Why Does London Dominate The UK Poetry Scene?

The winner of the Hammer & Tongue National Poetry Slam 2016. Photo: Solomon Ogunmefun-Brooker

While many of us spent last weekend lamenting the end of Christmas, spoken word artists from London and beyond were engaged in an intense two-day battle of the words in The Royal Albert Hall’s Elgar Room. 

After stripping down to his vest and launching into heartfelt verse which spoke of his love for his foster parents, Hackney born, Bristol based rapper and musician Solomon O.B emerged as the UK Hammer & Tongue Slam Champion for 2016.

But he faced some tough competition from the capital including from finalists, Hammer & Tongue Hackney Slam champion Caroline Teague, Word4Word slam champion Shade’ Joseph and Roundhouse slam champ Caleb Oluwafemi.

With all four finalists having London links, what it is about this city which produces such strong contenders for UK wide slam titles?

Sam Berkson, a poet and teacher who has been hosting Hammer & Tongue slams for 10 years agrees that the London scene massively dominates the country. It’s partly to do with the media, and also to do with the institutions where the funding is concentrated. It’s also an interesting city where different cultures and traditions mix together to produce new ideas.

At the slam finals, former slam champion Hollie Mcnish admitted that she often gets labelled an urban London poet by the UK media, despite growing up in Reading. She humorously vented her own frustration at the London poetry scene which sees itself as “the default point from which all points relate.” The poem begins: “Dear London, sometimes I feel like punching you in the face.” 

Berkson thinks the London scene differs in that it’s “slightly more ambitious, more competitive”. When Berkson first started out it was a challenge to drum up interest, now he says “we’re currently seeing a younger generation who have been brought up on slams. They are more tuned in to how to win.”

The Hammer & Tongue Hackney open mic night at The Book Club in Shoreditch attracts a regular, lively crowd but it began life at the less hip establishment in Dalston: “The Victoria was run by a Cameroonian family, men would sit around playing Dominoes, the audience were leftwing, a little more punk,” says Berkson.

The poem begins: ‘Dear London, sometimes I feel like punching you in the face.’

And the political aspect of spoken word has changed too, “Linton Kwesi Johnson‘s writing emerged on the the back of a strong left-wing black movement. He took on the big campaigns of the time, the New Cross fire, the Brixton Riots, but poetry changes to reflect the time it’s in, and you now hear a lot more slam poets speaking about identity politics.”

At the finals poets embraced personal topics of body image, cultural appropriation, racism in public places, relationships and sexuality, but not without the emotional intensity slams are known for. 

The packed out room at the Royal Albert Hall is proof that the popularity of spoken word is growing. Berkson thinks there is potential for the slam to be televised X Factor style (but ‘without the vacuous, celebrity judges’.) Though he admits going mainstream could mean “losing the freedom which comes with the independent scene.”

Ultimately the point of the Hammer & Tongue Slam is to expand out of the London poetry bubble. This year’s winner Soloman O.B will embark on the Hammer & Tongue Tour which picks up poets and take them around the country in order to build a national circuit between poets from all backgrounds and regions.

Berkson is clear that “the health of the local scene is really important to the strength of the whole network,” and while there is an abundance of opportunities and spaces for young poets to write and perform, we’re sure London will remain a stronghold for the slam poetry scene — much to the chagrin of the provinces. 

Slam nights to keep an eye out for include the forthcoming Hammer & Tongue Waterloo, Genesis Poetry Slam held at Genesis Cinema in Mile End, Forget What You Heard in Stoke Newington, Word Up at Harlesden Picture Palace as well as well known nights Tongue Fu, Bang Said The Gun and Chill Pill.  

The next Hammer & Tongue Hackney night is at The Book Club on 2 February. 

The National Poetry Slam Championships form part of the Royal Albert Hall’s Beyond the Main Stage programme for 2016 which includes stand-up comedy, free lunchtime concerts and family events. 

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15 January 2016 | 3:30 pm – Source: londonist.com


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