Slam, Spam and Snakes

Kevin Le Gendre looks at the performance poetry scene and profiles three poets
Click to follow
WHEN Don Paterson stepped up to accept the T S Eliot prize at the British Library in January, there was a tangible excitement in the room. It peaked when, after a big thank you and a big cheque, he read one of his pieces, giving it his voice and his emotion, with eyes and images set firmly beyond the page. The audience was held to the last breath. Don Paterson performed his poem.

But is he a performance poet? Literary poets aren't as hip or as visible as performance poets. I haven't seen Patterson at any gigs since the award ceremony. I haven't see him on TV or at Oxford Circus Tube station. Which is where I last saw Murray Lachlan Young, staring moodily from the frame of a huge poster for Liberty's department store. We've moved from poems on the underground to poets on the posters in the Underground. And posters cost money.

That someone like Lachlan Young, who is described on the billboard as a performance poet who is "well-versed in self-promotion", has been chosen to endorse the products of department stores and airlines says a lot about the marketing potential of spoken-word artists. The latest rush of media interest in performance poetry culminated in Channel 4's Litpop series and more recently BBC 2 chose a poet, Lemn Sissay, to host their Jazz 606 series. These developments have all increased the profile of the scene, but as the art-form becomes more tied up with product promotion, there's a danger of it becoming a product itself. Here are profiles of three performance poets who come from different parts of the world and are all developing their art in completely different ways. At least one of them will be appearing on a screen near you; just look out for the posters.


IN THE New York poetry scene, a Slam is a gathering, a happening, an event. A Slam is the Olympics of Poetry. In places like the renowned Nu Yorican Poets Cafe in Greenwich Village, candidates step up on stage to display their word power in front of a panel of judges culled from the audience. More athletic in diction than physique, the competitors are of the high-performance genre - they hurdle couplets, move mountains of metaphor and sprint through pentameter. Whoever clocks up the highest score wins the Slam.

It is from this creative cauldron that Saul Williams first achieved notoriety. He became Nu Yorican Grand Slam champion in 1996 and went on to participate at the Tongue-Tied Poetry Festival in Montreal, National Black Arts in Atlanta and the National Poetry festival in Portland. Right now, Slam! is a good word for Saul Williams. It is the title of a new film about the power of poetry.

As co-writer and leading man of Slam!, the winner of this year's Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, Williams is set to rise beyond the confines of poetry's track and field. Sundance is the festival that Robert Redford founded to cement his patronage of alternative movie-making.

"It's the story of a young man who gets caught up in the criminal justice system, he deals, gets convicted, spends time in prison and learns how he can use the system to bring about change. My character finds his voice through poetry," Williams says. "Redford actually said that Slam! represented what Sundance was really about and a lot of the executives who we met at the ceremony in LA were all talking about it coinciding with a shift in culture. It may have something to do with the end of the millenium, you know a certain weariness or a change in the arts from the patriarchal to matriachal, people opening up a new perspective.

"Poets are visionaries! They call things into existence through the word. Poetry is important because today something has died in the art and culture at large and as much as poets narrate that death they are also trying to narrate a kind of new birth." Some people call it global healing I call it a new beginning." Slam!'s strength as a film is precisely this aspect of renaissance. The script, which was co-written by Williams and fellow poet Sonia Sohn with director Marc Levin, does not just deal with a art but with life and some of its grittier imitations. "It's the story of a young man who gets caughtm up in the criminal justice system, he deals, gets convicted, spends time in prison and learns how he can use the system to bring about change. My character finds his voice through poetry."

For Williams, making the transfer from poetry podium to the big screen wasn't really a problem. As well as his Grand slam status as a poet, he has a master's degree in drama studies. "When Marc Levin came up with the story for Slam! he'd seen me at the Grand Slam championship at the NuYorican Poets Cafe and he didn't know at the time that I was in my third year of the Graduate acting Programme at New York University. It was perfect for me because I had been trying to find a fusion of what I was doing with the acting and what I was doing with poetry so Slam! really fitted just right."

Right now Williams and co are fixing to bring Slam! to this year's Cannes Film Festival and judging from the buzz that the film has already built up in the States, it might not be long before you see people slipping off their tracksuits to hurdle throughn some verse on a podium near you.

Slam! will be opening in Europe sometime in the Autumn.

Saul Williams will be appearing at the Battersea Arts Centre's In The dark season on May 24.


IN THE PAST YEAR, South London poetry collective Apples and Snakes have showcased the likes of Kwame Dawes (Jamaica), Jayne Cortez (USA) and John Cooper Clarke (Salford). Such a wide spread is surely due to Roger Robinson, programmer and facilitator at Apples and Snakes, and himself a poet.

"Apples and Snakes has been going for 15 years and still draws crowds and that's amazing in itself. The media interest comes in peaks and troughs but people from the beginning are still and will always be there. Poetry didn't start with Murray Lachlan Young." And will surely not end with the "million pound poet" either. But where did it start for Roger Robinson?

"I grew up in San Fernando in Trinidad and the first poetic experience I had was in the form of Calypso and Soca. Calypso itself is written in a poetic form - it has sharp social comment, clever metaphors and good rhythm," he says. "After getting into Calypso, I discovered rapso which is the poetry of Soca. It's really spoken word dynamics with the rhythms of Soca: it's more introspective and vulnerable."

Since his arrival in London in 1987 for higher education, Robinson has pushed his poetic development through several stages, the most significant of which was the Urban Poets Society, a loose collective of artists whose legacy still has great resonance today. As far as he's concerned, his work Snakes is very much in tune with popular culture as in global culture. "I'm building links between Apples and Snakes and America and other countries for that matter. With the development of the Internet, it's easier." Robinson is performing his one-man show Prohibition at BAC in London on May 14 (0171 223 2223).


TRY THIS for an image. A small woman with inscriptions on her stomach executing quirky choreography in a world of full of ... canned meat . In her highly original performance piece, Spam, Stacy Makishi combines poetic narrative, movement and a bone-dry humour. Spam has a special resonance for the Hawaian-born performer who now resides in Hackney. "Hawaiians have the highest consumption of Spam in the world, which is strange because the island has such a wealth of natural, healthy food. Supposedly, during the war while the US were appropriating the land they cut back on natural resources and started giving people Spam." The myth of the superior quality of the stuff set in. "God, in Hawaii people just love Spam. It's crazy because it has a really high fat content and you have all these people putting on a lot of weight."

Makishi delivers a powerful narrative which cooks the theme of culinary colonialism in a sauce of health-hazard imagery. At one point she strikes up a kind of dance: all boisterous shuffles and warrior thrusts.

"I wanted the piece to resonate with this idea of cannibalism - there's the Paul Theroux theory that Spam is actually made from human flesh - but there's also this whole business of the nuclear testing in Pacific islands like Hawaii and Tahiti. I'm trying to make that sense of rape of Mother Earth resonate in the piece."

Makishi, who arrived in London in from Hawai after a sojourn with the Split Britches theatre company in New York, feels that mixing visual metaphor, movement and text in her work is the most effective way for her to express herself . She readily admits to her choreographic shortcomings - "Some of my dance-steps are ridiculous!"- but still sees movement as an essential part. "For me it's the visual image that leads. Without it, the text will be hollow. Makishi is currently working with film director Sue Giovanni on a multi-media performance to be presented at the Lux in Hoxton Square, London, later in the year.