Prolific, award-winning Palmerston North poet Paula Harris somehow manages to be stroppy and properly vulnerable all at once. Here, she writes about her first slam competition – and why she cried all the way home.
I am old enough to have given birth to most of the people here.
Sure, there’s a couple of parents and aunties here to be supportive (or they’re just random people who’ve accidentally walked into a poetry slam??). But I am otherwise, far and away, the oldest person here.
I’m aware that there’s a degree of advantage to this; that The Young People look at me and don’t see a woman with a shaved head and tattooed forearm, they see an overweight middle-aged woman who will undoubtedly mumble out a poem about flowers or puppies. Suckers. I’m used to audiences that skew younger than me. But here’s the thing – messed-up relationships are a subject matter that can cross generations. Especially if you’re as bad at relationships as I am. Ditto mental health issues – anxiety, depression, psych wards…. I don’t need to be in my twenties to get an audience to feel the thing I’m writing about. They’ll get it.
Fuck me, when did I get this old?
Anyway. Hi, I’m a slam virgin. Or I was, at the start of Tuesday night.
A couple of months ago Ben – one of the organisers of the slam I’m at on a Tuesday night in Wellington – tweeted that there’s no such thing as slam poetry or slam poets; a slam is a type of poetry event, that’s all. Nice and simple.
If you haven’t been to a slam before – and this is only my second – here are the basics. There are poets, each of whom have up to three minutes to perform a poem. There are five randomly selected judges throughout the room, who score each poem from one to 10, to one decimal point (!). The top score is disregarded (in case a judge is up-close-and-personal with one of the poets), as is the bottom score (in case a judge used to be up-close-and-personal with one of the poets and things didn’t quite end well). The six top scoring poets move into the second round; another three minutes each, more scoring (cumulative scoring, adding second round scores to first round scores! So much maths!). Those six become three and the scoreboard is wiped clean and it’s winner take all.
Although, as we’re reminded throughout the night, it’s all a silly game and the points don’t mean anything and so the winner is winner of nothing, really (although there are two movie tickets and a bar tab, along with a place in the Wellington regional slam final).
This is what I repeat to myself. It’s all a game. The judges are random and it’s hard to pick where their tastes will run. At last month’s slam one of the top six was, well, not actually performing poetry. He rapped. Clearly the judges thought differently, so yes, it’s all a game with random scores and who knows what the night will throw at us.
During our pre-slam info session we’ve drawn numbers for the random order. I draw 11, making me the last poet of round one. I’m good with this. Later is usually better for me when I’m performing, as it gives me a chance to get my anxiety settled and find my mental rhythm.
The slam gets underway with a lot of explanation of what the hell is happening. Sara – MC and one of the organisers of Windswept Slam – advises that slams are just a way of tricking people into coming to listen to poetry by making it into a competition. It works; the Black Sparrow is packed.
Then there’s a sacrificial poet: someone who isn’t competing but who performs the first poem so that the judges can get their heads around this crazy idea of judging poems. And judging it quickly, as Sara points out. Quick is good. There is poetry to get to. The sacrificial poet, Rose, is pretty damn awesome.
The 10 poets before me cover the usual wide variety of topics. There’s child abuse, suicidality, the nature of being at a slam, racism and finding a sense of belonging, relationships, sex… There’s loud voices and quieter voices. On a piece of paper I keep track of how far through the competitors we are, so that I can manage my anxiety levels and get my head in the right space.
Everyone else is here with a group of friends. I feel very lonely, to be here by myself. I’ve ended up sitting next to one of the randomly selected judges, and she’s nice and supportive, but there’s no one here who will clap and cheer just because I’m me and they know me and support my me-ness. I’m going to have to earn every single damn clap and cheer from a roomful of strangers.
Okay, I do know – from various poetry events around and about – Sara (poet and slam organiser and tonight’s MC) and Kate (poet and tonight’s score keeper) and Jordan (poet – currently New Zealand slam champion in fact – and tonight’s DJ for all that between-poets-mood-music). But they’re the Official Team and will clap and cheer for everyone.
Poet number 10 does their thing – man, that was a short poem, I barely have a chance to psych myself up properly, and then I’m on. The crowd claps politely. I have a terrible memory and, quite frankly, hundreds of poems, so I always have to have the poem printed out (I’ve also seen too many poets have their phone battery die or lose the file to contemplate using a phone to read from).
I know my first poem runs to around the two-minute mark, so I have time for a brief preamble. I give them one of my usual intro spiels, that I live in the very very northern Wellington suburb of Palmerston North. They laugh. Look, the old lady is funny! So this is coming to you from the front lines, I tell them.
Pause. Time to hit them with the poem title.
“there is nothing…” I pause briefly “…fuckable…” I pause for the small giggle that ripples across the crowd “…in Palmerston North”
Since you’ve probably never seen me perform this particular poem, let me tell you the one constant – at the end of the title, the room goes mad with laughter.
I perform the poem. There are a lot of laughs. There are a lot of finger clicks and cheers. Everyone, it seems, relates to the low quality of options you come across on Tinder. (Don’t get smug about Palmerston North, as unfuckable as it is; if Creative NZ gave me a grant, I could spend three days in every city in New Zealand and write each an ode to their particular unfuckableness.)
Poem done, I take a brief bow and head back to my seat at the back. Jordan-the-DJ knows my performances well enough that he plays my usual entrance song after I finish: Kelis’ ‘Milkshake’. Sure, the only other person who recognises this lovely little moment is Kate-the-scorekeeper, but having it play makes me smile and feel calm.
I can’t remember my scores. They’re okay. Not quite as full of appreciation as you’d hope, obviously, because that only comes in the form of a 10. Or nothing but 10s. Or cash being straight-out handed to you. There’s a break while Kate-the-scorekeeper does the numbers. Sara announces who won’t be moving on to the second round, and my name isn’t amongst them. She then announces those in the second round, in the order they’ll be performing – which is the reverse of the order from round one. Shit. That means I’m up first, and I’ve only got 30 seconds to get my head back in the game.
The thing is, I’ve got anxiety. And severe depression. A big thing for me is being able to mentally set myself up for being in front of the mic – actually, a big thing for me is being able to mentally prep myself to leave the house. Once I’m in front of the mic, I’m usually pretty good – honestly, poetry organisers, do my mental health a favour (and yourselves – I’m awesome with an audience) and get me into your event. There’s something about the mic and a good audience that momentarily makes me feel better (that’d be feeling connected to other human beings, Paula). Getting there is the stressful bit. I know, really, why would I do this to myself, being in a slam?? My brain spends enough of my waking hours telling me how absolutely shit I am, so now I’m at a slam giving my brain ammunition – quantitative ammunition! – about how shit I am. This could go very badly. Especially since my hospital psychologist is on holiday for the week, so if I fall apart post-slam, I won’t get to talk to him on Thursday and have him help put me back together.
Before driving to Wellington I’d narrowed down a list of poems for the slam. I did a time run through, which meant two poems were dropped for being too long. I worked out my likely and preferred order, but had an extra four poems, in case I felt the audience might respond better to something else. This is my usual routine if I’m performing a set – have a planned set, have some back up poems in case I want to go in a different direction.
My instinct is that I should use the poem I’d planned to use if I made it to the third round. This is the tricky thing, which my judge-neighbour asks me about – do you start out with the best stuff, to get you through to the later rounds? Or save the best stuff? I tell her the aim is that it’s all your best stuff. This is partly bluffing. I don’t know the answer to the question. I don’t know anyone else to ask. But the third poem deals with being in the psych ward and I know that I need a solid minute of mental headspace prep to be able to perform it. If it’s midway through a set, I still need to have psyched myself up beforehand. This is the stupid shit you do in performing poetry – you drag up all your bad stuff and tell a roomful of strangers about it.
I don’t have a minute to prep. There are just seconds to get my head ready. I don’t even have time to sit and flick through the other poem options to pick one. I decide to stick with my second poem. It’s a 50/50 punt; they – the crowd, the judges – will either get it or they won’t. I suspect maybe the crowd is a little too young for this poem; it’s quieter, more nuanced about feeling you shouldn’t take up space and then having someone who does, in fact, give you space and welcomes you into it (which I somehow get across in the poem through having my period and my lover mowing the lawn… poetry is a tricky kind of magic). I know that this will be a big shift of gears, from the loud brash me they’ve first had to this more introspective me. It’s a great poem. The last time I performed it, as part of a set while I was in the US, I got a lot of hugs after. My set had made people laugh and cry. There were comments about that sense of not taking up space, how awkward that is, about how people got it. Will this crowd get it? Have their lives taken them through that moment yet?
They haven’t. ‘I am a bad house guest, even though I try to be a good guest and take up as little space as possible’ gets some nods, some clicks of recognition, some quiet laughs, but it’s not a big and funny poem. It’s not trauma or anger. It’s about being… accepted. My scores aren’t terrible, but I know that if I’d been in the space to use my third poem, they would’ve been higher. But it’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. I’ll tell myself this over and over. Sara-the-MC reminds us after each poet to “applaud the poet, not the points”. I remind my brain this over and over.
The round ends. The scoring is tight. There’s a tie, so the top three going through to the third round becomes a top four. Sara-the-MC tells us there’s 0.1 of a point between the top four and the rest. I’m not in the top four. I’m okay-ish. I have a small fight in my head at my stupidity that I didn’t switch my poems, but I know that I wouldn’t have coped without time to mentally prepare. But it’s just a game. It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m an award-winning poet, bitches. It’s okay.
The final four do their thing. It feels like Emma has held her strongest poem til last, and I like this poem a lot. The others feel like they’ve already use their strongest stuff, but no one’s terrible. Sara-the-MC tells us “it’s a game and you can’t judge it. But we did judge it.” I’m surprised when Emma is second, rather than first (not that it means anything, it’s all a silly game, etc etc). The winner, Billie, had been really strong in the first two rounds and has skills, even if I didn’t think she was as strong in the final round. But that’s just my opinion. Poetry is all just our own individual opinions.
Everyone packs up (apart from one judge and their group of friends who left before the final round; who leaves a slam when they’re a judge??!?!). I’m just about to slink out when Jordan-the-DJ comes up and gives me a hug, tells me he loves my poems – always – and am I okay? Am I going to compete again? No, I tell him. I don’t tell him that I’m not sure I have the mental health stability to cope. Actually, I know I don’t. I feel like I’m fluking getting out of this slam without feeling destroyed. I don’t want to risk it again. There’s no one to sit with me and reassure me it’s okay and give me love when I don’t get through. It’s hard, not having any support network (apart from my psychologist, who had told me to kick arse at the slam).
Kate-the-scorekeeper comes over for a quick goodbye hug, and the three of us have a prolonged group hug. Kate heads off. Jordan and I chat for a bit longer, then he helps Sara-the-MC pack up. I head outside and stand at the lights, waiting to cross. Two guys from the slam – one a poet, the other his friend – come along and wait with me. They ask how I’m doing. I don’t tell them the truth, I tell them I’m okay. We cross the road together. They tell me their group had been really gutted I hadn’t gotten through to the final, that they’d been wanting to hear what I’d finish with. I’d have finished with fucking awesome, I tell them. You missed out.
We chat. Eventually the friend tells me, “We’re going to peel off here and have some crap Chinese food that won’t fill us up at all.”
On the drive home I cried. This isn’t unusual, I usually cry on my drives back from Wellington; I’ve inadvertently perfected a whole technique where the crying doesn’t affect my vision. Driving is my quiet safe time, so it’s often when things bubble back to the surface. I cried because I’m tired. I cried because I’m tired of being depressed. I cried because I’m sad and hurt that my lover ghosted me. And angry that he’d ghost me after a year, when ghosting loses any degree of being acceptable after you’ve had sex once or twice. After you’ve had sex twice, ghosting is cold as fuck. And then I cried because I miss him, fuck it. I cried because I lost at the slam, because I’m a fucking loser. I tried to remember the handful of The Young People who came over during the night to tell me they’d loved my first poem. It helps a little. I tried to remember that Jordan likes my poems. I cried because I’m worn out from never finding a place in New Zealand poetry where I fit. I cried because I’m frustrated that if I travel overseas, I can send a couple of weird emails and pick up a featured poet gig, but in New Zealand I don’t get replies to my emails. I’m sorry, New Zealand poetry world, I don’t know what you want from me. I cried a lot about that, since it’s wearing me out a lot lately. I cried about the lovely rejection letter I got from a UK publisher on Monday. I cried because the last twenty-something years in New Zealand poetry have worn me out. I cried because my hospital psychologist is right, I should’ve left New Zealand a decade ago, for the sake of my writing. I cried because my psychologist keeps telling me that the world needs me, and he’s wrong. I cried because I’m tired of sitting alone, of driving alone, of being me. I went back to crying about missing my lover. When I got home I didn’t get to sleep til 2am, because I just kept thinking about what a pathetic loser I am.
You’re probably back to wondering why I do this to myself, the performing, along with sending out poems to journals and manuscripts to publishers. I have a crazy high rate of sending out work; other poets have a weird envy at the number of rejections I get because it means I’m sending out a lot (for the record, I get poems published too, it’s just the rejections are more frequent). It’s a kind of self-inflicted torture. But writing is all I have left. I don’t have friends or family, so words are all I have in the world. So I only exist when people are reading or hearing my writing.
So on Tuesday night, in two maximum-of-three minute slots, I existed. That roomful of The Young People knew I existed.