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spoken word

We crammed into a Dublin basement for a poetry 'slam' - here's what happened

Spoken word performances are gaining in popularity.

pic stitych Some of the performers on the night Punk Groves Punk Groves

“I SAY SLAM, you say Sunday!”

“I say poetry, you say fuck yeah!”

These were the opening words delivered by MC Aidan Murphy to a packed basement in Dublin city on Saturday night.

In a lowly lit room in the bowels of Film Base in Dublin’s Temple Bar, people gathered to watch 12 performers spill their words out onto a stage for no more than three minutes at a time.

But, as Murphy stressed, it wasn’t about the competition – more the showcasing of the spoken word talent currently on offer in Ireland (both north and south of the border).

Still though, there was an expenses-paid trip to Scotland to perform for the winner with €300 spending money – so while the night was about the poetry, the prize wasn’t to be sniffed at either.

From poems about bulimia and body-shaming, to the current state of Ireland in 2016, to poems about about family members and first sexual experiences, to poverty, rape, cultural and racial divisions and other poems that are too hard to pin down in a sentence – it was a night of difference, as well as a celebration of the ever-growing spoken word scene in Dublin.

So what exactly is a poetry slam?

A poetry slam is a form of spoken word competition that came to prominence in the United States in the 1980s.

Essentially, poets perform onstage usually under a fixed time limit (under three minutes being the norm) and are given scores by assigned judges. It is hugely popular in the United States, with the most popular of the so-called “slam poets” able to carve out a viable career for themselves touring around the country.

In Ireland, the poetry slam is part of a wider spoken word and performance poetry scene that has been growing for about the past decade, but significantly so in the last four or five years.

Slam Sunday, a monthly event held at Accents Café in Dublin set up by Aidan Murphy and Edel Doran in late-2013, is the most popular and regular of these slams. Saturday’s event was the “Grand Slam” where 12 of the winners of Slam Sunday met to compete against each other for the title of Grand Slam Champion (the fact that it was for the first time being held on a Saturday wasn’t lost on the crowd or the host).

12993482_702954626474458_76073857206973560_n Edel Doran and Aidan Murphy Punk Groves Punk Groves

But, as Murphy stresses, it’s not about who wins. This is mostly because judging a poem is a highly subjective thing and what is great to one set of ears will be less so to another.

With no objective way of judging, it is left to the preference of the judges to decide who to vote for.

However, as previously stated, it would be surprising if anyone who competed didn’t want to actually win.

So, it’s like a competition, that isn’t a competition, that really is a competition.

But whatever it is, it’s great for drawing a crowd.

You can find poetry on show on almost every night of the week in Dublin. However, on many occasions the poets performing will outnumber the crowds.

With a poetry slam, the combination of prize money on offer, a relaxed atmosphere and people encouraged to come to support their friends tends to be a good recipe for a big crowd.

The poets

This being a Dublin-based event, the 12 competitors mostly hailed from Dublin. However, there were a number of exceptions.

Chris McLaughlin, originally from Tyrone but based in Belfast, performed a piece about poverty in housing estates and the passing through of poverty to generations.

It’s a strange thing to think that you hate your community/
When what you really hate is poverty.

12936565_702954289807825_8363561732373298347_n Chris McLaughlin Punk Groves Punk Groves

It was hugely powerful performance in a night of powerful performances.

Coming from further afield (but based in Dublin) Chicago-born Clara Rose Thornton spoke a first round piece to do with religious and racial divisions sparked by a conversation with a taxi-driver on a visit to Belfast.

12991064_702954773141110_2781466883061114941_n Clara Rose Thornton Punk Groves Punk Groves

Brian McMahon Gallagher (who went on to win competition outright) kept things firmly in Dublin with two character-based pieces of people having sex in Dublin on various nights out.

Mixing moments of laugh-out-loud humour with genuine pathos and sympathy for the imagined characters, his poems clearly struck a chord with the audience and the judges.

12985400_702954693141118_6805574094647852817_n (1) Brian McMahon Gallagher Punk Groves Punk Groves

The other poets had a huge range in performance style and and content. Some rhymed, some didn’t, some were funny, some were heartbreaking, and some were off-the-wall.

Another standout moment of the night was poet Alvy Carragher’s piece Numb, which details an account of rape at a house party.

I’ve heard this same story too many times/ and most days it’s not even mine/ these skeletons of men that don’t know/ what no means

Veteran poet, the Coolock-reared John Cummins came second on the night – his easy rhymes, hooks that owe more to hip-hop than any traditional poetry (he pioneered his own form of spoken word known as hippy-hop) and relaxed style making him a fan favourite around the country.

Lewis Kenny from Cabra (the official poet-in-residence at Bohemians Soccer Club) delivered a piece about his mother, while Ailish Kerr from Drumcondra gave an energetic and vibrant performance about the need for change in society.

12938207_702954549807799_5740946465801881409_n Lewis Kenny Punk Groves Punk Groves

Other performers on the night were Lola H, Alan O’Brien, Elliott Furlong, Leo Connell and Niall Donnelly – each delivered poems worthy of the previous slam winners that they were.

The end result

Spoken word in Dublin and Ireland in general is growing. Aside from nights in Dublin, there are regular events in Dublin, Galway, Cork, Tullamore, Belfast, Derry and others.

While there is a dose of healthy competition, the poets throughout sat next to one another and cheered others on. It was a show for the crowd – as the MC Murphy said:

“Fuck the competition – it’s a gimmick to get you in.”

Speaking before the event, Ailish Kerr gave the general mood amongst the performers present on the night:

“It doesn’t matter who wins – whoever goes on to Scotland will kill it,” she said.

“It’s a great to show how the poetry community has grown, but it’s not about the competition.

It’s like – I just want to have chats with ya, not fight ya!

For more information on Slam Sunday visit its Facebook page

All images by Punk Groves Artist

Read: Meet the people making poetry cool again in Ireland

Read: “There are a lot of dead poets on tea towels in tourist shops – this is about live poetry”

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