An initiative of the National Women’s Council of Ireland


Wanted: Female Slam Poets!

October 29, 2013 at 2:57

At the Leinster Heats of the All Ireland Slam Poetry Championships on 19 October, one question was on everyone’s lips: where are the female Slam Poets?

Of twenty contestants and a fairly diverse audience – all crammed into Dublin’s International Bar on Wicklow Street – the only female voice to be heard from the stage was that of event co-host Kit Fryatt.

‘Blokes will tend to take a punt on getting up and performing a poem they wrote on the bus that morning’ explains Fryatt, ‘whereas even women who are quite experienced will be wondering if they’re good enough’.

That women sometimes feel judged harshly and judged differently to their male counter-parts is nothing new. As a fear (and a reality) this is not exclusive to performance arts circles.

But how inclusive were the Leinster Heats?

Pretty inclusive, I would say: a female co-host, a gender-balance on the adjudicating panel, a mixed audience, and a willingness to look at subject matter ranging from one man’s love of a bag of chips to another’s experience of parenthood.

All the correct boxes had seemingly been ticked and yet, it’s just not that simple.

‘It's very easy for a competition to end up looking like a boys club’ says Aidan Murphy, organiser of the Leinster Heats and The Monday Echo. ‘Generally, there is a large male majority. This goes for songwriter nights and poetry nights too. Women have to face a room which is all male, which possibly makes getting on stage hard. It's a vicious circle’.

And it’s a young circle. Although already in its 7th year, nobody’s claiming that the Slam Poetry Championship is perfect.

‘A room full of testosterone and blokey banter is not really conducive to getting women in’, admits competition founder Desmond Swords ‘but there is talk next year of adding a new women’s round’.

Whilst some might not agree that segregating female contestants into a category of their own is the solution, as a temporary measure it could well jump-start change.

It’s also worth asking ourselves if, in the long-term, Irish Slam Poetry needs a new home. Irish Slam Poetry talents are being brought to you by the same venue that for generations brought you the famed yarn-spinning of the Irish ‘character’. To a large degree (and in a way that is culturally unique) the new Slam Poetry scene is blossoming on His turf: the pub.

In dance performance it is often said ‘the body remembers’. Perhaps too do the venues that have historically embodied our social performances: pubs, churches and football pitches.

Newbies to the Slam Poetry Scene (of which I am one) would be forgiven for thinking more in the way of Ronnie Drew and the Dubliners or the Chieftains than 8 Mile. Beards, woolly jumpers and plenty of charm. A new verbal happening rooted in the old.

An Irish slam poet can stun a room into perfect pin-drop silence in the same way as a Sean Nos singer can.

‘In the United States’ says Kentucky born and Dublin-based sacrificial poet Cliff Horseman ‘the first ever champions of Slam Poetry were female’.

And in Ireland there are also plenty of talented female performers.

Erin Fornoff featured recently at Electric Picnic and Glastonbury. Iseult Sheehy performed at the 10 days in Dublin Festival. Not to mention, of course, Finglas-born rising super-star Temper-Mental MissElaneyous. All brilliant, talented, exciting and yet, that is almost slightly missing the point.

As well as exceptional voices, what we need are everyday voices.

What Ireland needs MORE of at ordinary Slam Poetry and Open Mic events are the women who feel they are ‘good enough’.

If you want to get into practice, for the All Ireland Slam, run by Desmond Swords, check out at The Monday Echo, Slam! Sunday, The BrownbreadMixtape, Nighthawks, LOQ, The Ash Sessions, A Musing (once a month in AccentsCafe) or any of the growing number of songwriter nights that also sometime feature poets on the bill, such as Velocoustic.

Annemarie Ni Churreáin is a poet and community arts worker. She is co-founder of the Upstart Arts Collective. You can find the All Ireland Slam on Facebook