I always got really nervous before I went up on stage at poetry slams.
It took me a long time to memorise poems and, once I had, I could still let that nervousness get to me and I’d drop a line or two in the spotlight, or go blank.
When I stepped down from the mic, five random audience members (who had earned their role as judges by catching chocolates thrown into the crowd by the slam master) immediately rated my offering, holding up numbers like scores for the figure skating at the Olympics. There was no hiding from this very public appraisal.
When I scored well, I felt good, relieved. But when I scored poorly, I felt terrible. I would go home frustrated with time penalties and stumbled words.
There were plenty of times when I thought I should have scored better, as well as instances when I scored highly, but felt that other contenders were far worthier of a winning score than me.
For two years, I participated in every poetry event I could. In 2011, I even quit my job, used all my savings, along with financial assistance granted by the Copyright Agency Creative Industries’ Career Fund, and went to the Women of the World (WOW) poetry slam in Columbus, Ohio.
Going to the US was intense.
There were competitors who stayed in their hotel rooms all day practicing. There were tears, tantrums and tirades. The poetry was heavy. A lot of poems were about rape, racism, suicide, abortion and all kinds of abuse. The poets threw words like punches.
I went to a couple of workshops at the tournament. Rachel McKibbens led one of these, and I remember her saying that you should give your poem to the audience like a gift, which was a concept that really resonated with me. She also said:
"Your art is a window and you’re in charge of the curtain—never give all of yourself."
This was a revelation.
I had always thought that slam poetry required me to give my all. It’s hard work keeping up with the astonishing number of events put on by Melbourne’s ever-energetic poetry community, and I’d been racing around performing my personal heartbreaks and humiliations to audiences all across town with no holds barred—I’d been prostituting my art for points.
Rachel said that if you’re up there caring about what the audience thinks, you’re being masochistic. And I realised I was. I had never thought about self-care in terms of artistic practice before. I hadn’t been looking after myself, or my art.
When I came back from the US, I decided to take a break from poetry gigs. Instead of venturing out at night and on weekends to the pubs and bars of Melbourne, where the lively local poetry scene makes its home, I started staying in and writing quietly with a cup of tea. I needed the change.
I had spent a lot of time in slam competitions trying to be as loud as everyone else – being publicly passionate, raising my voice. I can be that person, but it takes a lot of energy and, frankly, I was exhausted. After such an intense tournament in the US, I just wasn’t interested in competing anymore. As the WOW motto states, ‘The points are not the point; the point is poetry’.
From then on, I made poetry my pure focus. I didn’t feel the need for my writing to be validated by anyone else, least of all by someone I didn’t know, who’d just been picked out of a crowd by being hit in the head with a Mars bar.
I wasn’t even comfortable watching slams anymore. The more I considered people’s poems as gifts, the more I found the concept of scoring them offensive. And with each offering being unique, it seems pointless (excuse the pun) attempting to rate them against one another.
That’s not to say that page poetry isn’t competitive. It can be a hell of a battle to get published. But the struggle isn’t as public. It seems more private to send poems off in an envelope. And the person reading them at the other end has presumably been put there by a more measured method than the flying-Freddo-frog approach.
I still perform, but rarely in competitions. And I don’t stress over memorizing my poems these days either. I know them well, but I keep the piece of paper in front of me. I don’t want to drop any words after I have put so much care into crafting them. I just want to enjoy the experience and share my gift with the audience.
I will be performing my show Chrysalis at the Bendigo Writers Festival next month. It’s a journey through the life cycle of the butterfly in poetry and music, with resident musician from the Melbourne Royal Botanic Gardens, Michael Johnson. Performing poetry accompanied by a harpist can be a calming experience rather than an anxious one. I love it. It’s peaceful and meditative. It’s completely different to Slam and suits my nerves a lot better.
About Bronwyn Lovell
Bronwyn Lovell is an emerging poet living in Melbourne. In 2011, she was shortlisted for the prestigious Montreal International Poetry Prize. Her poems have been published in Antipodes, Cordite Poetry Review, Australian Love Poems and The Global Poetry Anthology. Her show Chrysalis was first performed at the University of Melbourne in 2012 with support from the Hannah Barry Memorial Award for Performing Arts, and her manuscript of butterfly poetry was shortlisted for a 2013 Varuna publisher fellowship and the 2013 Doire Press International Poetry Chapbook Competition.