Why do Paula Varjack and I put on The Anti-Slam around the UK? I’ve been thinking about the reasons we make our lowest-score-wins, parody slam show since I got back from York’s very first Anti-Slam – a takeover of Henry Raby and Stu Freestone’s Say Owt night. Here are five.
1. The Anti-Slam brings in new audiences for spoken word – and shows off our best side
By clearly branding ourselves as a satirical, parody night, The Anti-Slam attracts both a regular poetry crowd and one simply out for a fun evening. Sometimes these audiences are mutually exclusive – not all spoken word and poetry nights are about being entertaining. Comedy, cabaret, theatre, one-off-events audiences get to see poetry and spoken word. I’d even say that, because of the intentionally terrible nature of the performances, they get to see poetry at its most confident and unafraid.
2. The Anti-Slam properly challenges poets – and other performance-makers – to be better
You have to be good at what you do to be good at making a version of it that’s bad-yet-still-engaging. What’s (perhaps) counter-intuitive is that it actually pushes artists to be better in their regular craft. There’s something about really deconstructing what it is you like (and don’t like) in your artform, embracing that fully, and pushing it to the limit, that somehow frees you up in your normal practice. Perhaps that fear of looking bad disappears: you’ve done that intentionally now. Perhaps it’s simply taking a risk in a very different framework to a regular poetry night – and if you smash it, you learn something… and if you don’t, you learn more.
3. The Anti-Slam brings together the diverse and spread-out spoken word scene – together with other artforms
It’s surprising how often people working in different performance forms don’t really know much about spoken word – and how performing poets don’t always consider themselves part of the wider performing arts world. By mixing the bill with comedians, musicians, cabaret acts, and theatre and performance-makers, The Anti-Slam connects up artists and artforms that don’t always speak to each other – and we get to learn from other practices. It also creates a national conversation about spoken word by providing a space to meet, discuss, and ironically criticise ourselves.
4. The Anti-Slam has the authority to properly ridicule poetry
Let’s be honest: poetry and spoken word are easy artforms to mock – certainly for the media and general public, and even for people working in the arts themselves. From the popular Romantic image of the dreamy bard, to the sometimes avant-garde difficulty of the Modernists, to the self-absorbed decadence of the Beats, poetry has a reputation as self-involved with a wilful desire to be unpopular. Spoken word, especially in its slam form, can sometimes sound whiny, indulgent, and more more about the “I” than the audience.
This sort of criticism is sometimes justified – all artforms have their problems. By satirising ourselves, we take back some power from broad write-offs of our artform, which is obviously deeper and more nuanced than the surface-level understanding these criticisms embody. The Anti-Slam shows to the world that we get it, embrace our difficulties, and can happily skewer them – more effectively and with an authority only practitioners can have.
5. The Anti-Slam is simply, honestly, ridiculously fun
People make art for so many reasons. One is to provide entertainment, a bit of joy, and to make people laugh. To give people the small gift of helping them to enjoy their lives to the full for an evening – that’s why we make The Anti-Slam.
All photos courtesy of Ben Gregory.