Venue: York Basement, City Screen
The spoken word scene in York is generally restricted to a couple of monthly open mic nights and LitSoc’s termly ‘Poems & Pints’ social. Say Owt, run by local poets Henry Raby and Stu Freestone, makes a welcome, if irregular, addition. I went with high expectations, and was not disappointed.
The slam was well-advertised and drew performers from across York, with a range of ages, opinions, styles and subject matter. For example, HYMS student Jaime Bolzern gave us a hilarious dissection of online dating’s obsession with penis size, and there was also a surprisingly funny, unpretentious poem about an inadequate lavatory. Familiar slam subjects – politics, war, feminism, and poetry itself – all made multiple appearances, but the range of approaches and styles kept the slam fresh, if only within itself. This was also broken into by memorable works such as the improvised ditty based on audience suggestions: a cabbage, a ship, and Nigel Farage (who ended up tipped overboard). The best five from the initial fifteen competed in a second round, giving them further chance to impress, and the overall winner received £30, plus a nifty little trophy.
There were problems. The venue, while intimate with good acoustics, filled up quickly and left several people standing. A lack of organised seating meant much awkward shuffling along rows, and there were temporary microphone problems which, fortunately, the first performer took well in her stride. The five randomly-selected judges, while ostensibly able to score between one and 10, never gave below an eight, forcing the scores to split hairs over decimal points. After the two rounds a winner was declared: Ian Winter, a divisive choice due to his consistently anti-religious angle. However, all poetry is ultimately subjective and there was little complaint from those gathered. All the problems were merrily buoyed along by the ever-energetic Raby and later his downbeat, wry co-host Freestone, and so the mood remained good and the applause was always loud.
The keystone of the night was the headliner from professional, ‘proper’ poet Mark Grist, a teacher from Peterborough who was somewhat coerced into entering a rap battle tournament by his students, and was subsequently thrown into the relative fame of spoken word entirely by accident. Grist is a likeable, interesting performer with a charming humility about his unexpected popularity, and real enthusiasm about inclusivity both in poetry and teaching. Seamlessly moving between anecdotes and spoken word, he brought consistent laughs from the audience and also didn’t fail to impassion with his determination to honour even the most terrible of poets. The high point of his set was his self-depreciative rap about how he fulfilled the stereotypical qualities of a rapper – trouble-making and dangerous especially – but only when playing board games.
The second slam will take place on the 23 January 2015, and the list of performers is already full. ‘Say Owt’ will likely, deservingly grow in popularity, and will probably soon outgrow its small venue and short set list, to hopefully become a regular event in York.