Now in its tenth year, the Exeter Poetry Slam gathers twelve of the best poetic performers from across the South West and whittles them down to one winner after three intense knock-out rounds. I had the pleasure of going to watch it at the Exeter Phoenix, and left feeling a renewed passion for slam poetry, having been a keen fan of the form for years. Nights like this weren’t just designed for Gen-Zers like me, raised on Olivia Gatwood and Button Poetry, however – this was truly an event for everyone, young and old, poetry fans and those new to the art (apart from Tories, who, had any actually been in attendance, would have been slammed to the point of no return, such was the passion of the poets talking about inequality).
We began the evening with a performance from judge Louisa Adjoa Parker, who treated us to several poems about the rhetoric of the Brexit Leave campaign. She riffed on the ‘Take Back Control’ poster, the idea that immigrants are stealing our very Britishness from us, and feeling othered, all with a playful authority, getting the audience on side instantly. Her style and engaging delivery set us up for a night of having our comfort and perceptions questioned in comic and not-so-comic ways – an essential facet of slam poetry, which is partially judged on its ability to elicit a response from listeners.
Then it was time for the heats: each poet was to be marked immediately on their writing, performance and audience response, and there was a palpable tension in the air during judging from both the poets and the audience alike.
Each poet spoke with a dexterity that only comes with practice and passion, and it was clear that they were performing not for the clout or chance to win a cash prize, but for the love of their craft. While every slammer deserves high praise for even being brave enough to perform their work to an audience of strangers, several particularly stood out to me.
First, Antonia Eastwood, a young performer from Plymouth who asserted her stage-presence instantly as she spoke of the role of the media in our society’s discourse in her first piece ‘itvbe reality tv’. Punchy and captivating, she made it to the semi-finals in which she performed my favourite piece of the night, ‘Zig Zag City’, a jagged, galvanizing exploration of the working-class experience and the media’s complicity in its portrayal. The unassuming authority with which she communicated each cutting line was both inspirational and powerful, leaving me stunned.
Another favourite was Jason Vegas Butler, who I felt was prematurely knocked out in round one. His account of a crab attacking his mum on a family holiday was (obviously) hilarious, and his performance style was so open and affable, as if he was recounting a story to a friend. Behind this warm style was a genuine talent for writing, and the piece flowed seemingly effortlessly. The fact that he didn’t make it to the second round is a testament to just how strong the competition was.
Mayfair Ndongonga was similarly gone too soon, I felt, and her visceral examination of the complexities of relationships, ‘Angry Bones’, was performed with such deep passion that the audience had no choice but to hang on her every word. The pain of being caught between valuing yourself and staying with someone you love who has hurt you was underpinned by Ndongonga’s compelling stage presence, and I would have loved to hear more from her.
Each of the three finalists was entirely deserving of their spot, and I felt that it was anyone’s game, the talent was so strong.
Nick Lovell, who had everyone knocked for six after his harrowing piece about war in the first round, came back in the second round with a completely tonally different, rousing work in which he employed his experience as a greyhound race commentator to rattle through an account of his life with admirable energy. This was excellent and entirely captivating – it really felt like we were enthralled with a close, thrilling race. His final piece was a call to arms against inequality and finished with a plea to “vote on Thursday, it’s important”. The fervour and versatility with which he performed left me reeling – this is what slam events like this have been made for.
Jackie Juno brought a spiritual atmosphere to the room with her first two performances, ‘Oxygenerators’ and ‘……’, and her penchant for the natural world and the way in which we interact with it was softly planted in our minds through her playful, warm delivery. Her third performance of ‘A Blokey One to One’ was poetry in motion and had to be seen to be believed. It involved puns on ‘one’ and ‘two’, shouted out by the audience whenever Juno pointed, and was so joyful to witness and be a part of.
Harula Ladd, the last finalist, had already engrossed us in two poems focusing on modern world issues – her first exploring the refugee experience through the eyes of an Eritrean mother, which forced us into a stunned silence, and a more light-hearted, but equally powerful piece about climate change in the style of an aeroplane safety announcement. She finished the evening with a focus on polarisation, a vital discussion to be had. It came as no surprise to me when she was announced as the winner, but her shock was visible and it was lovely watching the camaraderie of the other poets, hugging and congratulating her. It was a heart-warming end to an intense, brilliant evening.
If you can, seek out slam poetry events – they are beautiful spaces in which it feels like the world is being put to rights. Following the election, and much of the country feeling divided, nights like this are a chance to come together, create, speak truths, and energise each other.
– Caitlin Barr