Judging the StAnza Slam: Saturday Reflections

Sunday 11 March 2018

Poetry is all around us. One of the things that I love most about StAnza is that there are many unique venues where you can interact with poetry. While The Byre is the vibrant hub, you can also hear haunting and resonant words echoing off stone walls in the dimly lit, atmospheric Undercroft, as I did with Cumbrian poet Katie Hale and Chinese poet Cai Tianxin, at their Border Crossings event yesterday. As Katie Hale observed during her lyrical, evocative and gracefully paced reading, that space is like a ‘cathedral to poetry.’

Or you can munch on delicious macaroni pies and sip a pint in the comfy seats of the Byre Studio and listen to some poems during Poetry Café, as I did with the fantastic spoken word poet Sara Hirsch. Sara’s poems are candid and intimate, her delivery full of humor and heart. Perhaps because I actually do know Sara, yesterday’s Poetry Café felt like sitting across from a friend at lunch, telling you stories of their fascinating life (albeit in sharply observed, poetic way!). It was definitely a festival highlight for me. 

Or you can sit in the beautiful Byre Auditorium at a Poetry Centre Stage event and listen to a literary giant like Liz Lochhead with her wit and wisdom, leaving everyone laughing but also thinking about some deeply important and relevant themes. Two personal favorite poems of mine that she shared last night were ‘How to be the Perfect Romantic Poet’, with its cutting and hilarious first line: ‘Be born male.’ As well as ‘Photograph, Art Student, Female, Working Class’, which describes experiences of sexual harassment in the 60’s, before the vocabulary was around to articulate what was going on: ‘In sixty-six there’s plenty sex, but not ‘sexism’’. You can read the full poem here on the Scottish Poetry Library’s website: http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poems/photograph-art-stud...

In short, yesterday was full of great poetry and each venue at StAnza brings its own flare and feel, giving the festival a lovely and varied quality.

As Katie Hale mentioned in one of her earlier blog posts, there are as many versions of a festival as there are attendees. One must choose what to see, which events to attend, from this medley of not just poetry but also film, music, art, exhibitions, installations and more. For me, a favorite event of the festival is always the StAnza Poetry Slam, which I won back in 2013 and it essentially launched my career as a spoken word poet. It was the first major slam that I’d ever won and opened up lots of career opportunities for me (winning Scottish Nationals, competing at the World Series of Slam in Paris and placing 4th in the world, publication opportunities, etc.). Many other winners, such as Agnes Torok and Hannah Raymond-Cox, have also gone on to do amazing things, so this is definitely a launching point for a career in spoken word.

I was delighted to be asked to judge the slam, alongside Sara Hirsch and Clive Birnie, Director of Burning Eye Books. Sara’s a slam champ at both a UK and European level and a seasoned performer (as I mentioned before!). Burning Eye is a wonderful press, specializing in spoken word. So what is it like to judge The StAnza Slam, you ask? I thought it might be interesting to talk a little bit about that experience here.

At the start of the event, I enjoyed chatting with my two fellow judges about what we’re looking for in a poem, which, as we told the audience at the start of the show, is deceptively simple: we’re looking for great words and great delivery. Having judged a number of slams, I look for something that feels fresh, is engaging, full of surprising language and holds the audience.

Jo Gilbert performing in the StAnza Slam, 2018

We had a talented array of poets compete last night and I think it’s important to note that it takes so much courage and bravery to get up there and actually perform. Jo Gilbert (who, spoiler alert, WON the slam) had a great first poem about the courage it takes to do just that: to battle your inner critic to get up and read something you wrote…aloud! And then, to be judged by strangers! Before I competed in my first slam, back in 2011, I was so nervous I thought I’d pass out. And I still get nervous sometimes before sharing my work aloud (particularly new work). So congratulations to everyone involved.

In the end, Jo’s poems won the day. Her hilarious poem about trying to suppress that familiar midday desire to take a break from work to go and have a sugary snack (namely: cake) brought the house down with laughter. Having taught a performance poetry workshop that Jo was in, about a year ago, I knew she was talented from the first time I met her, but I’m delighted to see how she has grown and developed her poetry even further, commanding the stage and leaving everyone in stitches.

Congratulations as well to our runner up Emily Elderfield and to all of the poets who competed. I had a wonderful time judging and seeing some of the best emerging poets that Scotland has to offer. So congratulate yourselves, poets. We appreciated your lyricism, your humor, your clever metaphors, your turns of phrase. It was an honor to judge the event. Thank you StAnza for asking me!

There’s only one more day of the festival, but, as I write this in the Byre, the café bar is still full of people, noise and life. Glasses clink, voices mingle, and poems are projected on the walls all around me. There’s still more to come. I’m particularly looking forward to the finale party this evening, one of my other favorite parts of the festival, where everyone takes to the dance floor to celebrate the end of another wonderful year at StAnza.

By Carly Brown, In-House Blogger for StAnza 2018 (Part II)