Quick on the Draw

If we must label it a party trick, one of mine is to write a short poem about a given subject in a short space of time, typically under five minutes.

This comes into its own at poetry shows with multiple performers, where I’ve been later in the bill. I’d pen a poem for each act while they’re still on stage and read mine at the end. I’ve occasionally been asked how it’s possible to write in such a short space of time, and the answer is simple: shortcuts.

The format I use is the four-line clerihew, and the first line is always the subject, so that’s 75% of it already written. The next line rhymes with the first, and then a different rhyme appears in the other two lines. Ridiculousness is encouraged with this style, making it ideal for a quick-and-dirty verse.

But much as people are impressed by my speedy poetry abilities, I’m similarly impressed by those who can churn out a drawing within the same time.

A few weeks ago, I found myself at a life-drawing class running by a pal. These sessions typically begin with a session of two- to five-minute poses to allow the artists to warm up, but I really struggle with these. By the time I’ve laid out the frame of the pose, there’s no time left to add in the details.

I’ve asked a couple of folk for advice about how to handle this, and there are some shortcuts, just as there are with clerihews: only draw part of the pose, construct the image in an abstract way, stick to the same colour of pen or pencil, &c.

The key to mastery, however, is to keep tackling these short poses. There was a time when I couldn’t write verse, never mind in such a short time, but I stuck at it and I’m sure I can stick at the life drawing.

Back on The Slam Wagon

Earlier this month, I visited the StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews. On previous visits, I’ve stayed overnight to allow me to visit the poetry slam, which finishes around midnight. This time, because of other commitments, I missed out on what’s normally one of my highlights.

Nonetheless, I did manage to take part in a smaller-scale slam on Saturday just gone and at a more local venue. Unusually, this was hosted and judged by comedians rather than poets, which lent the evening more of a cabaret vibe.

I’d half-forgotten I’d been invited to perform there, so I spent much of Saturday trying to re-learn a poem I’d written about three years ago. But as each performer would be invited to perform at least twice, I had to accommodate for that too.

Plan B was to find a short poem that I could remember, or at least improvise with.

Plan A was more of a risk, but also what I ended up doing. During the first round, I would write clerihews about the performers and the judges, and perform it as my second poem. It’s something I’ve done before at poetry events, but never competitively. Just as actors often take improv classes to improve their skills, I think writers can benefit from timed exercises.

Ultimately, I didn’t go through to the third round. I don’t know how that would have gone anyway, as I’d created a lighthearted atmosphere with my first two pieces, then my third one would have signalled a definite change of mood.

The top honour went deservedly to someone who’d won the StAnza slam just one week before.

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.

Note to self – do not call this entry ‘Slampionships’

Before I begin properly, I wrote a blog entry some time ago about what to do after writing a novel. Last week, it was posted on the official NaNoWriMo website.

And now, on with the main event.


On Saturday, I attended the Scottish Slam Championships for the first time. At this event, poetry slam champions from around Scotland compete to be crowned the first among their peers. Before we move into the details of the evening, what is slam poetry?

Ross McFarlane, who performed at the event, outlined the idea in an article from 2015:

Based on different criteria depending on the slam itself, poets are expected to, in one way or another, perform their poetry to be judged by the audience as a whole or a panel of onlookers (sometimes experts and sometimes not). While it might be the case that a lot of slams have more in common than just this description, it would be pretty safe to say that any event with this format could be considered a slam.

Source: Glasgow Guardian

This particular Championship is run under Glasgow Rules:

  1. The running order of the performers is determined by names drawn from a hat.
  2. In round one, the performers each have 3 minutes to perform a poem in front of a panel of judges. The running order is then reversed and each performs a second poem.
  3. In the second and final round, the three highest-scoring poets each duke it out with a third poem until a winner is declared.

Rosenau Poetry Slam

The photo isn’t from this night, but it is royalty-free. Here are the photos from the night. [Photo by Charlyfoxtrott4 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)]

So what type of material can the audience expect to hear? While there’s no fixed theme, don’t expect to hear nature or Shakespearean poetry, except in a satirical context. You’re more likely to learn about the political landscape, LGBT issues, religion, and of course the self. It’s not uncommon to hear swearing either. I attended to support Angela Strachan who performed a hilarious satire on the appeal of Aldi, and A.R. Crow who reflected upon the death of George Michael.

I also happened to meet a university friend attending her first-ever slam, and what an introduction it was. It’s sometimes possible to guess who the finalists might be, but the performances were so strong that the field was wide open, even at the end of the first round. The host Robin Cairns kept the night running smoothly, trading the occasional strong insult with some of the poets.

If you want to find out who won the evening, head to the Scottish Slams Twitter page.

All of which is a nice warmup for StAnza, the poetry festival in St Andrews. I took part in their slam last year and I’ve signed up to compete again.