If we were supposed to be saying all sorts of critical things about the international incident involving the Dalai Lama being bounced by overweight gatekeepers who felt that he couldn’t wear sneakers in our players’ club, or that we were supposed to be painting our faces green and spewing malapropisms about national pride, sheep and 30 thick men tossing around pigskin to show support for a do-or-die rugby match in which we died, you’ll forgive us if we were too distracted by poetry on Friday 7 October to quite get to that. Yes, poetry as a doorway to a weekend in which we melted in sweltering heat, realised that rugby referees really are as bad as their CV’s make them out to be, that our soccer team actually does struggle with mathematics and that Blackberries can stop offering their free juices at any time. None of the other stuff hit as hard, because we were still caught up in the hangover left by relentless wordplay, vociferous crowd response and sonic mind-bending that the Amazink Poetry Slam left us with. And that’s just referring to those of us who were there. Christ knows what the actual poets felt.
Here’s the scene: the Amazink eatery with its auditorium now topless, exposed to the stimulus of the shifts in the night, those tickling forces that bring sensual wakefulness and make us alert to ourselves and the throb of the footsteps and the breathing of the bodies around us. Everyone there was hyper-aware, and without its canopy the performance stage looked as if it had been turned to a different angle to connect with a Twilight Zone-like hug around the head for those of the many who’d been there often before. Bums were on seats a little after the event was scheduled to start, but more souls coming in and finding their way to the audience felt like cascades of a colourful waterfall finding its pool. The poets were nervous, some running through their lines, their movements and intonations, putting themselves in sync with the feeling that whatever was going to happen was going to happen and had, in fact, already started, because the nerves were the kernels ahead of the popping. The organisers said that everything would be cool, but their collars showed hell-fire. The wind blowing a flimsy projector screen even agitated enough for the screen to be irritably removed. Everything, mood-wise, was set, and things went underway.
The SLiP team explained the rules and pointed to time-keeper Pieter Odendaal’s whistle as well as his being in charge of the thingy that measured the levels of crowd applause/approval for the poets. The explosive Adrian Different hosted, reading contestants’ names off his phone, and Pieter collated the scores. Each poet had sixty seconds to do more than some politicians have done in a lifetime.
It was emotional. Before a crowd yelling, clapping, howling and gasping, the first round of the first SLip Slam unfolded and just over twenty people braved the stage, held the microphone and did their thing. It was rough for everyone at first: the poets had to find their metric feet and the judges needed to assess the poetry in the night wind just before it got blown away so that that the multitude knew which judge to ride with, and which judge was Idols’ Randall. The wordscape terrain was quickly filled with memories equating lost love to civil war, proclamations of family heritage tied into national cultural development and a few non-fussy and savage digs at “the man”, “the system” or just plain simply any idiot who thinks he is in charge of shit. Poets wore low-riding trousers, flaming red dresses or pyjamas— it didn’t matter, as the words and gestures were unclothed, streaking into the audience and playing with them, messing with them, and always sticking to them like the last bite of pleasure you try so hard to deny ever happened.
There was Lwandile, offering more of his meditative stylings and forlorn love archery of the kind that the Amazink-SLiP regulars had grown accustomed to these past months; there was the aptly-monikered Neil Goldie, a known quantity to those teaching English at Stellenbosch, putting into verse exactly the reasons why he traded English for Drama while looking back in anger; there was Spenelo, tripping over his own words when their legs ambled faster than he did, taking a marathon of their own, and there was Kate, allowing her words to graciously shake hands with the wolf-whistles she was getting. It’s actually pointless to even name some of the poets in that chastity belt of a first round: some had never done this before, while others acted as if they’d done it all before. Both types blew hot and cold, and both types had the crowd as part of the process at all times. How do you begin to describe the fusion of intensity that occurs when a poet finds sparks by rubbing already-kinetic words and turns of phrase together, and the crowd, whether they know the fire or not, jump in to be right there where the burn is? Did they comprehend every word and maniacal hand sign, did they know where each poet was coming from and could they pre-empt where each poet was going? Did they fuck. If they knew all this, they could be said to be the most empathetic listeners and tasters this side of a Fair Trade or Slow Food convention. If they didn’t know all this and just pretended they did, they could be said to be the best play-along group since the Bush administration. Either way, it ultimately mattered that, somehow, they were there. They were there, this crowd, almost in the way of the words, almost butting their faces in the path where the final notes of a poet’s delivery were to be preserved and adored, and indeed, the real poetry sometimes lay in the interaction between the poet and the crowd. Upstate New York and Detroit may have wax dummies of past poetry slam champions in museums by now, sure, but even their hardened audiences would have wanted in on what Amazink was hosting. The poets stammered, growled, yelped and sang; the crowd devoured it, and the judges judged. And that was just the first round, but, like the sound of sirens’ silence after shipwreck, so the first round showed where its teeth lay before curling once like Eliot’s cat and falling asleep.
It was a beast with a headache that awoke in the second round, a beast only focused on getting down to business. One of the judges had to address the crowd in defence of the tough judge, the Randall, and then she had to state the rules for the second round, which featured the top ten scoring performers who’d made it through. There were going to be more telling casualties this time around as ten had to be reduced to three, and the competition (yes, we’ll have to agree that it was a competition) started again. With experience now a given, and Pieter’s whistle only blowing after two minutes, the poets upped their game, bringing more performance into it. Some of them showed why they were natural performers, and if you were there, you’d do well to remember Mambesi’s hand on her hip as the rest of her swayed to the rhythm of her mouth telling off some poor bastard for doing something stupid enough to get himself blasted in a poem. But then, was it just about one person, or about a way of thinking in a performance of such involved self-discovery mixed with Aretha Franklin-ish brashness, all interrogating usage of the colour black? Or perhaps you’d observe the full body control displayed by Rimestein, recollecting harsh images of a haze of morning-afters and asking searing, distressing questions of a localised (as in Mitchell’s Plain) existentialism in perfect-arpeggio Afrikaans, but of that brutal sort that stops you dead in your tracks and relocates your destination. And if we’re talking performance, then shame on you for not being there to experience the shaman JC, a walking voltage adaptor able to bundle mysticism, Spanish invocation and Afrikaans rugby commentary like last week’s laundry list that accidentally got sent to your mother’s Church council meeting. As we may know by now, a genius is also a maniac, and JC’s performance was best experienced with some kind of strong drink in hand, because that was where an already infatuated event got turned on its head. Speak to those that saw him and then get back to me.
The third round was crunch-time with crowd favourite Ntshediseng, now the new owner of the word “vagina”, up against JC, Rimestein, Lwandile and Mambesi. As far as we were concerned, this was the World Cup final of the SLiP Slam, and our poets were there for us. With stakes higher, the performers were naturally not as all-out as they’d been in the second round, but with some reticence came recalcitrance, as if the poets were rebelling against any quiet moment in their final, 3-minute performance. Rimestein’s minor meditative moments were so weaved into the moral universe his words were depicting that one couldn’t be sure whether he was stalling to gather himself or whether even he needed to show the necessity of stepping out of that harrowing universe if only to breathe with the rest of us, before bravely entering the war zone again as the chill froze our tears even before they came. Mambesi’s passion drew the crowd in once more and while she showed some nerves, she also showed plenty of nerve, and kicked her way through her performance… But, in truth, the winner had already been decided at the beginning of the first round when JC delivered another verbal Picasso laced with imagery too immediate to ignore, too far-out to be unreal. He was more reined in, yes, but his vocal shapes, and his gurgles and dithyrambs, flew over the crowd like crows scavenging for six-pence, ready to swoop, collect or peck.
To describe how all this hit us wouldn’t be easy. If I were a suitably possessed hack, I’d instruct you to imagine waking up one morning, opening your curtains and discovering some fucker built a mini-Taj Mahal where your street gate used to be, and you didn’t know if there was a way around it back into the world or if, indeed, this was the new world… because last week, with the first SLiP Slam at Amazink in Kayamandi, the new way of saying old things was unleashed. We look ahead to the next Poetry Session at Amazink where JC, Mambesi and Rimestein as the prize-winners, as well as Ntshediseng as the popular winner, will be the featured poets. They’ve earned the right to be there. After hearing from those who were present, you’d have earned the right to be there, too.