In a room at the back of a dark, dank pub in East London a group of people are heckling a man with a microphone. “Two out of ten!” shouts someone; “seven out of ten!” shouts another as the room laughs. The man onstage could be a stand-up comedian being bothered by a rowdy audience. But this isn’t comedy – this is poetry.
Hammer and Tongue is one of the many performance poetry nights happening every week all over the country. Contrary to the stereotyped view of poetry recitals – pale romantics reading to an enraptured, silent audience – these are dynamic, two-way events filled with noise. This evening’s event is called a slam: poets perform their set, the audience vote, and those with the most points go the next round until there is an overall winner. Winning is as much about the performance as the poetry.
Thirty-year-old Sam Berkson – stage name Angry Sam – is the East London coordinator of Hammer and Tongue. He started performing with the collective in Oxford and has worked with them for eight years. He knows from experience how hard it can be for a poet to face a loud audience. Starting out, he tells me at the launch of his first printed collection, “I was really forgettable, I used to come back every week and would get announced as ‘a poet that we’ve never had before’. It made me realise I might have been clever in my own head, but the test is how humans react to it.”
Berkson acknowledges the division between “performance” and “page” poetry: “It’s like a class division: an underground class versus the establishment.” But he also thinks this division “artificial” and plenty of other poets agree. Performance poetry veteran Salena Godden sees herself primarily as a writer: “I just happen to read out my stuff,” she says.
She does recognise, however, that not all poems will work at a gig: “When I get up onstage I go for funny. I once got up, did loads of deep stuff and the audience started crying and it felt weird. So I go for the laughs. I write what I want to write. And then I choose what I want to do on stage,” she says.
So what is the difference between listening to a poem being performed and reading it in a book? Twenty-year-old musician and poet Kate Tempest, who has toured with the likes of Billy Bragg, Scroobius Pip and John Cooper Clarke, believes that performance brings something extra: “Reading poetry off the page is never going to be quite the same experience as hearing it spoken … for [poetry] to really live it should be heard and felt,” she says.
Benjamin Zephaniah, Cooper Clark and John Healey have being doing something similar for years – but more and more people of all ages and backgrounds are venturing to poetry gigs
As Tempest points out this might be because reading a poem out makes it more accessible: “With spoken word, people who aren’t really confident readers can experience the beauty of language in the same way that someone who is really confident with reading does,” she tells me. “Suddenly the complexity and depth of language is opened up in the way that isn’t quite as intimidating as deciphering a page of text.”
Russell Thompson – a coordinator for Apples and Snakes, a poetry company founded 30 years ago – recognises there are always a variety of genres in any one spoken-word night: “It fills a small niche within the arts sector but performance poetry has a very broad range of styles and types within it, from rap and hip hop’s strong rhythmic and musical elements to comic bards.”
Madcap poet Jon Seagrave – aka Jonny Fluffypunk – who is a regular with Hammer and Tongue, also thinks performance poetry has much in common with other genres: “The sort of stuff I do is much more comic. Tim Key describes himself as a poet, but he won the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy award in 2009 and is now one of the top comedians in the country. So in his gigs you’ve got 1000 people basically paying to see a performance poet.”
Could poetry be the new comedy? Berkson thinks it could be: “You can see the performance poetry scene doing something like stand up. It’s the most obvious comparison. It’s not inconceivable that poetry will become the big entertainment business.”
For more information on Hammer and Tongue see here
Sam Berkson’s poetry collection Life in Transit: the journey that counts is out now from Influx Press influxpress.com/
Kate Tempest’s book Everything Speaks in its Own Way is available now from Zingaroo Books on katetempest.co.uk
Apples and Snakes go to their website