I love being on stage. Performing. I love it I love it. I love all the nerves and the thrill and the way it all pulses around my body in hot little spurts of volatile energy. I’m a leech for attention; I drink up the crowd to fill my ego, I throb almost to bursting with the electricity of the moment.
It had been way, way too long.
I missed the guitar, I have to say. Guitar proficiency is more objective, I can take confidence in my ability. I can swing the stage and risk the moments because I know I have the anchor of aptitude to weigh me to the bedrock of approval. Because there’s a duality of hope and fear; you hope to do brilliantly, you fear bombing completely. You waver back from one to the other. You brace yourself against the solid wall of fear and push off it, thrusting away as far as you can towards the courage necessary for brilliance. It’s breathless and thrilling, it feels dangerous.
And this time, I had no guitar. No safety net of dancing fingers to catch me if my presence broke. A hundred pairs of eyes were watching. I opened my mouth.
Step back; let me explain from the outside in. This was a slam. Heard of them? Poetry slams were apparently invented in the Chicago in the 1980s, in a conscious attempt to restore poetry as a popular art form. A step away from the daffodils, if you like. But what ARE they? Well …do you know the film 8 Mile, with the rap battles in Detroit? Imagine if those battles were really polite, and you’ve got yourself a slam. No one-on-one competition, no backbeats, no (well, not much) cussin’, just a string of performers getting up one after the other, for two minutes, to express whatever they want to say through the medium of spoken word, getting a warm round of applause, marks out of 10 from some judges plucked from the audience, and sitting down again.
This was my second personal experience of slam; the first, over a year ago, was in St Andrews University student union back in Scotland, when my sister invited me to take part in one. One huge positive aspect to both that slam and this one was the sense of inclusiveness and diversity; people can do humorous poems, raps, personal pieces or rambling monologues, and get a cheer and a handclap all the same. Another nice common thread is that you’re sitting down amongst a bunch of people who have also chosen to come and spend there evening watching poetry – a maverick enough pursuit that you’re pretty much bound to be among some interesting characters. But zoom back in; back to tonight.
The slam I was attending was run by the state library of Queensland, which had led me to expect the kind of clean-and-friendly but formal atmosphere of a normal public library. Not a bit of it, man. This was counter-culture, alt-dot-living to a beautiful extent. It was held in Blackstar Café, 44 Thomas St, West End, Brisbane, which if you’re a fellow Brisbanee reading this I recommend you check the hell out. It was an awesome little place, awesome vibe. They weren’t just hosting the event, either, they’d really made themselves part of it – there was a “slam special menu” pinned to all of the tables. Apparently Blackstar hosts all sorts of leftfield kind of stuff – political activism, performance, live music – and I’m really happy I stumbled across it. Damn good coffee, too.
Did I mention live music? Why, I do believe I did. The slam was opened by a local political hip-hop collective called Desmond Cheese, who were superb. There were samples and processed beats thrown in there, but the whole show was definitely led greater authenticity by the presence of a live drummer and a quietly excellent backing guitarist. There were three vocalists in their initial performance, but when they played again towards the end of the evening a couple more had emerged. In between, during a half-time break in the poetry, a young woman played some really pleasant soft acoustic songs. Her first name was Joss, but sadly I can’t recall the surname. Journalistic authority undermined by insufficient research, Mr Ward Sell. Go and stand in the corner.
The standard of the poetry, when it came along, was perfect. By this I don’t mean that it was all absurdly good; quite the reverse. It was perfect in its diversity – the bumbling, unsure acts made it less intimidating, the more professional high-calibre performers made it a wonderful spectacle. There were 20 poets in all, in 20 very different forms. Two young girls stood up to confidently deliver poems about horses and holidays. A greying political activist ranted rhythmically about Australia’s two-party system while the audience stomped along. A nervous first-timer read out a rhyming piece about fishermen along the Brisbane coast. Another newbie, unbelievably confident and assured, delivered a measured homage to his hometown, expressing both his deep love for it, and his anger at the small-mindedness of those who turn against newcomers to the city. The eventual winner, “Darkwing Dubs”, read out a letter from God complaining about the failings of mankind. It was eclectic and diverse and electric and welcoming and fantastic, fantastic fun.
And then somewhere in the middle of all that was me.
I didn’t even really have a poem to perform, as such. I’d only heard about this event three days before it took place, and of course virtually all my creative output was still sitting in notebooks back in Scotland. But I had taken one pad with me on the plane, half-filled with jottings and scrawling from the past few months. Rifling through that, I found a few poems tucked away. But they were the wrong sort; too introspective, not performative. I had another look, and came across a song, written for acoustic guitar. The chord changes were written above the lines. But it would do. I stripped away the melody, and practiced reciting it on my walks to and from university, figuring out which lines to raise, which to soften, when to pause on a line break and when to plough straight on through. I threw in some actions, which must have been amusing for passing cars. I hoped to hell I could remember it.
When the time came, I did. Or rather, I forgot one line, but covered deftly enough that I doubt anybody noticed. Overall, I managed the performance aspect far better than I’d expected. Towards the song/poem’s end, the word “marionette” marks a sudden change in tone from a sort of insecure menace to outright cruelty. I roared it into the mic, let all the sentiment in the line rip straight out at the 100-odd spectators. The little devils in my blood were dancing furiously, the words rolled out confidently. The nerves and the thrill and the pulse. When the last line was drained, I bowed my head for a second, standing still at the mic. The audience was louder than I’d expected, some enthusiastic whoops amid the swell of clapping. My hands were actually shaking.
The presenters – both superb all night – picked up on my foreignness, and asked me a few questions. I answered as amusingly as I could, then waited for the scores; five judges. 5.5 was the lowest, 7.7 and 8.2 the best. The other two were sixes or sevens, I can’t recall. It wasn’t a score to trouble the performers right at the top of the standings, but they were better than I was. I was happy, it was a solid high score.
I slipped through the crowd towards the counter. It was the best night, the most fun I’d had for ages. Everything about the setting, the performers, the audience, the musicians and the presenters was awesome. I’d got to stand up and perform, even if only for a minute. I was happy and excited, for some reason more anxious than before my name had been called. My hands wouldn’t stop shaking…I needed a coffee. Luckily, I was in the right place.
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