Sophia Walker is an internationally renowned poet. Having won the BBC Poetry Slam in 2013, she’s organising the competition in Edinburgh this year. She won Best UK Spoken Word Show 2014, and her debut collection Opposite the Tourbus was published by Burning Eye press that year.
We are performing journalists, and confronters, and we have a duty to what the genre was created for.
Why do you think the BBC Slam has such enduring appeal at Edinburgh?
I think that it is this beautiful halfway point, in which you have the traditional BBC Radio 4 audience who are interested in poetry, and all of us from PBH Spoken Word who understand what slam is. It is a car crash between these two audiences, and we are the halfway point of spoken word.
What is the process of choosing competitors for the Slam?
The process has changed. The BBC Slam is six years old, and was an invite-only competition. When I was handed it last year, I knew that slam in the UK has become more popular, so I decided to have an open draw. We had over 300 people apply for 24 spots, after which we drew names out of a hat.
We reached out to the trans and gender non-binary communities, and unfortunately we did not get any take-up. As a result it is a 50-50 split between male-identified and female-identified, and we hope in future we hope to get more non-binary entrants.
What else do you like to reflect in the lineup?
Almost everyone competing this year is just coming for the Slam. There are people boarding planes from Belfast just to come to this Slam. I would say that Manchester and Glasgow have the most interesting poetry scenes in the UK right now. I think that regional poetry in the UK is very exciting, and the BBC Slam is the chance to showcase that. I like the fact that it is not London poets who win, ever. That is kind of important.
What is the objective of the BBC Slam?
What we are trying to do at the BBC Slam is create a poet’s slam, one that is specifically what poets want to do. There is a reason we pick the judges we pick. Last year, a number of our poets got book deals, or booked at StAnza. It is not just the champion that wins, but everyone gets something out of the Slam. I want it to be impossible to lose. Exposure doesn’t have to be a dirty word if it actually translates into something tangible.
There are 340 seats in there and I’ve sold them out. But the important thing is who I’ve sold them out to.
Which entrant has really grabbed your attention?
I’m nosey, so I look everyone up on YouTube. Last year I knew who was going to win every heat and I was right every time except for one. I was able to call the final. I’ve been able to call the final every single year, except for the year in which I won. But this year, I have no clue. I don’t know who 90% of these poets are. That is really exciting to me.
Why is age diversity so important?
When David Lee Morgan won in 2014 every single poet in the tent lost their minds, because they knew what that meant. David Lee Morgan is a real poet. He pulls no punches, and says the things you don’t know that you can get away with saying. And that year he performed wearing a Trayvon Martin T-shirt. David Lee Morgan is a dude.
That gave us permission to do real poems again. There is a temptation in spoken word to forget and convince yourself you need to be an entertainer. That is not our job. We are supposed to remind people of shit, and make people think, and challenge. We are performing journalists, and confronters, and we have a duty to what the genre was created for.
David Lee Morgan was the personification of that. Him winning this slam, to me, gave it a whole different degree of credibility. You can come here and do real poems, and you will win. I don’t think that is true of slam anymore.
What is your favourite moment in a slam?
My favourite moment is the moment when poets finally get comfortable admitting to each other that they are nervous and they hate slamming. That is when you see the hugs. Every year I love seeing what the finalists do backstage. In my year there was a constant group hug, but last year they were doing press-ups and jumping jacks.
You can follow Sophia Walker on Twitter @PoetWalker. The BBC Slam heats will be conducted every evening from the 8th-12th August at the BBC Fringe main stage, with the Grand Final on Sunday 14th at 9pm.