Review: Say Owt Slam

04/12/2023

Tom Layton (he/him) reviews the recent ‘Say Owt’ poetry slam competition

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By Tom Layton

“Slam” – a blunt, unapologetic, and dynamic word. It ends abruptly, hinting at a sense of excitement and edge. Yet for many, this energy is lost completely when paired with the word “poetry”. The term “slam poetry” prompts at best confusion, and at worst a detached sense of mocking embarrassment. Watching someone shuffle, or bound, onto a stage to expunge their thoughts with a dash of self-conscious performance is confusing to many. Something to do with the sheer honesty and deep subjectivity makes people roll their eyes – usually summed up in a frustrating: “it’s not for me”.

Obviously, the decline of poetry’s mass appeal certainly hasn’t helped. It takes time to get used to the process of interacting with a poem, and a decent amount of practice is required before you can comfortably get something out of it. Slam poetry seems stuck in a cultural fold, somewhere between being a radical and liberating experience, and a bohemian, self-indulgent performance, lacking substance and worthiness.

When going to the ‘Say Owt’ poetry slam competition, I didn’t know what to expect. As an English Literature student, I enjoy poetry, but never passionately. When I decided to study literature at uni I force fed myself poems. This was the result of a desperate realisation that while I knew how to build the framework of an essay around a text, I struggled to grasp or generate original thoughts, and had no idea how to even begin interpreting a poem. It also helped to soothe a nagging sense of inadequacy when teachers or peers name-dropped poets, and I presumed that they expected a response from me that was equally memorable and intellectual.

In any case, I had no clue what to expect, so I was glad to catch organiser Henry Raby for a quick interview beforehand. His and fellow host, Stu Freestone’s, self-described “haphazard hosting” style was on-the-surface quirky and informal, and underneath lay a great awareness of the crowd and ability to read the dynamics of the room. Henry’s stage presence was full of honesty and bashful humour, and in the privacy of the Crescent’s green room he demonstrated his passion for the York arts scene, and a carefully crafted understanding of the function and meaning of slam.

He was keen to express the instinctual side of slam, which at its core is performative storytelling with deep historical roots. In his own words, “Worthy, serious, heartfelt” experience, but in a welcoming and relaxed atmosphere. Furthermore, there is “no such thing as slam poetry, just poetry that wins slams”. The structure of the night encouraged participation, but each performance transcended the points system in a unique way. He stressed the lack of divide between audience and performers: this wasn’t a night about elevating individuals, but rather stimulating discussion and having each person in the room come away with something different.

In his opinion, there is no point trying to be territorial in York (more of a “big town” than a city) when it comes to running events. There are only two Say Owt slams each year, and Henry stressed that this was a focal point for York's spoken-word scene, eager to plug more regular nights like Howlers (2nd and 4th Thursdays at the Blue Boar) and Rise Up! (A monthly event at the Bluebird Bakery).

Slam holds a well-established position in York’s wider artistic community. Henry’s words seemed to ring true as the venue filled up – the atmosphere was friendly and open, with judges hidden among audience members. These judges delivered a rating out of ten to each of the performers of the first round, who were then whittled down according to these scores. The winners of round one then faced off against each other, with the winner delivering a final celebratory performance.

For poet Olivia Mulligan, who took part, connection, and a “space to create” is central to poetry. The audience presence is totally necessary, as poetry has “healing qualities” – a therapeutic aspect which makes it perfect for performance. Her words held true throughout the whole event – the audience showed incredible respect for each performer, and I felt lucky to be exposed to such personal stories.

There was a huge range of poetry: sensual poems about tentative first relationships, sensitive explorations of eating disorders and a whitty lyrical rhyme about a ‘mental elf’. Halfway through, interval performer Steve Jarman delivered an explosive set of ‘rave poetry’, springing about the stage topless with King Charles stuck to his belly, while he leapt to and from a drum machine. It was certainly a memorable and quotable night.

The other interval performer – the guest act – was Polar Bear, aka Steven Camden. He’s a successful Birmingham poet, whose last spoken word piece was in 2009. His approach to poetry is quite cinematic – picking out particular images, settings, or “details from a scene”, before combining his own and others' life experiences along with hopes and memories in a “blur of fiction and autobiography”. These poems were never written down, only memorised. His shorter pieces soon dried up and he turned to long-form poetry, with larger worlds and larger characters. For Steve, Say Owt was an opportunity to reconnect with a past self, creating poems that were heavily based in memory. He told me he felt “intrigued” to experience it again, as his first ever poetry performance was a surprise slam open mic in 2004.

“I don’t get nervous about performing – what I get nervous about is forgetting the why,” Steven told me. This seemed to ring true for every performer. Every poem was confident and powerful. For anyone apprehensive about Slam, I can only recommend that you see it live. Slam, while tough to define or describe, is best experienced first-hand, and Say Owt is the perfect opportunity to do just that.

Editor's note: This event took place on 28 October 2023 at The Crescent, York