It’s in your face, raw, honest, political and edgy. Since its inception in the 1980’s, Slam Poetry has gone viral. And considering the current invisible threat, we might just see how viral at next week’s Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival Virtual Poetry Slam.
Jason John took out last year’s Bellingen Slam title (pictured second from left). Jason weaves a wry humour through powerful pieces. “I’m not a racist, but I’ve got a racist butt” he cries, straight-faced but deliberately antagonistic.
And that is the point- these performing poets take the crowd on an emotive journey. At times beautiful, while at others ridiculous, but always testing popular beliefs or the status quo.
Jason is this year’s Bello Slam MC, so we could be in for quite a ride. Here he shares insights, tips for the novice ‘Slammer’ and some of his most audacious lines.
How do you define Slam Poetry?
Slam poetry was originally designed to move poetry recitals from academia to a popular audience, making it more accessible. It introduces a competitive, interactive edge to a traditional poetry reading event. There are no props or music, just the performer and their bodies sharing for two minutes, and then being judged by the audience.
Do you see Slam Poetry as a powerful way of making a point?
Absolutely. Often people share very deeply from their experiences of pain and resilience, or explore a national or global issue. Anyone who went to the Bello Slam in 2017 will remember how many poems there were about the street trees! Lockdown could loom large this year.
Are there recurring themes in your poetry?
Funnily enough I don’t really plan for a themes, though my ministry has involved a lot of engagement with climate change, human sexuality, and religion of course- and my poems tend to bring them into sometimes awkward conversation. Often I just think of a line, like “I met a woman, on a sexual harassment committee, leading to a dilemma” and the poem unfolds around it. It’s cathartic (and terrifying) to be able to say something which doesn’t need any footnoting, or checking to make sure it’s “on message”, and gets an instant response.
It seems to be as much about the performance as the poetry. Do you agree?
Some people stand on stage, and just read a poem, and mesemerise the crowd because its so beautiful, or deeply personal. Generally though, yes I’d say slams are performance poetry.
What tips do you have for a novice?
The simple and hard way to get over your nerves, is to do it. There is no other way. Quite often first timers bring a rawness to their two minutes which propels them to the top of the pile, so go for it! And really, most of us are still very novice- hardly anyone makes a career out of this. Finally, practice and practice and practice until the poem is part of you and you are sick to death of it, then when you are on stage full of adrenaline, it will still be with you- but it took me three years til I tried to go entirely by memory, so bring your poem onstage, even just as a fallback.
Winning the Bello Slam last year was just the beginning. Can you tell us about your success?
Having seen what performers could do if they knew their work inside out, I memorized mine, which helped engage the audience. I won first at the bello slam, second in the NSW finals and third in the national final. I’ve turned those poems and another 40 or so others into the book “I’m not a racist, but I’ve got a racist butt,” which finally went up for sale last week on http://ecofaith.org. All the profits from sales during National Reconciliation Week are going to the Coffs Harbour Local Aboriginal Lands Council.
Three years ago I’d written three half decent poems in my life and never been to an open mic, and now all this! So this year I wanted to do my bit and MC the Bello Slam. Going online has been a huge challenge, but now we have amazing poets from around Australia joining our locals, something we could never usually afford.
If you want to be a judge at this year’s virtual Poetry Slam register HERE
For more information about the Poetry Slam or the relaunched virtual Bellingen Readers and Writers Festival CLICK