness in her prose and maybe a touch of reflectiveness in her housemates' whooping.

Davey Mac looked like a middle-aged Big Issue seller and was none the worse for that. An old Liverpudlian constrained by a predictable A-B-A-B rhyming scheme and tightly worn beliefs about society's ills, the pathos in his tale of homosexuality in the armed forces nonetheless stood out. And when he got us to clap along to his rapping and couldn't keep up with the pace, the audience loved him just that little bit more.

Mark Niel's piece about student house-sharing seemed oddly incongruous given his middle aged Bluecoat appearance, but in My cat's an 'iambic' cat! he neatly skewered both poetry and Iams cat food and by the time he'd concluded Sweet 16, a wonderfully valedictory tale of first love, he'd become the ideal camp host.

Dan Holloway embodies the dilemma of the poet moving from page to performance arena: a skilled rhymer still in search of his live voice, or rather, striving to recover the one abandoned after early promising outings. Tonight he took a small step back towards the source, sounding engaged and angry in a diatribe against cuts in mental health services and flagging only when clichés about work slavery undermined his sense of righteousness.

There was time for a last lurch towards the surreal in the form of Neil Spokes. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Vic Reeves, Neil began with a 'Shooting Stars'/Splodgenessabounds hybrid effort about lager drinkers, followed with a meditation on the shelling of Mostar. Neither effort quite hit the mark, but he was prodding interesting ground with the first and had his heart in the right place with the second.

With the rounds completed, and points added, it was Pete The Temp and Davey Mac who were called back for the head-to-head. Pete beamed and stomped and protested and Davey simply looked knackered, but in the end it was the old scouser who walked away with the Hammer and Tongue crown. And few really had the heart to protest, even if, after three hours, our bums were crying out for relief.

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