Text by Helen Gregory
Photos by Hema Karecha & Andy Rumball
It is Friday night. I am sitting three rows from the stage in Manchester’s Contact Theatre, watching an astonishing showcase of poetic talent. This is the Managers Match, the opening event of Apples and Snakes’ WORDCUP2010 residential weekend. Performing on stage are the peer mentors, poet coaches and local writers who have been working with young poets across the country to craft three minute long pieces of performance poetry for the slam competition which will take place here tomorrow night.
For now though, it is the mentors’ chance to strut their stuff. The audience may be full of teenagers, but the artists on stage pull no punches with their poetry. While some explore typically teenage topics like bullying and inspirational teachers, others muse on evolution, homelessness, racism, self-harm, love, hip hop, unemployment -even mice. We are privy to hard-hitting, heart-wrenching observations, comically bad dancing, skilful beat boxing, lyrical chanting and metaphors by the dozen. I have heard some of these poems performed to adult audiences before, but I don’t believe that their reappearance here is through accident or laziness. The poets have thought about their audience and have come to the conclusion that the adolescents who comprise its main core are intelligent, mature and responsible enough to hear these poems. Indeed, some of the hardest hitting poetry comes from the young alumni of programmes like Leeds Young Authors, Barbican Young Poets and the SLAMbassadors.
One of the Slambassadors, Chris Preddie, takes the stage next. He is a born showman, every cheeky smile, every twist of the shoulders, every blink seems like part of a scripted performance – and may well be. This poet is still a teenager himself, but he has already had more rich (and traumatic) life experiences than many middle aged people, and he oozes talent. His confident between-poem banter reveals that he could easily make it as a stand-up comic. I find myself deeply grateful that he has chosen poetry instead when he launches into a piece about how he used to be a ‘bad man’, peddling crime and drugs on the streets of London. Chris tells us that he has left that life behind him and credits SLAMbassadors UK founder Joelle Taylor for this near miss. “If it wasn’t for this woman I’d probably be dead or in jail” he declares, and the hardness beneath the sparkle in his eyes means that I for one have no doubt of his sincerity.
There is a broad mix of young slammers in the audience, hailing from suburban seclusion as well as inner city estates, and I worry a little that those from the former group will switch off at this point, being unable to relate to these ghetto-centric stories. Talking to them later though I hear only awe and empathy. They are amazed at the transformation Chris describes and the skill he demonstrates. These teenagers have their own problems and, rather than being made to feel insignificant by the tales of racism, family strife and drug abuse which grace the stage tonight, they seem to see hope in these stories, as though they offer a way of dealing with their own, very different difficulties. Besides which, there is something for everyone in the theatre tonight: West Midlands poet coach, Spoz, bounces one-legged around the stage in his re-enactment of embarrassing parental dancing; South East coach, Rik Sykes, raps at breakneck speed about the (fallacious) notion that we are living in a ‘broken Britain’; South West coach, Sara-Jane Arbury, unfolds a metaphor in which she is cast as a fish, gutted from teeth to tail by the ending of a relationship. These are just some of the poetry on show from the twenty plus artists taking the stage tonight.
I am very grateful to be in the audience and not a little apprehensive for the young slammers whose turn it will be to perform tomorrow night. Certainly, a number of the poet coaches have to spend a good chunk of the following morning reassuring their team that they will not be competing against these poet coaches and peer mentors. More to the point, however, many of the young poets who go on to perform in the Saturday evening slam could have held their own amongst these more established poets. By the time I get on the train back to Bristol on the Sunday afternoon I can honestly say that I have not heard a poor poem all weekend.