Hey Readers It’s hard to believe it’s been over a week since i witnessed one of the best nights of spoken word poetry it has ever been my privilege to attend. However, it really last Saturday evening I went to The Tron Theatre at the edge of Glasgow’s Merchant City for what has to be one of my favourite events of the year and that is the Scottish National Poetry Slam Final. As a poet who has competed in slams and has at first hand experienced that lethal cocktail of bravery, excitement and insanity I knew that the performers would be eagerly awaiting their chance to show us what they and more importantly were made of.
As I took my seat you could there undeniable air of both anticipation and tension in the the Tron’s main auditorium and that was just amongst the crowd who had gathered to watch and enjoy one of my favourite events of the spoken word calendar. As the audience got settled in to our seats we were treated to the ultimate slam song by way of introduction to our gold star evening of spoken word that song is what every slammer craves A piece of the action and the band who made it famous, The Sweet were fronted by Glasgow born singer Brian Connelly On taking the stage our compare Robin Cairns introduced our panel of judges and informed the audience that 22 of the 24 winners of slams who had qualified by winning a slam in Scotland had arrived to compete in the event that would decide who represents Scotland in the International World Series Slam Championship in Paris in May.
The poets were divided in to two group of six and two groups of five with the two highest scorers from each group qualifying for the semi finals before eventually getting down the final three from which the winner would be selected by our panel of judges who included last year’s champion Bram E Gieban and the well respected force of nature who is one half of Rally And Broad the wonderful Jenny Lindsay.
As the battle commenced Kate Ailes was first up to the stage. Having seen Kate perform before I knew what to expect , and what I expected was quality and believe me she didn’t disappoint. In fact if I’m honest I was more than slightly surprised she never made the semi finals though to be fair she was in a very difficult group alongside Kevin Gilday , Kevin MacLean, Matthew Nicolson, and one of the rising stars lof the spoken word scene Jack MacMillan. Like Matthew and a good few others, Jack was a new voice to me and I must admit I liked his gusty, rapid fire style of delivery and I know that Shaun Moore a poet whose opinion I greatly respect has a very high opinion of his talent. To me however it Was Kevin Gilday with his excellent and cleverly written piece I’ve Fallen Out Of Love With Poetry who produced the top poem from the opening heat of what would prove to be a very hotly contested slam.
As the night progressed the second group was opened by Blue Chair slam winner Lesley Traynor (MacKay) whose performance of Threads was well received by audience who know their poetry. Lesley was followed By Hamish MacDonald whose Existential Blues was one of the most intelligent and best performed poems of the night in a championship which seemed to get better with every passing poem. Iona Lee’s My Blood was one of my first round highlights and to me at least the easy winner of this heat from which she qualified along with a man who turns polemics in to an art form, the excellent Liam McCormick.
In heat three it was Jess Smith with her powerful and thought provoking piece Demons and Darren McGarvey aka (Loki) who sealed the qualifying places as yet again I thanked God I wasn’t a judge. Personally I thought Isabella Mulder’s Dirty Dishes was the best poem in this round if that is one was judging purely on content. As we know however slams are not judged on content alone, and with performance and audience reaction both taken in to account Isabella and Sindigo can count themselves to be unlucky on this occasion that like Scotland in world cups they didn’t advance beyond the first round though unlike Scotland I would confidently predict that they will put that right in future tournaments.
The fourth and last of the first round group saw me donning not only my tartan tights but my tartan scarf, Scotland strip and mini kilt in support of an English born poet now resident in Ibrox. Now before you think this Celtic supporting SNP member has completely lost the plot I should perhaps explain that the poet in question was Chris Young and that my personal loyalty to my wee poetry brother is so strong can overcome even the most challenging of circumstances Of all the heats this was the one where it was hardest to retain my normal impartiality as I was also supporting Colin McGuire whose Fascists Guide To Salads was a brilliant take on the dangers of right wing extremism and this poem with the funny title tackled a very serious subject as it illustrated the emptiness of this prejudice so often wrapped up the rhetoric of traditional values.
As for Chris, his poem entitled Jimmy Saville Stole My Virginity grabbed the attention of the audience and kept them engaged by revealing to us the horror of someone once revered now quite rightly reviled, and the lost innocence of children’s dreams which were ruthlessly exploited by a man with darkness in his heart.
In a heat which also had Doug Garry, Ross McFarlane and Joe With The Glasses I feel I must give a special mention to Joanne MacKay’s poem Washing which was a brilliantly powerful take on the power of colour which harked back to the days of 1950’s America at the time of the McCarthy witch hunts when communists and African-Americans were singled out for particularly horrific treatment. This was one of the most emotionally evocative poems of the night and some of the imagery used was disturbingly and brutally brilliant. I have to say when the result of this heat was announced I was stunned that Joanne never made it to semi finals the qualifiers being Colin McGuire and Joe With The Glasses but as I know only too well poetry is to some extent subjective and there were twenty two potential winners from which our judges had to select only eight for the semi finals. Did I disagree with some of the decisions yes of course I did and had I been judging there would have been possibly as many as five fearless females in the last eight and I know for sure there would certainly have been four but surely the beauty of the art is that on any given night there would be few if any audience members who would completely agree with the judges choices 100 per cent of the time.
That said, the eight semi finalists of six men and two women gave those in attendance a cracking semi final of poetry which was both high octane in performance and even higher quality in the quality of work As for selecting the final three who would be competing for the title all I can say is that I would have needed the skills of a juggler to get this right and that no matter what three were chosen for the ultimate battle they would be a credit to both spoken word and to Scotland.
As for me, my selections would have been Iona Lee whose poem Nice was not only of the best of the night but in my opinion one of the best I’ve heard in over 20 years on the performance circuit. Now I know this is a big claim to make but I do so as I believe it exposes with a gentle ruthlessness what goes on behind the so-called social respectability of those nice middle class homes in the leafy lanes to which we are conditioned to aspire to dream of and the fact the performance was so eloquently executed meant it ticked all the boxes for me. I would also have chosen Liam McCormick for his thought provoking poem on how hopelessness how lack of opportunity leads to prejudice and Kevin Gilday or Darren McGarvey for the third slot, though I think Kevin would just have got the edge as his poem The Workie got the better audience reaction.
In the end the judges made their decision and called the three finalists as Iona Lee, Kevin Gilday and Joe With The Glasses and after a tough and brilliant final round it was time for the result to be announced. As tension filled the theatre I turned to my friend and fellow poet Shaun Moore and called it for Iona.
With the air of anticipation now tangible the judges handed their the result to our compare. The decision had been made and there was no turning back in a matter of seconds Scotland would know our champion. As Robin announced the results in reserve order Kevin Gilday was placed third for the third time in the last four years and it was now between Iona and Joe and by the slimmest of margins it was Iona who was crowned the 2016 Scottish National Poetry Slam Champion and who will carry the hopes of the nation at the world series in May. Trust me Scotland, our hopes are in good hands.
As I tend to do, I managed to have a few words with our new champion and congratulated her on what I thought was a well deserved victory. After our brief chat and indeed earlier in the evening at the first round bar break, I managed to catch up with a number of performers and other poets and friends who were there like me, to enjoy the poetry and craic. These included Chris Young, Colin McGuire, Darren McGarvey, Kevin Gilday , and Lesley Traynor, Anna Crow, Kirsty Nicolson, and Stephen Paton. Eventually however as so often happens at these events Derek Read being the good guy he is offered to buy me a drink which was I have to say gratefully accepted even if it did for a wee while at least put a stop to mixing and mingling.
As we charted on the events of the events of a thoroughly entertaining evening we both agreed that on balance the judges had got it right and that Iona will do us proud in Paris. Towards the end of the night I got chatting to two of the judges both of whom I know well Jenny Lindsay, and Bram E Gieban, and said that I didn’t envy them on a night when the standard of poetry was so high. It is perhaps no great surprise that both of them echoed my sentiments on a night when the real winner was poetry.
As I made my way back to the village I call home, I thought to myself that if this night is one of the highlights of the Scottish poetry calendar which it undoubtedly is then there must be a reason for that and I think I’ve figured out what that reason is. To me the Scottish poetry scene in which I am proud to play my small part is like one big and for the most part, happy village and this event encapsulates that feeling. It is in my opinion like a big poetry party with all the right guests and that’s what makes it such a great night However though there was as there always is a brilliant party atmosphere we had gathered to find a champion and that is what we did. So forget the fascist salad and a pile of dirty dishes it is my belief that in crowing Iona as our champion we have found a woman of words who will speak from the heart with wit, warmth and wisdom and be a fantastic ambassador for her country and her craft.
Love And Best Wishes