Last Sunday night I sat in the main space at the Roundhouse, a huge floor, covered in sold-out table after sold-out table. The Circle balcony raised behind me was also full. On the stage sat a semi-circle of twelve young poets. To the right there were three judges, and the host, Chris Redmond. To the left, a sign language interpreter, and at the centre, one single solitary microphone, lit up, with an arc of striped light fanning around it, waiting for each poet, nervous or nerve-free, to step forward and deliver their poem.
The huge room was dark, with lights flashing out into the audience when the applause grew, or a question was asked of them. I scribbled notes in my book, as next to me, my friend Josie, wrote the names and notes of poems she loved on the white spaces of her ticket. The performances were live-streamed and can be watched again on YouTube. Chris Redmond introduced us to the judges, the poets Talia Randall, Dan Cockrill and Xabiso Vili, and described the structure of the competition – each poet would perform one poem each, followed by a break, and then another poem. The scores and notes of the judges would be taken away and counted, before the winners would be announced – a first, second and third placed poet, with a top prize of £500.
The poets who performed were Toby Campion, Erin Bolens, Caleb Oluwafemi, Charlotte Higgins, Georgie Jones, Jaden Larker, Lateisha Davine Lovelace-Hanson, Lily Blacksell, Maeve Scullion, Michael Clarke, Natalie Steinhouse and Tom Crossland.
Listen to them all on the full video. Jaden Larker had the job of stepping up first, the first to perform, with a poem about apathy, night buses and the strange intensity of thoughts that come in the early hours, and walking meaningfully about the world.
Natalie Steinhouse’s poem about Buzzfeed list-makers and internet-only activism was hiding one I would have loved more – one about the sensual experience of reading a book, cracking its spine and touching its pages – echoing the words of Marcel Lucont at Literary Death Match, “I want a book to turn me on, not the other way round.” Talking of which, and digressing, if you want some words to do the same, do listen to Hollie McNish, ‘Bricks‘. Charlotte Higgins enchanted the room with a poem about Seamus Heaney, and her brilliant poem, ‘Auto Complete’. I wrote about them both, and the beauty of Charlotte’s voice, when she supported Hollie McNish in Cambridge.
Caleb Femi blew us away with his poem, ‘Children of the ‘Narm’. This was the first time in the evening when I first felt goosebumps, and a shiver run through the room. Oluwafemi’s words explore his experience of growing up in Peckham. Please do listen to it, and hear his words about the poem here, as they are a great deal more insightful than I can be. Amongst many other things, the poem explores, in a way I’ve never heard before, the experience of living in a community both abandoned, derided and referenced by those in power for their propaganda, ‘The fickle words to thicken someone else’s manifesto’, the experience of living as Blair’s legacy, followed by the acronyms and labels of that politics, pupil premiums, SEN, free school meals.
Oluwafemi’s phrases and grouping of words were the ones that stayed with me when I left that evening. In his second poem he talks of homes gutted like fish at Billingsgate Market, mothers re-building sons from vacuum cleaner dust, refugee camps on estate stairwells, dignity as a piece of meat. These are unforgettable and revealing images, showing me things in a way I’ve never seen them before. His first place in the Poetry Slam Final was well earned. Michael Clarke‘s first poem was brilliant and creative. He spoke the letters from St Paul to the Corinthians, in the style of ‘Stan’ by Eminem. Unfortunately, in the increasingly aggressive letters – as you’ll remember if you remember ‘Stan’ – I lost some of the words to the distortion in the microphone – but the ability, the hilarity of squeezing the Biblical letters into the structure and style of Eminem’s song, was just incredible. But it was his second poem that really put his name on my list of the top four poets of the evening. He played so delicately and beautifully with words in his poem about spelling, reciting letters and spelling out words aloud, and I would have loved to have seen him win a place in slam, but the competition was so strong.
Lily Blacksell‘s first poem was about falling for someone and the value of pineapples, but I really fell in love with her second – a description of the experience of loving, seeing, holding, visiting a premature baby, a new member of your family, more vulnerable than you can imagine, the tininess that lies just beyond belief. She referenced and revelled in other poets and poems that have come before, drawing the strands of their words and her experiences together.
Maeve Scullion‘s voice echoed across the venue, unique and different from all the others. She clutched her paper notes to recite her poems, but the moments I loved, the moments that brought the audience on her side, were her unguarded introductions and the thoughts and conversations she told us about, spilling forth as if she were standing next to you in the ladies’ toilets in the pub on a Friday night. Those relaxed words were funny, different and memorable, and all too hidden in her notes and the more traditional parts of her poems.
Talking of Friday night toilet conversations, one of my favourite poems of the evening has to be Erin Bolens‘ description of clubbing. It was hilarious and familiar, remaining fresh, spearing the ridiculous behaviour we indulge in, the series of poses pretending to be dancing, and the relief of home and tea. Her second poem was equally accurate, pin-pointing that transition from teenage embarrassment to celebration and pride of that – or who – once embarrassed you. Bolen manages a rare thing in spoken word. She uses strong rhyme and strong rhythm, words twisting upon themselves, whilst also managing to speak openly and naturally, gaining and not losing meaning in the intricacies of the words. She was my winner of the evening.
Toby Campion’s ode to Leicester, rallying against the media perception of his home city, was the second time I felt the room shift, heard the ripple of audience members’ leaning in to listen closer, to follow the words. His second poem was more personal, exploring the helplessness in face of illness and death, when each person clings to the simple, smallest tasks to feel useful. These powerful poems put him in a very rightful third place in the poetry slam final.
Congratulations to Caleb Oluwafemi, Erin Bolens and Toby Campion for winning first, second and third place. Your poems were brilliant. Lily Blacksell and Michael Clarke, we were rooting for you too.