culture | 9th december 2016
We interviewed the talented and prolific slam poet Olivia Hall discussing her attraction to the spoken word, the growing poetry scene in NZ and why clicking your fingers at her performances is encouraged
words: charlotte doyle
video: russell kleyn & gussie larkin
But first a crash course
What is slam poetry? It’s a competition. Unlike Fight Club there are rules. No props, costumes or instruments. Poems must be three minutes long and this includes your personal intro. Judges are randomly chosen from the audience. If there is a tie then a “slam off” is called to sift out a winner. This is no traditional poetry reading.
Naturally, Wellington has become a stronghold for slam poetry in New Zealand, with a number of polished poets starting to attract attention. Even corporate events are seeking them out. Olivia regularly performs to audiences of 200 or more, selling out her shows in Wellington and Auckland.
How to listen
When listening to a slam poem, you should notice the deliberately crafted intonation of the performer’s voice. Throughout her writing process, Olivia thinks carefully about the ebb and flow of her voice, reading the words out loud and once she discovers the right tonal structure it stays roughly the same for each poem. Olivia likes being able to see her audience and make eye contact with the people in whom she’s divulging her personal stories. These stories range from her love of Harry Potter, actual love poems to lists of things that make her cry.
How to prepare yourself
While slam poetry was conceived in the hope that it’s accessible and frequently entertaining format would bring poetry to the masses, it is worth being emotionally prepared. Throughout my last attendance at one of Olivia’s performances the girl in front of me sobbed. While a bit distracting at first, it unexpectedly became my turn when Olivia delivered a poem about the protectiveness she feels over her younger siblings. We’re both the eldest of three. Disclaimer, I barely ever cry in movies or tv shows, but if I had to jump off a cliff for either of my siblings I would too.
How to show your appreciation
If you have an urge to demonstrate your appreciation for a deeper message, or just a sassy line, you are supposed to click your fingers. Olivia says this is emboldening for the person on stage. Of course in the United States audiences scream and whoop. As a reserved Kiwi however, I rarely put my fingers together, but more often it’s just that I’m too enthralled.
“like being a musician which I never could have done because I don’t have any musical talent”
How to understand why on earth someone would do it
When hearing a slam poem, you are often being entrusted with or challenged by someone’s vulnerability. In her poems Olivia exposes things she never knew how to include in a proper conversation. Those about body positivity are especially cathartic. She tells me that performing them is releasing but terrifying - you don’t know what the reactions will be, especially from the people closest to you. The poems are a chance to figure some things out. Her boyfriend, siblings, parents and friends, mixed among complete strangers, are forced to sit in a dark room and listen.
The adrenaline after a performance is the selling point for Olivia. She imagines it’s “like being a musician which I never could have done because I don’t have any musical talent”. The first time she participated in a competitive slam was in 2013 at a Poetry in Motion gathering at Heaven’s Pizza near the top of Cuba Street. She came second and then qualified for regionals where she came 4th. A year later she performed in the nationals at Meow bar to a packed audience.
How to become a slam poet yourself
If you’re a Wellingtonian or visiting Wellington and interested in testing the slam poetry waters, Poetry in Motion hosts a spoken word evening at Meow on the first Wednesday of every month. Included is an opportunity to take your participation beyond sitting in the audience by getting on stage during the open mic segment.
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