We all know what a poetry slam is. It’s a poetry reading – but one you can win. Or lose.
At a slam, a group of around ten poets will read their very own self-authored texts. They’re not allowed to sing, they’re not allowed to use props – and they’re not allowed to go on for longer than five minutes. The winner of each round goes through to the final and the winner of the final wins the night, and is given some kind of prize.
The term ‘poetry slam’ is somewhat misleading, in the Berlin scene at least, as only around half of the performers are reading poetry. Your typical poetry slam is everything a typical poetry reading is not. It’s exciting, sexy, feisty and glamorous. It’s fun, loud, dangerous and competitive. And above all, it’s entertaining. And I mean, really bloody entertaining.
Not everyone, however, likes the idea of competition in poetry. Niti, an English-language Berlin-based spoken word artist, says, for example: “I don’t want to sound wanky, but basically I don’t like the idea of writing something for a whole room of people to judge – for a whole room of people to like. In my view, that defeats the whole point of writing, coz you write to get your thoughts, your ideas, across.”
But what if someone were to turn the whole concept of the slam on its head? What if the point wasn’t performing the best piece, but the worst? Paula Varjack, a Berlin/London-based English-language performance poet, is bringing the Anti-Slam to Berlin. In the Anti-Slam, twelve performers compete in three rounds – each performing self-written texts of up to three minutes. Each performance is judged by a panel of judges. The three poets with the lowest scores go through to the final round, where they will perform a text they’ve written in the break – in their second language.
And then, the poet with the lowest score – wins.
It sounds like it’s going to be a messy night. Paula Varjack says she has faith in the performers she’s selected to produce something cringe-worthingly, embarrassingly, terribly bad.
“It’ll be funny, inevitably,” she said. “It can’t not be funny. But it won’t be like, a bunch of poets reading things that they’ve sat down to write which are meant to be funny. They’ll be being funny and clever – but not highbrow. I can’t wait to see what everyone’s going to come up with. Because everyone has a different idea of what’s bad. I know that the comedian Paul Salamone is gonna be satirizing performance poets – and I know other people who are raiding their old stuff from when they were teenagers. All that teenage Angst stuff. I can’t wait.”
Where did Paula get the idea for an Anti-Slam from?
“Well, I kind of nicked it – I mean, I was inspired, you know,” she said. “When I went to New York recently I went to all the poetry slam things and there was this one guy there – from the Bay Area in California – and he performed a piece he’d won an Anti-Slam with.”
Ah, it’s an old idea, is it?
“Well, I think it started in New York. It was kind of a reaction to slams. Because a lot of people have a problem with judging poetry. They think poetry shouldn’t be judged. So what they did in New York was, they had this night where everyone shows up, everyone takes parts and everyone wins.”
Everyone got ten points automatically?
“Yeah, exactly. So you know, it’s a bit lame, basically.”
Yeah, that’s totally rubbish.
“So then with this idea of an anti-slam, where the worst text of the night wins, I think you’re not opposing the slam so much as challenging it a bit. This is a reaction. And I think people who are anti-competitive, they’ll feel more comfortable with the format. It’s a piss-take, basically, so no one can feel too upset. But, on the other hand, there’s still that exciting element of competition.”
Public attending a slam in BerlinWhat’s the main reason you decided to do this, was it to open people up to slams who aren’t so into them or to challenge people’s preconceptions of what a slam is or what was it?
“Well, I had two main motivations. Firstly, I thought that it was important to create an intersection between the massive poetry slam scene and then the English spoken-word scene, which is obviously a bit smaller. And I was motivated to try and make a truly bilingual event, hosted in English, for sure, but still totally bilingual. And that’s why I’ve asked for six Germans and six English-speaking poets to perform. I really wanted to create a space where it’s easier for Germans and Ausländer to mix – and also a space where people feel happy appreciating texts where they can’t quite understand anything. So I think this event is going to be fun for Germans whose English isn’t great, but also for expats whose German isn’t up to snuff either. And I think that won’t matter! Because of the time restriction, and also because of the context – performance will be really important here.”
And what was your second motivation?
“Well, I’m interested in challenging the poets. It’s actually totally difficult to write something bad – to make the conscious decision to write something bad. And not just bad, but terrible! You have to know the form well enough, to know what underpins it. It takes some craft to effectively dismember it. I really think that poetry slams are now the pop culture voice of poetry – but this slam is going to do something different. It’s going to be a challenge – and it’s going to be a bad challenge.”
The Anti-Slam will be hosted by Paula Varjack on Wednesday 1st July, 9 pm at S.I.N. Schönleinstr. 6, Kreuzkölln Berlin. Poets confirmed so far include Moon, Paul Salamone, Tom Mars and Maria Magdalena aus Katholika.