GulbSlam @ The Gulbenkian 28/10/15

This months Gulb Slam was a special occasion for us at Whisky & Beards. In previous slams we’ve had certain members of our roster take the stage representing us, however this time we went hard: Cal Harris, Charlie Tolfree, Amy Barnes, Stefan Gambrell and me all competing. Considering there are only ten slots, perhaps we were stacking the deck in our favour somewhat, but as judges are picked from people who don’t know the poets there were no shenanigans regarding voting.

Headlining the evening was one of my favourite contemporary poets, Anthony Anaxagorou. One of the great things about the Gulb Slam is something I don’t often mention, the workshops. Every Slam is preceded by an hour long workshop, and considering who was hosting it I had to be there.

Anaxagorou talking about stagecraft at times felt like a masterclass for any performer; poet, musician, actor, anyone could have learned from his talk, covering authenticity, presence and identity. For someone as nervous as me, one of the key lessons I took away was “Own the Audience”. I’ve seen many poets whisper poems, or rush to the end, but his point that the audience are there to hear you has been churning over in my head in the time since.

Dam Simpson returned as our host for the evening, having previously hosted the first Slam the Whisky & Beards team attended. Setting the standard for the evening with a cover poem on the omnipotent nature of poetry.

The first poet of the event was previous Gulb Slam winner, Jocelyn Mosman. Beginning with a piece called “Push Me”, Jocelyn’s Texan accent wrapped round defiance and tackled adversity. At points, the weight of the poem threatened to take the performance from her, but Jocelyn held strong. It was already obvious to see why she’d won the last Slam. Following on with “Fragile Women” about the self-destruction of the feminine, and the struggle against society, as well as the inherent strength that lies within. Lifting the mood, Jocelyn brought out a lighter piece, from her book “Soul Painting”, mixing Chemistry jokes and flexing her vocabulary before closing with her previous winning piece “For My Body”, a love letter to the flaws of the human shell. Jocelyn Mosman: an absolute “one to watch”, and setting the bar high from the commencing Slam.

First to the Slam mic was Helen Seymour. Her story began with a picture of her old house, before crashing from the heights of nostalgia, into memories of loss. It took a moment when Helen stepped away from the stage to really process what we’d just heard, but the chords that were struck in me, I think resonated with everyone in audience. A universal experience given a fresh voice, in Helen’s trademark style.

Next up was Thembe Mvula with her piece “Women like Me” on the worth of women and the strength passed down through history. Contrasted with Jocelyn’s “Fragile Women”, Thembe offers a more aggressive take on the subject, whilst also acknowledging weakness.

Frank Radcliffe-Adams came next with his poem Muddy Waters, offering the same nostalgia-hazed melodic quality we heard at the previous slam. Frank carries with him a wealth of poetic knowledge, apparent in the way he constructs images, but there are times when those same influences rear their heads up too high and threaten to clash with Franks own voice. I look forward to seeing how he grows as a poet.

Following him was Margate’s own Emrys Plant, having previously hosted the Gulb Slam last month. Holding high reminders on how to be human, how to treat other people, unity and social progress hinging on the audience repeated refrain “Together we can make things better.” As the audience says this one last time and he leaves the stage, Emrys let one line loose just out of the microphone’s reach: “I believe you”. I’m sure this is part of the piece, but the organic sincerity behind it tells us all we need to hear. Emrys truly does believe it.

From here we run a full gauntlet of the Whisky & Beard management team, starting with Cal Harris.

Cal’s piece “Starbucks Lovers” acts as a dark mirror on the internet age. As more relationships take place through the internet, the boundaries of “private lives” begin to blur. Delivered with humour, it’s easy to see why this went down so well.

I came up to the stage next, and spoiler alert: I did not do well. My nerves were at peak, and as I walked up, I grabbed a chair from the audience to stop me simply collapsing the moment I saw the audience. As I attempted to not rush, I committed the exact opposite mistake of performing, slowing what was intended as a fast piece down to a crawl. Let no one ever disparage the confidence it takes to get up on stage, and the work that poets put in to be able to perform, it’s truly one of the most nerve-wrecking experiences you can go through. Performance takes confidence, charisma and practice, and I certainly don’t feel I’m ready to compete again. Having said that, I got some laughs, so I’m happy.

Immediately after me was Charlie Tolfree, with “Wild”. An embracement of the human spirit in its natural state, “Wild” clocked in as the shortest poem of the evening, but the impact of the piece lasted much longer.
Also in her first Gulb slam was Amy Barnes, with her piece “The Ill-Fated Rescue Attempt of the Green Glass Stegosaurus”. Recounting a childhood adventure with that sense of scope only available to the young, Amy balances the drama in an overall humorous piece but ending up delivering a powerful message on adult outlooks. Her dreams of acquiring a diamond pile from the shining parts of the playgrounds struck me as one of the most beautiful statements of the night.

Shifting the gears from the Whisky & Beards participants, Henry Colborne stepped up as the penultimate performer. Henry committed much the same sin as me, he overthought his performance, and when he let go of his notes, he became much more interesting and dynamic. As Henry becomes more familiar with the stage I look forward to seeing where he takes his hip-hop influences next.

Closing the Slam was returning Whisky & Beards writer Stefan Gambrell. Stefan’s piece “Not a Lost Cause” discusses the perception of those with mental health issues, and the power of friendship and the arts. I’ve said much of the same things about Stefan, but every time his words and the sincerity behind them captivates. Simultaneously lyrical, heart-warming and melancholic, it’s rare to see someone with such a command of their words.

Host Dan Simpson returned to the stage to congratulate the participants, and announcing our very own Cal Harris as the Slam winner. Catch him in a full set at the December Slam.

Dan’s own poem might have been chosen as a response to Jocelyn’s early poetic refrain about talking nerdy to her, mixing mathematics and romance, both charming and intelligently. Anyone who wants to hear Dan get more time to perform should definitely find themselves at his performance on the 12th

Dan gave way to Alex Vellis, cashing in his feature slot from his victory at the Wise Words Slam. Alex revelled in the spotlight, opening with a joke and bantering with the crowd before going into his poem “The Staircase at the Bottom of the World”. Strong and complexly rhythmic, “Staircase” might well be the highlight of his set. Next, Alex recapped the poem that won him the Slam. I’ve commented on this twice before, but I don’t think I picked up on an interesting fact. Alex has lost the title of the piece. I say interesting because the piece itself is on the power of words, how they can be used to connect. Without a title, it might be hard to find that connection with the poem. Finishing up with a poem called Dear John, in the vein of anonymous letters (Dear John Letters) but subverted by using Jane Doe. Instead of a relationship built on a dominant partner, Jane instead offers to help her partner so they can both achieve their goals.

Finally, our headliner Anthony Anaxagorou. Beginning by asking the wider audience the same question as he did in the workshop. It was interesting to see the same response; laughter is yellow, thought is bright blue.

His first poem, “I Me”, questioned masculinity as a part of the self. Considering the two excellent poems on femininity we had this night, it strikes me that it’s rare that we discuss masculinity. There’s notions that someone isn’t masculine enough, and that leads to over blown caricatures of men. In the creative world, especially in poetry, you can open yourself up to all kinds of criticism from the wider world, for being male an in touch with emotion. More than many of the pieces, this one felt like it was for me. As a white male, there are excellent poems that are not “for me”, I will never feel the emotions in them, because often it’s been people like me that have been the cause of the issues at hand. This isn’t self-loathing, white guilt or misandry, but it’s the rarer poem that connects with my zeitgeist.

Anthony followed this with “Crimes of the Land”, contrasting the benevolent nature of water with the actions of man. Water has its wrath, but can be gentle, healing and tranquil, while humans tend to just exert force.
Next was “The Master’s Revenge”, on the history of black culture, or the lack of. Echoing the idea of “history is written by the winners”, this poem acknowledges the suffering of the past, and offers that we can progress by being better than that. “Peace is the revenge of the master”.

By this point in his set, the audience were waiting to applaud him, but instead of bowing out, Anthony instead upped the ante with his closing poem “This is Not a Poem”. Claiming that he is a not a poet, Anthony listed events around the world, throughout history and the present day, where words do not do justice to the horrors and weight of the world. Jaw dropping and powerful, this was an absolute masterclass in performance and emotion.

Between these four poems, Anthony tackled what I would consider the hardest things to write about without being cliché, and at every turn he came of fresh, passionate and cerebral. In short, Anthony Anaxagorou is everything poetry should be.