Content vs Style - Poet Joel Auterson on Slam Culture

Joel Auterson is an otter admirer and a host of the Boomerang Club, a regular poetry night in London. He was an entrant in the 2016 BBC Edinburgh Fringe Slam, and competed in Heat 4. Poetry Correspondent Freddie Alexander sat down with him before the slam.

If we as a collective get one person in the audience interested in poetry, that is a win

How long have you been performing poetry for?

I started in October 2012, when I moved to London. I didn’t really start taking it seriously and going to live events until late 2013.

Was there a piece that particularly inspired you?

I got into spoken word through hip-hop. I was listening to Sage Francis. I wanted to be a rapper at one point, but I found an entry through poetry. I actually found that I enjoyed that more, because I could sit and read it. I started going to Poetry Unplugged, a night in London. There I met Paloma Heindorff, a poet from New York, who told me to do the Roundhouse Collective. That was a residency where young poets get mentorship and gigs and try to write better by the end.

How did you find out about the BBC Slam?

I was at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015, and a few of my friends were in it. They said it was fun, and when I saw the submissions open this year I put my name in the hat. I didn’t really think I would get it, but here we are.

Have you chosen the poems you want to perform?

I dislike the whole strategic aspect of slams. I run a slam, but I sort of dislike slams. I don’t try to take part in the strategic thinking, of “I’ll make the audience feel sad first, and then feel resolved.” I’ll probably just do what I normally do at gigs, which is see how I feel when I get up there.

You mentioned that you don’t really like slams. Talk into that a little bit more.

I help run the Hammer and Tongue Waterloo slam, and have been for about six months. It is good fun, and I like the community. I feel like a lot of slams, if they are not run properly, end up encouraging a particular kind of writing. This writing is, to put it bluntly, rampant emotional manipulation. The winning poem is either one that makes you feel very sad, or very “in agreement”.

There is also a real trend, possibly coming out of America, in which poets just express opinions. It becomes less about the writing and more about what they are saying. And I know that what you say is more important than how you say it, but maybe in poetry the balance is a little different.

Is it also something about the scoring of poetry?

It is attaching arbitrary ratings to art. We do that anyway, with films and music, but in those disciplines it is from a reviewer with a subjective opinion. The problem with slams is that you can get a 4 at a slam for a poem that might be brilliant. But people then attach meaning to these numbers, and determine whether they are good or bad artists. I think there is good and bad art, but I couldn’t pretend to know what that is. And I don’t think slams know what that is either.

I sometimes imagine slams as a framing device to trick people into listening to poetry.

Yes. In that it does very well. People deliver great poetry at a slam, because they want to win. It is great for the audience. But the attitude that seems to be emerging is that if you want to be a poet, you have to start winning slams. I don’t know if that is necessarily healthy.

What do you like an audience to take away from a slam, in general?

I like people to go away with their mind expanded as to what poetry is, and what poetry can be. A lot of people think about poetry in the way they were taught about it in school. That is something that gets repeated a lot, but it is a truism. Certainly I thought that poetry was dull until that a lot of my favourite rappers were poets. If we as a collective get one person in the audience interested in poetry, that is a win. There is a balance to be found, between making poetry popular and great.

You can follow Joel on Twitter @JoelOtter.