Who Took the Slam Title?

Back in March 2020, I was fortunate to be able to take part in the poetry slam at the StAnza festival in St Andrews before live events were halted later in the month.

In a typical year, there are several such slams throughout Scotland. The winner of each is allowed to compete in the Scottish Slam Championships in Glasgow the following January, and that winner competes for the world crown.

As there were insufficient live events this year, the Scottish Slam instead took place online over the space of a week, with the top three highest-scoring poets competing against each other in the final on Saturday just gone. Jenny Foulds became the victor.

The dozen or so poets are called to the stage in a random order and allowed up to three minutes to read a piece. In the second round, the poets are called up in reverse order, under what the organisers call Glasgow Rules. This not only allows the poet to impress the judges twice, but is said to avoid the phenomenon of ‘score creep’. This happens where the judges’ frame of reference changes during the contest and the points they award either increase or decrease.

In this instance, the two judges could award a score out of 30 per poem, so our final marks were out of 120. I scored 77, or roughly 19 points per judge per poem. It’s not a terrible mark, but I can hold my hands up and say my heart wasn’t entirely in it.

Part of it was the lack of a stage and the unspoken feedback that is felt from an audience. I tried to compensate for this by using a headset with a long cable and standing back as I performed, almost as if there were a crowd there. But I was otherwise occupied in the days leading up to it, and I picked my poems less than 24 hours in advance. I didn’t have the time to read them out again and again, adding or omitting words as I went.

There’s no guarantee that a good edit or a decent rehearsal would have increased my score. Maybe my work simply wasn’t to the taste of the judges; maybe one or both of them didn’t like that I ran well short of the three available minutes.

However, I would have felt happier if I’d known I’d put in my best performance – and there’s still plenty of time to practice until next year.

It’ll Be Alright on the Night

On Thursday, I was invited to take part in a video project called 12 Days of Gratitude.

This initiative was started by Darryl Gaffney du Plooy who runs a cafe and a community hub. His intention is to make a compilation of a dozen poems to be published over Christmas, all following the theme of gratitude.

We filmed my piece at a public amphitheatre. Even though I was still performing to a microphone and a camera, just as I could at home, it was a joy to have someone present to witness it. There’s even a sweet spot in the arena that’s difficult to pinpoint, but when it’s found, it noticably amplifies your voice.

Unlike most live performances, there was an opportunity to record the poem as many times as we liked. This was almost exclusively for technical reasons because I didn’t fluff my lines too much.

I look forward to seeing what happens with this project, especially as I don’t yet know where the gratidude of the other 11 poets will be directed.

A Tutor Like No Other

Throughout the ten years I’ve been writing, there has been one figure almost constant throughout: a man called Eddie Small.

I learnt of his death a few weeks ago, and his passing has left a gaping hole in the Dundee literary scene. He would always appear at poetry events to support writers or to read himself. One of his strengths was that he would chat and joke with anybody and everybody.

In this way, he would encourage people to improve themselves. He worked with a pal of mine who had a terrible fear of public speaking; so much so that she once ran offstage mid-reading. With his intervention and patience, she was eventually able to read her work in front of a theatre audience.

I, meanwhile, love the limelight. When an actor couldn’t perform in his play The Four Marys, about four local figures who shared a forename, he thought of me and offered me a small part.

I last met Eddie in January of this year, talking about his latest book To Bodies Gone, celebrating 130 years of Anatomy at the university.

Indeed, he was very open to talking about death and encouraged others to do the same. On one memorable occasion, he somehow managed to arrange for my classmates and me – English students, not medical ones – to visit the medical school mortuary. I recall it was rather life-affirming.

As his passing was so sudden, it’s been hard to take in. It’ll be a long time before I turn up at an event and don’t expect to hear him roping someone into one of his many projects.

Almost a Live Show

Regular readers will know that I run an open-mike evening called Hotchpotch, where members can come along either to read a poem or simply to listen to others. However, we haven’t been able to run in its classic form since March because of restrictions on live events.

So far, we’ve been using YouTube as a substitute, and posting members’ readings to our channel. However, we’re holding a one-off event called Hotchpotch Presents… next week.

For this, we’re moving to Zoom, and the most notable difference is that the line-up is advertised in advance, not comprised of those who turn up on the night. We have 11 performers ready to perform seven minutes each, and they’ll be introducing each other to keep the flow.

We have experience of this format before, having trialled it as a live show in April 2019 at the Rep theatre in Dundee. There was quite the vibe that night, and I do hope we’re able to channel for this second airing of Hotchpotch Presents… on Monday 19 October.

Ephemera

When I first started performing my work in public, I used to make sure my performances were caught on camera. I could then review the footage and discover how I appeared to the audience. I still have many of these videos, the earliest dating from 2014, although I’ve now undergone enough stage experience to gauge for myself.

With extreme movement restrictions worldwide at the moment, many writers and poets are turning to video to deliver performances and workshops. I’ve signed up for a workshop with Imogen Stirling via Zoom starting on Thursday, while Luke Wright is performing poetry on Twitter every evening at 8pm.

However, there’s one important difference between my camcorder videos and live-streaming, and that difference is that streams are not necessarily recorded for posterity.

In 2015, the vice president of Google warned of a ‘digital dark age’ where data saved in the present day might not survive the upgrade from one piece of handware to the next. I found this – and still find it – a little odd, considering we’re also told that whatever is posted to the Internet stays there indefinitely.

I’ve found that the video retention policy varies from platform to platform. On Zoom, a participant can record the feed by pressing a button, while Facebook Live allows viewers to access a recording of the content long after the event.

Then I came into Wright’s performances at episode 22, and I thought I could catch up with the rest by simply scrolling back. Unfortunately, their live streams are available only for a matter of hours after broadcast then permanently deleted.

On Saturday, I took part in a fundraiser with local artists using yet another platform: Instagram Live. I delivered an hour of prose and poetry via the host’s account; like Twitter, my set disappeared from Stories after a certain length of time.

Thinking about it now, I could have filmed myself with my own camcorder or used third party software to capture the screen and audio output. On the other hand, I also rather enjoy that my set was done only for the people who were there to witness it at the time.

Say It Like You Mean It

If you know anything about the town of Falkirk, you’ll probably have heard about one of its landmarks: giant statues of two horse heads known as the Kelpies. I visited the statues a couple of years ago, led by a tour guide.

Most guides would give a factual description of when the statues were built, how high they are, how many tons of metal were involved in the construction, and so forth. Instead, this one was a great storyteller, reeling us all in with a tale about the mythology of the Kelpies in Scottish culture, weaving in the facts and figures as he went along.

It’s this type of passion that makes for a good performer. Most writers and poets do infuse that into their stage presence – but I have seen a few who recite their words with little emotion. It’s particularly jarring when an event host flatly reads from a piece of paper that they are ‘very excited to welcome’ their guest.

I understand it can be difficult to stir up as much enthusiasm for a piece you’ve read a hundred times. Yet it might only be the first or second time the audience has heard it, so it needs to sound fresh. The best technique is to try to think about the meaning of the words as you read, and to make a conscious effort to pace and emphasise them.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another tour guide who was so memorable, but because he was so engaging, I’ll always remember the one who took me around the Kelpies.

Let’s be Clear

Last week, I went to a music and poetry event where a friend was performing. I arrived at about 7:15pm, giving me 15 minutes to find a good seat and to buy a drink.

However, there had been no indication in the event listing that the show actually began at 8pm, and that 7:30pm had been when the doors opened. Conversely, if I’d treated 7:30pm as the ‘doors open’ time, there’s a chance I would have missed the start of the show.

It’s not the first time I’ve experienced this ambiguity, so when I’m listing my own events, I specify when the doors open and when the show actually begins. It doesn’t stop people being late, but it signals that they’ll miss part of the event if they arrive after the stated time.

At least at the aforementioned poetry evening, the performers spoke into the microphone, which brings me to my second pet hate of this entry: those who don’t use it, or use it incorrectly.

Where a working microphone is provided, always speak into it, as it’s usually there for a reason.

We bought a PA system for our open-mike night because we used to meet in a noisy pub. But even where there is minimal background noise, anyone with hearing difficulties might not be able to make out what you’re saying without amplification. Even among an audience with good hearing, taking away the amplification can mean they miss the beginning of what you tell them.

In a larger venue such as a theatre, hearing aid users can usually tap into the induction loop, which relies on microphone use, so they might not be able to hear you at all without one.

Where amplification is used, be sure to keep your mouth a consistent distance from the microphone – especially if it’s hand-held – or the sound can come and go in a distracting manner. Also be aware that some of them need you to speak into one side rather than the top.

In a nutshell, to be figuratively and literally clear:

  • Be specific about when your gig starts
  • Use a microphone where one is provided

One Poem, Three Audiences

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to a fundraising event featuring open-mike slots. I’d gone along under the assumption that the stage was reserved solely for musicians, and there were a number of talented ones there. But after a chat with the organisers, I discovered it was open to anybody.

If you know me, you’ll know I’m always willing to perform. This, however, would be a tough crowd because a music audience is different from a poetry audience.

Your average pub rock group expects to encounter some external noise, like audience chatter or the noise of the till, but three or four instruments with amplification can easily compete against that. By contrast, a poetry audience knows to be silent because the performer has only words to convey; even with amplification, it can be hard to talk over a noisy audience.

I drew upon my experience to pick two suitable poems, and they received a better response than I could have hoped for, even with a lot of background chat. One of the poems was a humorous and surreal piece about personified biscuits; I’d picked it because it seems to appeal equally to poets and non-poets.

The following night, I performed the biscuit poem at a dedicated poetry night with an open-mike element. While the audience did hold a respectful silence, they were harder to excite than the pub group crowd, perhaps because many of them had heard it before.

While drafting this entry about the two aforementioned evenings, I was then unexpectedly invited to perform at another gig.

I sing in the church choir on a Sunday, and the organist was organising the music to entertain their Wednesday Club. Most of the choir performed solo songs, but I was asked to perform a couple of poems. I turned again to – you guessed it – the biscuits.

This time, I was uncertain how it would be received. I knew the audience would lend me their silence, but not whether they would consider it appropriate for the event. But I needn’t have worried, as I heard some great feedback both on the night and at the next Sunday performance.

There is no foolproof way to tell how an audience will react. However, by performing often enough, it’s possible to gauge which pieces to perform – and sometimes it pays off incredibly well.

Two In a Room

Last week, I was working in Birmingham, so I took the opportunity to see the TV writer John Osborne in Wolverhampton. The Arena Theatre wasn’t busy when I entered, but I didn’t expect to be one of just two people in the audience.

It must have felt frustrating for Osborne, especially as he plans to take the show on tour, but he didn’t let it show as he took the microphone. He was there to promote his book No-One Cares about Your New Thing.

And what a performance it was, with the first half devoted to poems and the second filled with a personal humorous story centred around his late grandfather’s collection of old Radio Times magazines.

At the end, he offered us both a complimentary copy of the book, though I did pay for mine; I’d planned to buy one from the moment I heard the first poem.

I’ve also had experiences where there’s far less of an audience than I expected. There’s nothing else to do but make the best of the situation.

At one meet-up of Hotchpotch a couple of years ago, there was me plus five attendees, far removed from the dozens we attract today. Since it was a mild summer night, we decided to head into the beer garden and hold an open-air event.

Incidentally, it seems that the Arena Theatre holds a similar open-mike event called PASTA, short for Poets and Storytellers Assemble. Unfortunately, I’m not going to make it to their upcoming events, although I might manage to see the poet Jess Green in March.

The Mood of the Room

Before we begin the entry properly, one of my fellow bloggers has reported some difficulties leaving comments on my posts. If you’re having similar problems, let me know at purple@gavincameron.co.uk.

In 2001, the musician Darius Danesh failed to make it into the later stages of Popstars. When he announced this to the others, he tried to sum up their positive thoughts by saying, ‘How much love is there in this room?’ A clip of the incident is below:

Darius on Popstars in 2001much fun was made of this statement at the time

Much fun was made of this statement at the time, although his later career has been better received. He did have a good point about the mood of a room, as it’s something I think about when I’m performing.

On Friday of last week, I was invited to perform at a poetry night called Blend In – Stand Out. This was something of a risk on the part of the organiser because previous events had been held in Perth, whereas this one was half-an-hour’s drive away in Dundee.

However, I detected good vibes from the start. A number of the members already knew each other, and many had already started drinking, which some folk need before they feel confident. Every performer is allowed two turns. When I stood up, the audience reacted just as I’d wanted, especially the second time.

The following evening, I was again due to perform in a very different venue to a much wider audience as part of a community soul choir. This first involved a dress rehearsal for a total of more than three hours, including a technical run-through.

The show went marvellously, with the audience out of their seats by the final song, helped by our extroverted conductor. Many were there because they knew one of the 300 or so singers on the stage.

But sometimes, the mood of the room simply isn’t with the performer. At one event last year, I was on the bill between two musicians, so nobody was geared up to hear poetry. It also didn’t help that the audience hadn’t come specifically to hear the entertainment; rather, it was a place to rest as part of a wider arts event.

It’s unfortunate that even when the audience isn’t engaged, people will still look less favourably on the person who stopped halfway through. And if it’s a paid gig, the promoter might even withhold all or part of your fee.

So whatever the dynamic in the room is, my advice is to continue performing the set. A good technique is to identify one or two people who are paying attention and direct your words to them.

That is unless the mood is at the stage where you feel physically threatened. I’ve never seen that happen, though, and I hope it never will.