Hammer & Tongue at the Old Fire Station is a chance to see live poetry in an intimate setting and support new artists in Oxford, so I was keen to experience it for myself. It is a monthly slam poetry competition, open to anyone who wants to be in with a chance to eventually compete at the 2016 final at the Royal Albert Hall. Each competition starts with an introduction by the compères, plus some guest performances by previous competitors, followed by an open slam and further guest spots.
The simmering buzz of the vibrant OFS cafe, full of twinkling lights, flickering candles and smiling faces, creates a warm atmosphere in which to test out new material. We awaited the start of the show to a playlist of The Teardrop Explodes and Heaven 17, whilst audience members finalised their wine orders and settled down for an evening of lyrical camaraderie. Our compère, Tina, opened the show with an attempt to get the crowd going. Unfortunately, a lot of her semi-pantomime humour was somewhat stifling for an audience who were already positive about the event, needing no further convincing of why they should be there. Thankfully once the two guest slots began — previous competitors in Hammer & Tongue, James Webster and Dan Holloway — the evening quickly came into its own.
James’ poetry was, in his words, a way of helping him to understand the world. His most moving piece related the current political climate of war in the Middle East to his experience of video games in childhood, whilst Dan’s focused on subjects such as the London riots, and the idea pushed onto young minds in education that ‘dead poets are safe’. The latter resonated well at an event where we were experiencing the relatively unusual event of living, breathing poets presenting raw, unread, and unheard work. Their poetry was engaging without being overly self-aware or self-adulating, with humour that lifted the experience into something more than just a group of people being read to.
In the open slam, poets who have simply arrived and put their name down on the door are invited into the spotlight to present us with a small portion of their soul, read from bits of paper or a small smartphone screen. This was really what I was here for. To witness the bravery of eight individuals who had eked their voice out into three compressed minutes of performance, all of whom were simultaneously shaky and full of bravado. The themes were around lost love, consumerism, extremism, and everything in between. These poets had the guts to stand up and perform new art at a time when the arts are being squashed and strangled by cuts and dismissive attitudes, which makes me grateful that events like Hammer & Tongue exist, and that venues like the OFS are here to host, promote and encourage them.
But this was still a competition. Five audience members had been chosen during the break to score the poets out of ten (to a decimal point) and these bold, intimidating numbers would be held up after each performance for all to see. However, our second compère laid down a rather odd rule — that the judges must not score any poet less than a six, seemingly to protect the new acts from seeing too small a number and destroying their confidence during an understandably fragile moment. But all this rule does is change the scoring system from 0-10 to 0-4. Plus, any judge who dared to honestly score below a 7 was booed by the audience, with damning encouragement from the compère, to the point where I began to feel more sorry for the judges who, at times, were being judged more than the poets themselves.
My main issue with this event was its length. Split into thirds of almost an hour each, with 15 minute breaks in between each section, the evening was only actually about 30% poetry with a lot of filler from the organisers in between. I know the compères were just trying to get the crowd ‘going’, but it often felt borderline patronising and egotistical. And I kept asking myself, to what cost? Could that time not have been spent showcasing even more valuable new work? Have they turned off people to poetry slams who otherwise might have frequented them more, were it not for the notion that it might be three hours long and they’ve got to catch the last bus?
Notwithstanding, I am genuinely pleased that this type of event exists in Oxford, and that eight people had the opportunity to perform new art for a receptive and positive crowd. If only the organisers could prioritise this event’s ability to showcase new talent, I would be delighted to return and bring some friends along for the experience. Until then, I don’t think I could stomach another three hour event of being asked to shout out whether or not I’ve been to a poetry event before. I have, but I’m not sure I’ll be shouting about it.