“A Nob Joke Walks Into a Poetry Event…”February 3rd, 2013 by Chimene Suleyman
I have questioned my own relationship with the poetry and performance scene over the years. I’ve looked at my place in it, and wondered why I carry on performing when the nerves take over. I have threatened to leave it all together – cursed it as a place that is linked to as many falls, as it has offered highs. It is a space that knows, from it’s very nature, all my dirty secrets. Quite frankly, I have thrown tantrums, like the awkward child embarrassed of where they have grown up, not as glamorous as the other literary post-codes across the road.
I don’t slam. (In fact, I never have done, because my greatest competitive streak is getting to the bar first.) Do I think “Poetry is dying,” however; “dead” in fact, like Nathan Thompson tells us it is in his piece for The Independent at the weekend? No, I do not. Do I think it’s helpful to shit where you eat, when where you eat is a voluntary canteen of educators and hard-workers spelling out “Please. Take us seriously. We’re incredibly relevant,” with the alphabetti-spaghetti they self-funded to feed you? Still, no.
Thompson is pretty clear about this topic: “It’s pretty dead already for all intents and purposes and the rise of performance poetry slams is doing nothing to help matters.” So that’s it then. The nail in the poetic coffin is slamming. Thanks for the memo, Thompson. “The audience is almost always half drunk and if you want to win you have to pitch your poem pretty low,” he tells us. “The result,” he says, “is a scene rife with the poetic equivalent of nob jokes – and plenty of actual nob jokes.” I may not slam, but I’ve done my time. I’ve supported friends who have, I’ve performed at, and been in the audience of just about every poetry event running in London – and I’ve never heard a nob joke. It’s a shame really, I love a good nob gag (Amirite?) so I’ll have to ask Nathan where he’s been going.
The only thing here that’s funnier than a good old fashioned penis joke, is that Thompson – who has been paid to write a piece about how slam is the downfall of poetic society – runs, wait for it, slam poetry workshops. You can see what he does here, at his unfortunately titled website slampoetryworkshops.co.uk. Work which he champions in a piece he wrote only four months ago for The Guardian, that he called “Celebrating Poetry Day with slam: writing rhymes in school time.”
But Thompson isn’t happy now. In four months, the 1,000 word CV he sent out to the world, camouflaged as a Guardian article, accounts for nothing. “Slam competitions [that took] poetry back to its ancient roots by creating a live event performed for the entertainment of a tribe of peers,” is now, “an oedipal urge to kill the art that made it … The slams I have attended have little to do with the poetry and everything to do with a Darwinian death match where the audience picks the winner like some blood-crazed Circus Maximus mob.” Perhaps Thompson’s next commission will be to rewrite a modern day Caligula, where churning blades will be replaced with the violent machine of slam, cutting with it in every turn the mud-stuck heads of Auden, Duffy, and Plath, destroying poetry and civilisation, as we know it, in one savage move.
According to Thompson – who is a kind of modern day Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds, teaching children the value of human relationships with household Eminem classics, like ‘Stan’ and ‘Pimp Like Me’ – he has not met a single child who has named a poet outside of Shakespeare. Not one. Perhaps he should have spent more time asking them to, rather than entertaining all the nob jokes.
Thompson sees slamming as a “threat” to the more traditional artform. And sure, slamming has its limitations. But the more platforms that are offered for people to share their voice, the more inclusive the genre can be as a whole. Still, my issue with Thompson’s article isn’t that he’s cynical about slams, or even that he’s a raging hypocrite, but rather that it’s a dangerous game to play at a time where the arts have taken an already damning slash in funding. Like Thompson, I have worked with hundreds of children, run workshops across London, and outside. Many of us within the poetry and performance scene have. The children have been bright and interested. They have been relieved, and grateful for the opportunity to express what has been on their minds outside of school, now in a controlled and supportive environnent. And they’ve all been able to name a poet, or twenty, that isn’t Shakespeare. There have been tears, tantrums, and breakthroughs. I have seen teenagers stand in front of class and read their words, explaining their sometimes difficult behaviour with classmates and teachers – and I haven’t had to play them Coolio once. But the work is drying up – something I’m sure Thompson was aware of when he sold himself for a cheap-shot article in The Independent, for a couple of quid. Schools have less money to bring poets and performers in, and arts funding is drowning amongst all the proposals for post-Olympic, three-week sports days.
Poetry struggles, it’s been termed as “boring” for as long as I’ve been at school, and no doubt before. There’s a stigma attached to it, but not rightly so. Showcasing the many sub-genres (whether that is slams, text, videos, or its traditional verse) is what we should be doing. It is exactly this that proves that poetry is an ever evolving artform, waving to Thompson in the ditch he has mistaken for a grave, as he kicks soil onto the face of it, and everyone else who has worked hard to keep it the thriving literary breed it is. Articles like his are perilous, and only work to justify the constant kick in the balls the arts has been taking. His piece is not only incorrect, but it is truly unhelpful.
You may have read his article, but you probably haven’t. Because apparently poetry is dead, so no one knows what the word means anymore. Poetry is long forgotten, in a world where nob jokes are drinking at the bar with ungrateful audience members. The same people who chose to go to an event they supported, then forgot they liked after buying a beer. They heckle you, these nob jokes, replace the emotion and messages in the poetry with their chants. “Nob, nob, nob,” they cry. In fact, there are so many nob jokes at poetry nights now, that the word “poetry” has been replaced. What is poetry, you say? You’ve never heard of it? It used to be great, but it’s dead now. Nathan Thompson murdered it. You can find underground communities still, who meet in bunkers, whispering verse and metaphor to each other in code. Nob Slams, we shall call them. Nob is dying, Thompson will tell us. In fact, nob is pretty dead already, for all intents and purposes.