Ahmad Al Rady (editor), The Last Conversation (BYDS 2013)
Last month nearly 400 people gathered in the Bankstown Arts Centre to hear more than 20 poets with varying degrees of virtuosity perform their own work – to hear, applaud and at least pretend to judge them as they at least pretended to compete with each other. There was also cake, strawberries and watermelon, all for a gold coin donation at the door.
My own experience of spoken word and poetry slams is extremely limited, but Wikipedia and YouTube inform me that many features of the BPS are standard to slam culture. There are procedural elements such as a loosely enforced time limit (two minutes this time because there were so many poets), judges chosen at random from the audience, a ‘sacrificial poet’ to kick things off without being part of the competition. And the range of subject matter is described well in Wikipedia’s entry on spoken word:
The spoken word and its most popular offshoot, slam poetry, evolved into the present-day soap-box for people, especially younger ones, to express their views, emotions, life experiences or information to audiences. The views of spoken-word artists encompass frank commentary on religion, politics, sex and gender, often taboo subjects in society.
Likewise the preponderance of non-white performers and the notion that spoken word and slam performance styles are generally influenced by hip hop. (I have listened to Muriel Rukeyser on a podcast since the slam, and it seemed to me that her powerful words would benefit immensely from a slam-style rather than in the measured manner available to her.)
Yes, poet after poet declaimed passionately, like prophets calling us to reject consumerism, psalmists crying out from the midst of suffering or yearning, orators decrying oppression in many forms. One man’s poem was short enough to allow him time for a brief introduction; he said he was honoured to follow those who came before and to precede those who came after, because ‘we are giving you our hearts’. He was right: there was plenty of witty wordplay, social observation, and even some elegant story telling, but again and again a shy young person would approach the microphone and be transformed into an eloquent, spellbinding exposed heart.
[Added later: Click here for a YouTube of Yasmine Lewis, who won the slam]
The air was thick with generosity. When anyone dried up and had to search for their next line – in memory or on a scrap of paper – the crowd applauded. When a judge gave anyone less than 9 out of a possible 10, she was booed. There was no party line: one person urged us to turn to God, another described religion as a stain on humanity, a woman in a hijab was followed by a man advocating for marriage equality, and all were equally met with finger-clicks (the convention for expressing approval of a good line) and cheers. The emcees, co-founders of the event Ahmad Al Rady and Sara Mansour, were unfailingly appreciative and kept the mood buoyant.
The slam happens under the auspices of Bankstown Youth Development Service, whose Director, Tim Carroll, was dragooned into speaking. Since this slam started nearly two years ago, he reminded us, there has been some terrible stuff in the media about Islam and Muslims. What a different picture was created by this event, he said, in which the Muslim presence was so pronounced. And what a shame some of those columnists weren’t there to see it.
The Last Conversation was published last December as a way of capturing something of the slam’s first exhilarating year. I blogged about its launch. As I’ve just read it cover to cover for the first time, I find myself thinking of it as a record of poetry – a book that hasn’t really been read until it’s been read aloud, with full attention to rhyme and assonance, and a hip-hop-like exaggeration of rhythmic effects. And maybe that’s true of any book of poetry.