Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Review: Jem Rolls and the Hammer & Tongue Slam Finals

Slam Finals? I’d rather be dead!

Jem Rolls headlines at this year’s Hammer & Tongue Slam Championship Finals
Oxford, Tuesday May 6th 2008

The Vaults of St Mary the Virgin, halfway down Oxford’s venerable High Street, is fast becoming one of the town’s most atmospheric poetry venues. Last night it rocked to the roars of nearly seventy people, packed tight into a warm space beneath the church, many forced to sit on the floor or the stairs to the toilets, or huddle in the narrow doorway, listening in appreciative awe as poetry bounced off the stone arches.

The main draw last night? Jem Rolls, sinister godfather to contemporary performance, founder of Big Word in London and Edinburgh, one of our first poet-pioneers to the Canadian fringes, now a national name there and one of that country’s most popular live acts.

Tall, dark, and startlingly mesmeric, Jem Rolls makes an impressive ambassador for British poetry in performance. He’s also a purist. ‘My poems exist only in the immediate,’ he insists at the start of each show. ‘You won’t find them in a book, there are no CDs you can buy.’ He follows up this stern absolutism by flattering his listeners, deep-set eyes searching right to the back of the room. ‘You, the audience, are now my god, and I seek the chance to worship at your altar.’

Once the audience is nicely softened up and eating out of the maestro’s hand, Jem Rolls switches gears, plunging into one of his fast-paced, machine-gun poems. A Poem on Dullness: A List of Everything That’s Boring. His slick one-liners are so tight-packed, it’s hard to laugh too hard in case you miss the next one.

The postmodernist always rings twice?
I’d rather be dead!
The Poetry Society?
I’d rather be dead!’

He’s like some barrow-boy given a microphone and a long night with the Blarney Stone. Sir Alan Sugar’s evil twin. Abrasive, emphatic, relentless, Rolls barely pauses for breath, hammering out the lines like a juggernaut. His skill for repetition soon encourages a gleeful audience participation, particularly as the poem grows ever more satirical.

Jem Rolls: Boris Johnson?
Audience: I’d rather be dead!

He likes to challenge audience preconceptions, taking the piss out of stereotypical open mic or Slam performers. His imitation of an angst-driven teenage poet has the audience gasping with laughter. He wraps his arms around his body, goes into full theatre. ‘If I was a bee, I’d be helping the thistles have sex!’ (Before the show, Rolls tells me how he’s been studying circus clowns in Canada, learning how to utilise his whole body in his stage act.) The applause is deafening, drowning out the sound of bottles rattling in at the servery; the place is so busy, the bar runs dry at one stage and fresh supplies have to be sent for.

Rolls is on one. ‘Life?’ he shouts. ‘Who gives a monkey’s?’ The front row stares up at him in awe and trepidation, perhaps wishing they’d sat further back.

He sets the mic aside for a moment, lets the natural timbre of his voice do battle with the stone ceiling of St Mary’s vaults: ‘I was woken and spurred/by the spoken word./The only choice/was the voice.’ Jem Rolls doesn’t like to use a microphone, even in the larger theatres he’s used to playing abroad. He tells me that after a hundred-odd shows in Canada last season, now his country of choice, the back of his throat was 'like iron'. Back in Britain now, he's in limbo: too many days between performances, too many hours spent in spare rooms or on the road. He’s at a loose end, prey to the usual superstitions of the hardened showman. Before he’s called up, he passes his wallet and tobacco surreptitiously to Hammer & Tongue MC Steve Larkin: ‘I can’t go on stage with anything in my pockets.’

His centrepiece is a satirical poem entitled The New English History or Think Back on England and Lie: ‘We won, we won, we won, won, won, won, won ...” Jem Rolls attacks the audience with his voice, rolling out the repetitions with smug dogmatic venom. ‘We invented EVERYTHING!’ The audience howls with laughter.

Rolls wraps up his act with a more sinister cautionary tale, though delivered with obvious relish at the same breakneck speed: He Ain’t Called Porky No More. This poem could almost constitute notes towards a film script. A poetic version of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. ‘Porky’ is a kid on a rough London estate who grows up to be a hard geezer, does time, loses weight, becomes a bouncer, gets respect and a nice lady-friend ... only just before he’s about to make the big time, he goes back to his old manor for a drink, meets this low-life waster who still thinks of him as ‘Porky’, and gets himself knifed in a pub brawl. End of.

But it's not over for the rest of us. The Hammer & Tongue Slam Finals are also taking place tonight. No sooner is Jem Rolls off-stage than we get the second round from the Slammers: a battle of the Best of the Best this season.

Peter Wyton, indefatigable veteran of the performance circuit, gives us his rude take on drivers using mobile phones: ‘Your bottom bits/Will be covered in zits!” The colourful Jennie Bailey points out in an eco-poem about water that ‘Evian is naive spelt backwards.’ Tina Sederholm confusingly tells us she plans to burn all her favourite books, then read them afterwards. Bohdan Piasecki introduces himself with Polish irony: ‘I am not a builder’. Then he warbles on about God in an uncomfortable way, and demands to know how we can enjoy a poetry evening when a few streets away people are sleeping rough with nothing to eat; a popular view with the many students in the room, to judge by the approving applause and whistles.

George Roberts, another performance veteran, gives us a satirical 9.11 poem, followed by some blonde whose name I don’t catch but whose tiresome US-style ‘You’re a complete bitch!’ rant leaves me wishing I had slipped away to the toilets for her three minutes. Pete Bearder is up last, and plays the wild-card with some quick-fire anti-student slapstick.

Scores from the evening’s randomly selected judges put Peter Wyton in third place, Pete Bearder in second, and Bohdan Piasecki as this year’s Hammer & Tongue Slam Champion! Clearly chuffed, the winner gives us a short piece in Polish to celebrate; for all we know, Bohdan's telling us where to stick it, but we don't care by then. We lap it up and bang our empty bottles of organic ginger beer on the table.

It’s heading towards midnight by the time I finally roll off home, past kebab vans and kids sleeping in doorways, the memory of live poetry still buzzing about my head.

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