HELPING IRISH POETRY BREAK OUT OF THE VICTORIAN DRAWING ROOM by Kevin Higgins
(PI News January/February 2007)
When I was in London recently, Todd Swift, a Canadian poet who lives there, told me he thought it was a mistake to include in my bio the fact that I had taken part in poetry slams. When he’d first moved to London a couple of years previously he’d let it be known that not only had he taken part in poetry slams himself; he had also been involved in organising one in his native Montreal back in the early nineteen nineties. What he hadn’t known was that in Britain there is a metaphorical Berlin Wall, complete with barbed wire and quite vicious guard-dogs, between the performance poetry scene – which is large and very active, especially in the major cities - and the mainstream poetry world. And poetry slams are definitely on the performance side of that divide. In parts of the British poetry world, the phrase ‘slam-poet’ is more likely to lead to the door being closed on your hand, than it is to an invitation to read at the Hay-On-Wye Festival or take tea with Andrew Motion.
For those of you who haven’t experienced one, a slam is a performance poetry competition in which poets perform for not more than three minutes, sometimes, but not always, without the aid of the page in front of them. The winner is usually chosen by a panel of five judges selected at random from the audience. Each judge scores the poet out of ten, and then both the highest and lowest score are disregarded; and the middle three scores totted up. So, if your best friend gives you a ten, or your worst enemy gives you a zero, it probably won’t count. At the annual Cúirt Festival Grand Slam, the winner is chosen by an appointed three-person panel, usually consisting of two poets, here to read at the festival, and a member of the public who has been part bribed, part press-ganged into the role. The prize a poetry slam winner receives will vary wildly from an all-expenses-paid trip to read at the Green Mill from the Cúirt Festival Grand Slam, to a simple bottle of house red from the ‘North Beach Nights Poetry Slam’ at BK’s wine bar.
What defines a poetry slam is the competitive element, and the foregrounding of performance rather than text. Although, in Ireland at least, literary quality is also taken into account. At the Cúirt Slam the judges are asked to consider the literary merit of the poem as well as the performance of the poet and the audience reaction. One or two of our more mildewed critics have argued that this element of overt competition is a bad thing, and have tried to dismiss slams as a poetry version of You’re A Star or Pop Idol. But as anyone who has had to navigate its sometimes rather shark-infested waters will tell you, the Irish poetry scene was already a profoundly competitive place, long before Slam tentatively set foot on Éireann’s green isle. In her essay ‘Slams, Open Readings, and Dissident Traditions’ Maria Damon argues that in America:
Slams have inaugurated some folks into a recent understanding of poetry as a competitive sport (a concept which makes traditionalists uneasy, in spite of the arguably more cutthroat competition for publication opportunities, admission to M.F.A programmes, and university teaching positions that poisons the mainstream ‘creative writing’ community).
This tendency to draw a severe black line between poetry as a spoken art and poetry as a written art is a comparatively recent thing. Until the invention of printing in the fifteenth century, poetry in this part of the world was an exclusively oral art. Poems were passed on orally from generation to generation, with the inevitable variations in the text. Until Gutenberg conceived of the idea of moveable type in 1452, it was impossible for a poet to be anything other than a performance poet. In Ireland the tradition of poetry, the spoken art is particularly strong. What was Anthony Raiftearaí (1779-1835) if not a performance poet? According to the Oxford Companion to Irish Literature:
When Lady Gregory and Yeats were gathering folk material in Co. Galway in 1897 and thereafter, they encountered many stories about Raiftearaí and found that his poems were still sung and recited.
Raiftearaí was illiterate. His poems were never written down during his lifetime. He was 'often destitute, his life free of normal constraint…' Sounds like a performance poet to me!
As the nineteenth century goes on, Irish poetry for the most part retreats into the Victorian drawing room. The image of Raiftearaí reciting his verses to peasant ne’er-do-wells gives way to the image of WB Yeats reciting his poems to small gatherings of old dears, and not-so-old dears, pausing between stanzas to sip tea from a bone china cup. And the worst contemporary poetry readings, at which the gentleman or lady poet recites his or her serious words to five or six people in a hotel with terrible carpet, have their roots in that Victorian drawing room. Although it has to be said, the decline which has taken the Irish poetry reading from Coole Park and Lissadell to the small provincial hotel has been a steep one. Listening to Yeats making a ridiculous job of reading great poems in a grand setting is one thing; but sitting in growing embarrassment, while A.N. Other mumbles his or her latest to an almost non-existent audience is a beast of an altogether different variety.
For the advocates of this sort of poetry reading, heroic failure is what it’s all about. The worst thing in the world would be if people had the temerity to turn up in significant numbers and actually appeared to be enjoying the experience. This would be poetry become entertainment, and must be stamped out at all costs. Because, as we all learned at school, poetry isn’t about entertainment, it’s about suffering. To these people, poetry readings are the literary equivalent of half-eleven mass on a wet Sunday in Mullingar, minus the jokes.
Poetry slams and open readings may be American imports, but they have the potential to re-energise Irish poetry, by reconnecting it with its own oral tradition. Indeed, they are already doing it. At the ‘Over The Edge’ readings in Galway City Library, for example, there are always three featured readers, with an open-mic afterwards. It is not a poetry slam, or competition of any type. And some of those who’ve been featured readers are well known: these have included the likes of Geraldine Mills, Jean O’Brien, Nigel McLoughlin, Jo Slade, Ben Howard, Deirdre Cartmill, Nessa O’Mahony, Ann Le Marquand Hartigan, Michael D. Higgins, Paul Perry, Gerry Hanberry, Terry McDonagh & Colette NicAodha. But the inclusive, democratic element which an open-mic introduces has been crucial to the success of these readings. Several poets who began their reading careers very tentatively at the open-mic have gone on to be featured readers. A similar democratic openness is also crucial to poetry slams.
Writing recently in the 'Art Attack' column of Galway Advertiser, poet Trish Casey had this to say:
'Slam is coming to prominence now and it’s happening here in Galway. Why Galway and why now? Primarily because there is a group of writers on the literary scene here who don’t believe in literary borders, elite territories or ghettos and embrace the word in all its forms, both written and spoken. This spirit of openness is manifest in workshops, mentoring and coaching services, which support the artistic development of fellow writers. North Beach Nights, the Cúirt Grand Slam and the Over the Edge readings are a demonstration of this enlightened synergy. We live in artistically interesting times.'
Lately a number of poets, by no means all of them Galway-based, with a wide variety of reading and writing styles, have begun to emerge from this broad literary scene, of which slam is only a part. Poets such as Neil McCarthy, Celeste Augé, Dave Lordan, Marion Moynihan, Anthony Daly, Mary Madec, Billy Ramsell & Lorna Shaughnessy. Some of these have only just begun to publish, others have already won major awards for their poetry and have first collections forthcoming.
In the context of the 'enlightened synergy' Casey talks about, labels such as ‘performance poet’ and ‘page poet’ are unhelpful in that they tend to reinforce what is an entirely artificial divide. In Britain, as I’ve described, the concrete seems to have set on that divide for now. But it need not be so here, where things are still in flux. In the same article, Casey also makes the point that:
Having seen the pitfalls of slam/spoken word in other countries, we can avoid making the same mistakes here. Slam needs to be rooted in a broad literary/artistic context in order to prevent it veering into a cultural cul-de-sac. The cliché of the performance poet – the might-have-been rock-star in the questionable leather-jacket, who instead of availing of the appropriate psychotherapy, likes to leap around a stage, shrieking and making what sound like animal noises – certainly does have some truth in it. I’ve met him. And I think I’ve met his brother. But in Ireland, he is not the norm.
It is perhaps best to view performance poetry – although as I’ve said, I think the term is perhaps unhelpful - not as some exotic American import, but something which has always been part of Irish poetry to a greater or lesser degree. There are several well-established Irish poets for whom performance – whether or not they would choose to call it that – is important. Paul Durcan, Cathal Ó Searcaigh, Rita Ann Higgins and Louis De Paor, to name just four. No doubt if they were rising up through the ranks just now, they would each at some stage have competed in the Cúirt Poetry Grand Slam. Poetry slams are, in their way, as valid a form of competition as the Hennessy Literary Awards or the Fish Short Story Competition. They are not the be all and end all; the best poem rarely wins any competition. But we are, I think, in the process of inventing our own gentler, more literary version of slam here.
In Galway there has been a quiet revolution in the poetry world over the past three years. Of late it has been a little less quiet. It has the potential to help Irish poetry finally shake off the legacy of that Victorian drawing room. And as Dave Lordan, the Dublin-based winner of the 2005 Patrick Kavanagh Award, puts it: in the process to liberate Irish poetry from what he calls ‘the dictatorship of the one page lyric.’ There is a fork in the road up ahead, and the sign going one way reads ‘Death in a provincial hotel’, the sign going the other: ‘New life’. I know which way I’m going.