A typical night at Cambridge Hammer & Tongue promises poetry… that much is certain. But as the audience eagerly take to their seats on this particular evening in foggy December they are in for a whole host of surprises, as is Hammer & Tongue’s motto: this is rock and roll poetry. With guest act Simon Munnery set to polish off the night, the acts prior were approaching the mic with tremendous force, greeting us with brilliance from every corner, balancing hilarity and heartbreak.
In the safe hands of regular hostess Fay Roberts, a beguiling storyteller herself, we are warmly welcomed to night. We are promised an evening which makes an impression, and Hammer & Tongue certainly hold up their end of the bargain. We revel in the poetic peaks that an event like this can bring to an upstairs bar in the centre of Cambridge. Preparing us for the infamous open slam competition we were graced with the first guest feature of the night in the talented form of James McKay, whose main piece of advice for the evening suggested we all ‘pretend to be Allen Ginsberg’ at least once while writing poetry. McKay seems to try his hand at just about every poetic form he can think of, keeping his audience on their toes, coaxing us into delicious uncertainty. He springs effortlessly from sonnets to free verse; cooing us one moment and having us roaring with laughter the next. James McKay was a perfect opener to the evening of raucous poetic competition and, after a selection of slightly saucy Haikus, we were smitten.
With an explosive sacrificial poem from last month’s winner Rowan James, the open slam was underway. The room was buzzing, every slot had been filled and the competition was hot. (NB – scroll to the bottom of this page here if you don’t know what a slam is – Ed.)
First up we had a H&T first time slammer Louie Werth, whose piece questioned what it takes to write performance poetry. He seemed to have found the correct formula and enticed the audience with his jittery honesty, displaying exquisite natural energy for a first time performer. If Louie was nervous, it certainly didn’t show, as he finished with a terrific score which won him the slam, securing him a place in the regional finals next year. Up second was Carla Keen, with her heightened caricatured poem about marketing and the proposal of “re-branding” Feminism. Carla is a frequent performer and delivers with engaging confidence. Her piece was highly expressive and it is exciting to watch a poet experiment with the role of the narrator in an intense slam situation. Her efforts were not wasted on the Cambridge crowd, warmed to irony, and she finished with a commendable score. Following swiftly and turning the competition on its head was The Rev. Dr. Ian Prolix? (with a deliberate question mark!) who took the concept of the dramatic pause to a whole other level during his opening. His puzzling poetry left the crowd slightly startled in his wake – speechless would be an understatement.
Returning to the stage following her confident début at last month’s slam was Tink Radley, whose charming stage-presence invited us into the saddened stories of her narrator with ease. After briefly apologising for not attempting comedy, Tink won-over the crowd with her undoubtedly “unapologetic” poetry. Her storytelling techniques were soft and accessible, despite the darkened subject matter. Another second-timer to take to the stage was Lindum Greene, who, despite a seemingly harsh set of scores from the judges, was heavily supported by the audience, as she transported us momentarily into a dreamscape of gentle but passionate storytelling. However, there were dubious murmurs from the familiar slam crowd members as she took on the challenge of reciting two poems in her time-slot. While there are no strict rules against this, a typical audience might be expecting a singular solid poem from each competitor, and performing two of very similar style may have put Lindum at a disadvantage from more disapproving judges. Next was Richard Carryngton who presented us with a collection of hilarious yet seemingly unconnected outbursts. His performance was entertaining but needed more focus to match his competition for the evening. The talented Jade Rivers followed with a starkly honest tale recalling a drunken route to a blind date. Jade’s delivery was laid-back, and she read with endearing calmness. Her natural comic timing allowed us some interspersed giggles at her fated fable; a clear crowd favourite landing her a triumphant second-place.
The final competitor of the evening was James Sarek, whose dry, yet humorous delivery style was perhaps overshadowed by the previous, more comedic poets of the evening. The open slam is always varied and highly ambiguous, and the majority of the performers this month seemed to favour comedy within their work. Perhaps this was down to the presence of the hilarious Simon Munnery, filling the prestigious Hammer & Tongue feature slot in a break from the comedy circuit. Munnery reminds me of how I imagine Bill Nighy would be at a dinner party. He is extremely sharp, and the laughs appeared to cascade uncontrollably from the audience, as each quip comes almost unexpectedly in moments of witty quick-fire. We barely have time to catch our breath between sections, and although his set strongly echoed the routine of a stand-up, his poetic segments were not uncherished.
Hammer & Tongue is certainly Cambridge’s top pick for performance poetry, each event is unfailingly full of surprises and never ceases to attract attention. With a huge array of featured acts throughout the year and prominent open slam spots available, it is definitely worth marking this as a regular event on your calender.
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