Hammer and Tongue

Oxford's monthly open poetry slam session, with guest poets.

June 10, 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.

May 15, 2013

Founded in 2003 by Steve Larkin and Jim Thomas, Hammer and Tongue first brought slam poetry to the crowds of Oxford. Since then it has gone on to open chapters in Bristol, Brighton, London, and Cambridge. Since October, Hammer and Tongue have been hosting heats at the Old Fire Station, pitting volunteer poets against each other with scores from audience judges determining the winner. Last night’s final saw eight of these battle it out to be crowned Oxford Hammer and Tongue Champion: Eric Coffin Gould, Dan Holloway, Davy Mac, Micah Isser, Anna Percy, Jen Russell, Stewart Taylor, and Kate Walton.

The finalists were extremely varied in style, leaving the decision-making subject to the whims of the audience judges. From Anna Percy’s gutsy feminist poetry, exemplified by her first poem, ‘The Woman who was all used up’ in which the protagonist dismantles each part of her body that could be objectified, leaving only ‘the ignored brain’, to Jen Russell’s kaleidoscopic representation of Glasgow’s western arcade.

Micah Isser narrowly missed out on being in the top two by going overtime in his first absurdist poem, leaving reigning champion Davy Mac and Stewart Taylor to battle it out for the title. Their styles could not be more different. Stewart Taylor won over his audience earlier by exalting first world problems while Davy Mac wooed them with a homeless oratorio. In the final battle, Mac chose a poem defending 18-20 year olds who cannot get housing benefits, while Taylor’s began: ‘do not mock the clog’. Whereas Mac’s poetry quietly defends the defenceless and wrestles with the injustices of today, Taylor satisfies himself with empty puns, stage gimmicks, and over-gesticulation. In the end, humour won out, with Taylor crowned winner.

The featured poet of the evening was the excellent Tim Clare, who bounded on stage with the energy of an untamed puppy. He created linguistic magic with poems such as the ‘Noah’s Ark and Grill’, an imaginary restaurant in which Clare wants to serve every kind of meat: ‘gorilla in the mystery meat / free willies in the pie.’ Clare is a master at employing punitive line-breaks for humourous effect and is an excellent rapper, as demonstrated in his mash-up reaction to three small-circulation magazines: Norfolk Brides, Small Furry Pets, and Tree News. Unexpected and vivid, his set was an undoubted highlight of the evening.

March 14, 2012

March of the Mad Poetry Hares: Anna Freeman, Jonny FluffyPunk & Open Poetry Slam | Old Fire Station, 13 March 2012

For 2012, Hammer and Tongue has a new venue, the Crisis Skylight Cafe in the new arts development at Old Fire Station, and whilst I loved the bohemian atmosphere of the Old Boot Factory, I have to say that for those of us who live out of town and rely on buses, or just those of us whose legs aren't as young as they used to be, the new location is fabulous, as is the cafe itself, which comfortably holds 70-80, has friendly staff, and supports a fabulous cause.

Hammer and Tongue is always notable for its friendliness, and last night it seemed more welcoming than ever, the fabulous hosting duo of Tina Sederhom and Lucy Ayrton (both of them poets and performers of exceptional prowess as well as marvellous MCs) on wonderful front of house form so newcomers to poetry slams and the oldest of hands felt equally welcome.

In addition to the excellent slam, personal highlights of which were Hannah Elwick's achingly moving performance (in her first ever reading, no less - watch this space!!), Paul Askew's delightfully surreal fabulism, and Davy Mac's unflinchingly honest heartbreaking poems about homelessness, the night's support act was the delightfully sui generis Johnny Fluffypunk, hilarious and insightful self-styled pastoral anarchist and one of the loveliest people you will meet in the already lovely world of poetry.

But the night belonged to the stellar headline act, Anna Freeman, one of the tiniest of tiny handfuls of poets to combine words that bear many rereading/listenings, efforless and engaging flow, and an emotional intensity and honesty that digs right inside your skin and your soul. She also does what so so few do, and moves effortlessly from the soul's darkest nights to hilarity and back again without the slightest cracks appearing. Go to see her any place you can.

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.

Hammer and Tongue's new season sees it return to the Cowley Road, where it was born some years ago in the tiny, packed and sweaty basement bar of the Brickworks to co-founders Steve Larkin and Jim Thomas. The crowd's grown up a bit since then, so instead of standing room only, crowd-surfing comperes and a front row of spit-spattered faces, the audience lounges on leather sofas in an art bar whilst drinking Peroni on draught. It's all very sophisticated (and the rather good artwork is on sale), though the neon chip shop sign flashing through the window behind the stage reminds us that we're still at a pulsing node of Oxford's grassroots arts scene.

I've been a couple of times to the new location (Bar Baby, just past east Oxford health centre), once to catch favourite Mark Gwynne Jones (a softly spoken northern poet who 'tells' you each poem as if it were a story - which, of course, it is) and once for disturbingly insane Aussie Tug Dumbly (whose 'true' tale of what happened to him as a boy in the outdoor privy with a budgie and the Virgin Mary is enough to make your mind water). It's a privilege to be able to get this close to performers of such a high calibre in such an intimate space - an increasingly elusive quantity these days as venues expand and the only festivals you'd otherwise see these guys at are too pricey to get into. And then of course, there's the Slam. If you don't know what a Slam is - well, there's only one way to really find out: by taking part. Entrants sign up at the start of the evening, judges get ice-skating-style score cards, entrants take the stage for 3 minutes delivering their own poetry, and the judges mark their performance (to the boos and cheers of the audience). Unlike the old days when the winners got a homecooked meal from a random audience member, they now get the chance to take place in a high-profile finale where the prize is a performance spot at Glastonbury Festival. The other Joy of Slam is the fact that poetry careers are born here - and you get to watch future stars just starting out. Remember that nervous Oxford student shaking like a leaf whilst pouring her sapphic heart out? Now she's a regular Glastonbury festival performer, with professional bookings in London and beyond. (My current favourite is a young chap who is like a cross between Vancouver punkabilly poet The Minimalist Jug Band and Nick Cave.) Not to forget local stalwarts such as gently revolutionary US punk George Roberts, and feisty feminists Lizzie Mc. & Tina Beard - all of whom have that treasured ability to hold the audience's emotions in the palm of their hand. And not forgetting inimitable compere and co-founder Steve Larkin - the excellent poet and entertainer at the helm of this tight ship.

Hammer & Tongue is a monthly affair, traditionally on Wednesdays - usually a quiet night for gigs (unless Fuzzy's floats your boat), so your diary is bound to be clear. At only a fiver on the door - or £4 concs, or FREE if you Slam - can you afford to miss it?!

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