For those of you unfamiliar with the slam concept, it’s a high-octane performance poetry contest in which spoken word artists are given just three minutes to wow the crowd with their verbal dexterity. Five judges are chosen at random from the audience, who score each performance out of ten, to raucous cheers or boos from the audience. But before I give the impression of gladiatorial one-upmanship I should add that the atmosphere is as loved-up as it gets, living proof of the old slam saw that the point is not the points – the point is the poetry.
Now to the stars of the evening. While I would happily bang on about every one of the performers, deserving as they all were of accolades, space allows me to mention just a few highlights. Opening for the UK side was Danny Chivers, Oxford’s 2007 Hammer & Tongue slam champ, with a skewering anti-eco-consumerist rant about middle-class liberals ‘driving to the protests in the seven-seater / Discussing climate change under the patio heater’. The poem ended with the straight-talking exhortation: ‘To keep humanity on the map / Please, just stop buying so much crap!’
Next up was Brighton-based hip hop artist Spliff Richard, whose derisive take on the well-worn clichés of mainstream gangsta rap (‘I hope you don’t get mad at me, but that video’s been done more times than Police Academy’) was hilarious and observant. Then into the ring stepped Jamie Kilstein, the first of the US contenders. For all I know he’s from Iowa, but his swaggering delivery seemed pure New York, and his take on right-wing Christian opposition to gay marriage was eye-watering, building to the enraged 'If God doesn't let me love who I want to love, I say fuck God.’
Another veteran of the New York contingent, Taylor Mali, a world-renowned spoken word artist and star of the film Slam Nation, won us all over with his final spontaneous riff interweaving lines from all the other performances. The result was an aural tapestry that at once tapped into our collective memory of the evening and paid homage to the quality of its output. A final mention must go to local talent Sian Robins-Grace who impressed with her poem Rugger Bugger Boys in Blue, about upper-class closet cases who ‘pretend they don’t aspire to that one horrific, bloody terrific, thing they’ll never do’.
And the results? For what it’s worth, the New Yorkers came out on top in terms of points and Spliff Richards and Jamie Kilstein scored highest for the UK and US respectively. But the real winner was the mighty charm of the spoken word.