Photo by Hayley Madden
Poet Megan Beech reviews the sensational SLAMbassadors 2013 Final, which took place in the Clore Ballroom of the Southbank Centre on Friday 1 November.
Today is a momentous occasion. Not only is it the final showcase for the six young winners of the Poetry Society’s SLAMbassadors UK youth slam. It is also the birth of the first ever UK all-female slam team. The Southbank Centre’s Clore Ballroom is fit to burst as the room rattles and rolls to the swelling of Beyoncé’s battle cry “Who run the world? Girls!” The ballistic, beautiful, brilliant female talent the crowd is about to witness whole-heartedly proves this statement true.
The first to grace the stage is Joelle Taylor. The coordinator of SLAMbassadors UK, a woman I consider to be my ‘poetry mother’ who has fostered generations of young poetry networks and SLAMilies. She launches onto the stage with a mouth full of missive missiles, starting the proceedings with ‘Last Poet Standing’, a love letter to the power of young people, their worth and their words. The poem, as with all the pieces this evening, is read against a backdrop of beautiful visuals provided by VJ Harper and two young competition-winning video-jockeys, Naomi G and Emily B. The words and the images are stunning. There is spellbound silence followed by rapturous applause.
Setting the tone for the rest of the evening, the first young poet, Anna-Rose Thomas, delivers hard-hitting and beautiful poems so deep “looking into them can make your heart drop to the base of your body”. She wears her soul on her sleeve and her images are deep and haunting. The first Welsh winner of the slam, her lilting accent beautifully unfurls tales of love and loss.
Next is Aakifah Aboobakar. As a devout Muslim she chooses to wear niquab when in the presence of men not from her own family. Her poem ‘One Word, One Name’ is a defence of her choice to dress this way, a rousing chorus that asks the question “I look like you, I breathe like you, why do you only know me by one name?” She is brave and brilliant. Stylistically she is full of hip-hop flow and verbal dexterity. Backed by fellow SLAMbassador Nafeesa’s beatboxing, her final piece affirms what the entire audience has just discovered: “poetry is the air that [she] breathes”.
It comes as no surprise to me that as well as SLAMbassadors, the next poet, Jenny Burville-Riley, has won the Foyle Young Poets Award and the John Betjeman Poetry Competition for Young People. What does surprise me is her tender age (unbelievably she is fourteen years old), her poised and assured performance and her gorgeous lyrical prose, commanded in such a way that words bend to her every whim. She possesses a mature wit that belies her age – lines like “mumbling Shakespeare quotes like he’s Withnail” bring a wry smile – while her stirring final piece ‘Protest Song’, cleverly playing with the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in The Wind’, leaves us fired up.
The assured guest set that follows from MC legend Inja is a joy. He chronicles the life of a modern-day dad as well as offering some emotional respite in a ‘freestyle workout’, taking words from the audience like ‘chicken’ and ‘caterpillar’ and turning them into a whirl of bars spat out in a single breath. His humble nature and admiration for the young poets is palpable.
The next of which is Samilah Naira. Joelle Taylor brings her to the stage proclaiming her “a one woman whirlwind all the way from Tower Hamlets”, and as soon as she opens her mouth we are blown away. She is such an assured and courageous performer and once again I am staggered that she is only fourteen years old. My response to her work is deeply personal; her second piece ‘Taboo: Exposed Her Too Soon’ deals with depression. As someone who knows that feeling of “hollowness and emptiness” like there is “shrapnel digging into your back bone”, she makes me do what every good poet should make you do, sob uncontrollably. Her poetry is something remarkable, “it’s not spoken, it’s felt”.
Enter stage left, Nafeesa Mohammed, a poet full of heart, humility and feeling. Her work is thoughtful and lyrically elegant. She has a beautiful, quiet profundity in her delivery, yet her winning piece ‘Tattoo’ is full of visceral and heart-breaking images such as “my heart used to be made from spun sugar” and “I rest my head upon a pillow of thorns with anchors for ankles”. She is full of warmth as a performer, presenting day-old writing produced in the SLAMbassadors workshop with poise and effortless skill. She’s also a wicked beat-boxer!
Rounding off the performances from the young poets is the incomparable Ollie O’Neill. A colossal talent, her winning poem ‘Dyke’ beautifully reclaims the definition of her sexuality from those who “tattoo this word onto [her] bones”. She is bold, unapologetic and her words often provoke me to tears. She talks poignantly about depression and writes back “to the English teacher who told [her] at fourteen years old that [she] would only ever end up working at Tesco”. But ultimately her words are a beacon of hope, a vision of the future, a reminder that “you do not have to set fires in order to see the light”.
The evening is rounded off with a stunning set from this year’s guest judge and spoken word icon, Hollie McNish. There are few words to describe how her performance makes you feel. She empowers women, encourages them to embrace the beauty of their bodies, to tell “the tales [their] flesh went through” with the same youthful ease she observes in her daughter, clapping at the image of her naked body in the mirror, like “wow! My body is amazing!” She is the people’s poet. She is a poet’s poet and a wonderful role model for the incredible young females who have just danced their lyrical prose across the stage for the stunned five-hundred-strong audience at the Southbank Centre.
The evening was one full of inspiration and awe. The talent of the young poets and the support and love they offer each other is staggering and a privilege to behold. As the Poetry Society’s director Judith Palmer reminds us at the end of the evening, at the centre of all this is one wordy woman warrior full of soul-shaking passion and admiration for the young people she works with. Joelle Taylor fosters communities, from the misfit to the misguided; all those with poems in their hearts find their home in SLAMbassadors. She puts it best herself in her piece to SLAMbassadors old and new, ‘The Correct Spelling of My Name’, and as a “small girl folded into whispering corners”, I cannot wait to work with the new generation of the SLAMily, all holding the mantra to our hearts and fervently crying out “SLAMbassadors rise, you have found your tribe”.
Megan Beech was one of eight winner of the Poetry Society’s SLAMbassadors UK youth slam 2011, and the Poetry Rivals UK under 18 slam 2011. She has performed at the Southbank Centre, Glastonbury, Latitude and Larmer Tree Festivals as well as for institutions including The British Museum, Keats House, UCL and the University of Cambridge. Her first poetry collection, When I Grow Up I Want to be Mary Beard, published by Burning Eye Books, is being launched at King’s College London, Virginia Woolf Building on Wednesday 11th December from 7pm.