I’ve written elsewhere on this site about the pros and cons of the Poetry Slam movement. I had been active at readings for some years when the Slam model emerged in the US, with Australia quickly following. (For the uninitiated, the Slam is a competition in which poets perform their work to a time limit and are scored by judges that have usually been picked out of the audience. All harmless fun, supposedly. But, unfortunately, the Slam model can also bring out the worst in some people.)
In the early 1990’s, I won the very first Slam held in Australia, at The Esplanade Hotel in St Kilda, with the anti-poem, ‘Bitchpoem’. (I call it this because to my mind it is really a list, a howl of protest at sexism, and contains few ‘poetic devices’. It remains, however, one of the most popular, republished, plagiarised and remarked upon piece I have produced.).
Consequently, I was invited back to perform at the second St Kilda Slam, which was well advertised (using me as a drawcard) and brought in a large audience. The organiser, who was not a very nice man at the best of times, turned out on this occasion to be a total tosser. I waited hours to perform, finally getting onstage when most of the audience had left, but I stuck around as I’d committed to performing and had been promised payment (which I needed, for … y’know … ‘rent’ and ‘food’).
But as Mr Not-Quite-Right Tosser left the venue at the end of the night, clutching his big jangly bag of money from the door take, he spat to my friends, ‘I can write the pants off Liz Hall any day of the week’. And I suddenly realised that this tosser I’d been nothing but friendly and supportive towards for many years was as jealous as hell of me! Which was really quite funny, given my poverty, poor health, and general lack of prospects.
I never did get paid. And consequently decided to swear off Slams as a bad joke. I don’t believe in ‘competitive art’ anyhow, and if this was the kind of behaviour participating in such competitions brought out … well, who needs it?
A few years later I toured the US with the ‘Ozpoets’ troupe. At Austin International Poetry festival, the Slam was all the rage, and offered cash prizes. This was also during the period when MTV began to show interest in spoken word performance, and poets were desperate to be heard and, possibly, ‘discovered’ and broadcast on national TV. Being on a tight budget and about to embark on a tour, I decided to enter the AIPF Slam.
I won it. But not fairly. The contingent of Aussie poets were well-rehearsed and several of them romped through the early rounds, only to be dumped from the finals despite achieving high scores from the judges. The organiser’s excuse for fudging the scores was that the Australians were ‘dominating the competition’. (In other words, the scores didn’t really count. And just because the work is good doesn’t guarantee it will place. Not if the guy in charge doesn’t like you.). In my opinion, the rules of Slam are way too random and easy to manipulate. And the Slam model doesn’t just attract poets. It also attracts stage junkies, ‘performance artists’, standup comics, and people who enjoy a short-lived illusion of exerting power over others by acting as organisers and/or emcees. Which has nothing whatsoever to do with the noble art of writing and performing poetry.
So, in conclusion, the money was nice, but the experience wasn’t. I never performed in a Slam again. I DID, however, end up with some pretty good videos which I’m posting for the first time here. The 1994 AIPF Slam was in 4 rounds, 5 minutes each, so that’s quite a lot of poems. And I’m glad to have this record of my performances from this period.
The video at the top of this page links to a playlist of my four rounds and the announcement of the winner (and a little speech where I champion the cause of the rather demoralised participating Aussies).
All Poems are copyrighted to Liz Hall-Downs:
Debeaked and Dangerous
The Standard Seduction Technique
My Sister has a new set of Breasts
My Mother’s Hands
Ode to Jenny Craig