Two a.m. Berlin’s dim street lights make the city look like a homemade dinner over candle light. The night air is warm like dry breath. I’m sitting on a window ledge outside a bar called ‘Wild At Heart’ surrounded by new friends. Johnny Cash strums his deep bass voice through a boom box. I’m handed a spliff, I take a few tokes and pass it on... I look up with this smile that knows that this is a moment I’ll be seeing again as a reflective old man.
Berlin is the second city I’ve visited and I’ve said to myself “man, I could live here”. The people I meet are always friendly, interesting and usually artists of some sort, the bars are always so cool (I love them and I don’t even drink) and Spoken Word poetry is largely embraced!
I was on stage at the ‘Kreuzberg Slam’ within two hours of getting off the plane from London and I had an audience of at least 300 people. That’s considered a quiet Tuesday early evening crowd! All the other performances were in German but more or less everyone spoke English as a second language.
I was backstage talking to some poets, comedians and musicians about London’s poetry scene and finding out how in the hell is Berlin’s scene drawing such vast audiences.
“The Poetry Slam scene is more established than the comedy scene” one guy tells me “over the last three years poetry slams have become bigger and bigger”. Then I got to meet one of Berlin’s Spoken Word God Fathers ‘Wolf Hogekamp’ who tells me Spoken Word is so huge in Switzerland they teach it on the basic educational curriculum. He also tells me it’s on the rise in Austria and Poland... interesting.
The venue had one of the biggest stages I’ve ever performed on and the audience were so tuned in.
It’s always an amazing feeling to be worthy of so many ears and eyes.
The Kreuzberg Slam had the best format of slam poetry I’ve ever seen... When a performer goes over time, dark eerie music starts playing and the host walks slowly onto the stage towards the performer. Gradually the music gets louder and louder to drain out the performance and if the performance is still running when the host is standing next to the performer the music is turned RIGHT UP and totally drowns them out. Meanwhile the host on the stage stands painfully close to them and smiles like a psycho... GENIUS!
Less than 24 hours later my host and local Spoken Word celebrity ‘Paula Varjack’ gets me on her radio show called ‘Now Hear this’ to do some poems, play some music from my Speed Camera Shy project and talk London, poetry and Dubstep! It was great fun!
Listen to me saying “interesting” over and over again –
We then went from the radio station to the Anti-Slam which was hosted by Paula Varjack and Wolf Hogekemp. In an Anti-Slam you take everything you hate about a regular slam and turn it up! e.g. cliché’ love, political or ‘where I’m from’ poems, defensive amateur poets, bad judges, overly dramatic pauses which involves moodily staring into the distance, shaky hands holding the paper, awkward stage presence, unconvincing acting and the whole self satisfying mentality all gets put in the mix... and I should mention the audience are encouraged to heckle.
Here’s an extract from an Icelandic poet who walked onto the stage awkwardly, fiddled with the mic and said “Testing, Testing, Testing... Animals need protection from animal testing” another line I remember in this poem was “Animals need a lawyer// from the people who drink milk that ain’t Soya”. His piece even had a poorly executed repetitive chorus .. ahh it was fantastically awful!
I did a political poem about “change” in the voice of a hippy on a street corner .. I half wrote it then started improvising... I got heckled so badly my poem was barely heard but I think the ending won it with “Is change taking place?// There is no Mass Debate!” followed by an awkward pause, then turning around and telling all the judges to fuck off to inspire a bad score (the lowest scoring poet wins)
I made it to the second round and was given 15 minutes to write a poem in a second language. I don’t have a second language so I had to write something in German and the audience asked for a poem about ‘Nelson Mandela,’’ Maradona’ and a dildo... I ran around trying to get as many German words and phrases in... then jumped back on stage, getting most the pronunciation wrong and it ended up being a nonsensical poem about Marradona trying to come on to Mandela with his “vist du de hand godes” which is his “hand of god” but Mandela not having it by saying he doesn’t need a hand of god when he has a dildo ... yeah... I won... and I’m now the fourth Berlin Anti Slam Champion. Ha!
I was rewarded with a big bottle of Jägermeister and a birthday cake... oh’ and “congratulations you suck” comments!
So I wanted to know what the Germans are doing that the British aren’t in terms of generating such mass appeal for the Spoken Word art form?
I caught up with Italian poet Sergio Garau who has spent a considerable amount of time gigging his poetry around Germany, England and Poland.
“I think the German slam scene is huge because of the scenes' engagement and coordination - it's a "circolo virtuoso": the audiences are big (around 300-400 paying guests in the main slams), the MCs can then afford to invite quality artists from the whole country or even form abroad. The poets then get to perform in front of big audiences and publicise their work. The fact that the best German slammers are travelling around a lot, not only performing but also doing workshops allows some of them to live out of their writing - the existence of professional poetry slammers makes it also more appealing and many join the scenes. Another element is probably the variety of personalities that are involved: from authors highly considerate in academical milieu to popular stand-up comedians, from post-stop-avantgardists to emo-kids, from greats craftsmen of the rhyme to novelists and so on. The Medias, Literature Festivals and the Goethe Institute get interested and involved in making the scene grow even more.”
So is it the fault of the artists, the audiences or is it just that we aren’t getting the marketing, funding and adequate support from the arts councils and other creative organizations?
Or am I being overambitious about the Spoken Word movement, maybe its fine as it is – unpackaged, raw and for the few, maybe that’s the beauty of it?
Being involved in the movement of an art form that has little commercial value and therefore has huge freedoms to be creative is exciting but frustrating. Everyone wants to be appreciated but at what point does our integrity and “street credibility” suffer for our success?
I think I’ve stumbled across a new theme for the second series of the Q&A...
Thanks for reading and stay tuned!
p.s. myself and Paula Varjack will be hosting the first ever London Anti-Slam this October.