Live poetry in London

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Live poetry has captured the imagination of London's youth. Andrew Motion, the poet laureate, visits one of the competitive heats in the Rise Londonwide Youth Slam Championships to see the dynamic art form for himself.

  • Live poetry in London

    Daniel Miles performs at the Rise Londonwide Youth Slam Championships

  • For the uninitiated, first things first. A poetry slam is a competitive poetry performance in which participants present an original piece of work and are judged by members of the audience. Slams first took off in the States during the late 1970s, often (but not exclusively) giving a voice to young black people who felt drowned out or ignored by more establishment forms of writing; typically, they addressed tough urban themes (domestic violence, gun crime, racial tension) in high-voltage raps and plain-speaking free-forms.

    Previously, poetry readings had been just that – readings – and were usually pretty sedate affairs. Suddenly they were fun, noisy and packed. It was only a matter of time before slams crossed the Atlantic and bred a British counterpart.

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    Dersham Sokhi delivers his rhymes

    The Poetry Society was quick to see their potential – not just as things in themselves, but as a way of proving that poetry could take centre stage in lives that might otherwise consider it irrelevant or (more likely) merely something that had to be endured in school. Bolstered by a substantial Lottery grant, the Poetry Society set up a London-wide competition (which involves four qualifying rounds before climaxing in a grand final) and found it was not only tapping into an emerging stream of strong new talent, but actually encouraging the growth and diversity of that talent. The scheme immediately became a flagship project.

    This year’s slam is now well under way, and the qualifying round held at the Jackson’s Lane Theatre in Archway on April 26 suggests that it’s going to be the most successful yet. As with the three other rounds being held elsewhere in London (the final will take place on July 8), the theme was ‘respect’, the participants were aged 12 to 18, the poems took three minutes (maximum) to deliver, and the poets were allowed to perform alone or in a group of which each member had contributed to the writing of the poem. Nineteen people took part, and by the time dj Concept and dj Trinz had played people into their seats, and the MC Joelle Taylor had shaken the rafters in her introduction, the theatre felt more like Wembley than the slopes of Parnassus.

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    Andrew Motion ponders the competition

    Without exception, the performers captured the authentic and unignorable sounds of modern London in their work, rhyming and chiming and chanting and ranting in a mood of quickly rising excitement. Familiar phrases were broken open by contact with new structures, slow thoughts were wound around quick beats, hilarity jostled with anger, and pathos with passion. Slam competitions d d may rely on the energy of individual speakers, but they create a terrific feeling of community.

    These days, we happily accept that poetry is a broad church, reflecting the variety of our culture in the diversity of its voices. Which means it’s proper to celebrate everything distinct and individual about slamming. It’s visceral, driven by strong rhythms and rhymes, and direct – thanks partly, in this case, to the requirement to focus on the respect theme. ‘There’s no justice – only this,’ said Joelle Taylor as she set the scene, and most of the competitors took the hint. The first contestant, from Bonus Pastor Roman Catholic School in Bromley, performed a poem called ‘Dreams’ in which he announced ‘My only friend is my misery’ – then set about politicians, the media and warmongers with an energy that was distinctly un-miserable.

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