It’s hard to predict what a ‘typical’ night at Hammer & Tongue in Cambridge might entail. There are a few goal posts and familiar pitch markers, but the playing field is left almost entirely open. Poets take many different forms: traditionalists, surrealists, rappers and spoken word artists – it really has to be the most varied poetry night in town. Held on the top floor of The Fountain, Hammer & Tongue Cambridge is part of the infamous national franchise, where first time slammers have the unique opportunity to perform in front of established local acts as well as veterans of the larger poetry circuit operating across the country. As this is the last stop on the H&T national tour, (following London and Brighton to name a couple) performers often take time to reflect over this intensively wordy journey because, as this months featured poet Ben Mellor wisely states, “there is a different quality of audience at Hammer & Tongue”.
The prestigious slam is what attracts spectators to the monthly events, with each winning poet proceeding to the Regional Finals where they compete for a spot at the National Finals in London. And every month it really is all to play for. So for those who are attracted to watching competitive word battles book-ended with two fantastic feature acts, or are perhaps curious to try their hand at turning the judges with their own poetics, then this is certainly the place to be each month.
In the more than capable hands of hostess Fay Roberts we are guided through the evening with extreme ease, as she gently commands the room with each utterance. Roberts graciously set the tone of the evening by reading a fresh piece of her own new writing, sufficiently warming the crowd before introducing the first feature act Justina Kehinde who took to the microphone to perform two exquisite extended poems.
Justina Kehinde won her round about this time last year and went on to claim a close runner up prize in the Regional Finals in September, managing to secure a place in the National Finals later this year. She is a fantastic ambassador for Cambridge poetry and a real pleasure to watch. She saunters to the microphone and performs with natural integrity, engaging us perfectly from start to finish. Justina has the stunning ability to command a room, asserting an extremely amicable authority. She is instantly likable and appears no way fazed by some of the tremendous projects now under her belt (including a TEDx talk), she is not only an exceptional poet but would serve as a terrific role-model for any British woman, writer or otherwise.
After a brief overview of the rules from Fay Roberts, the slam was underway; featuring a special appearance from lasts month’s triumphant victor Sara Hirsch returning from the big smoke as the sacrificial poet. Sara’s bold delivery meant that a number of proverbial pennies certainly dropped as she left the stage, leaving some members of the crowd baffled by the sudden conclusion of her story. Her unmatched energy really set the bar high for the slammers who followed, increasing the sense of competition early on.
The slam consisted of 4 poets; a relatively quiet competition in comparison to previous events where the list has been brimming with eager performers ready to vye for the audience’s affections. It was nevertheless an impressive array of talent, with Tim Knight deservedly taking home this month’s title as slam champion.
First up was the familiar voice of local surrealist Patrick Widdess whose weird and wonderful words sat pleasantly with the audience during his first piece, but perhaps judges found his multiple poem tactic ineffective, especially for those expecting a more concise set. Patrick performed two pieces which rendered him difficult to score and therefore may have cost him some crucial points in the competition. Nevertheless Patrick’s unique style means he is a highly memorable performer, using carefully arranged dry humour throughout, much to the pleasure of the audience, resulting in an engaging set that was chuckled through heavily.
Next up was Tink Radley, tantalizing with the rule that refers to use of props – applying dark glasses and referring to her piece as “not a poem, but an exorcism”. Tink has a talent for delving into the darkened realms of emotive poetry but perhaps failed to create a personable vibe in this particular instance, which could result in alienating some members of her audience. She reads with confidence and it’s promising to find a writer who is keen to recite new work each time she competes. Tink has yet to read the same poem twice at Hammer & Tongue and her efforts to entice the crowd with her expanding body of poetry must be applauded. However it will be crucial to see more variety in her artistic development if she is to land a winning top score in future slams.
Our penultimate slam competitor, Huddersfield’s own Tim Knight, raised the game dramatically with his coolly crafted and accessible poem analyzing the topic of ‘awkward first times’ in hilarious comparison to the ‘forgettable’ third Transformers film. Tim’s success stems from his effortless and endearing comedic charm, believable as the bumbly narrator of his poem. His poems are thoughtful and personal, but performed with a calm and natural delivery, planting Tim a score total that immediately swung him into the lead; a clear favourite amongst the judges.
The final slammer of the evening was Hamza Beg whose beautifully twisted imagery unfortunately tripped him up at points, but the poet still managed to finish with a highly commendable score, coming a close second in the competition despite only completing 3/4 of his intended poem. Although it was a shame to see such a promising performer stumble, it was more that the audience were white-knuckled in wait to hear the resolve of the poem! The image of the ‘misshapen ballerina’ is what stuck with me and the dark lyricism that Hamza developed throughout the piece was enough to secure him a credible second place. Overall, Hamza has terrific rhythm and is clearly a natural storyteller. Here’s hoping he returns to compete again soon.
As the night draws to a close and the crowd wait in jittery anticipation for our beautifully bearded headline act, we are gifted with a final poem from our hostess Fay Roberts, much to our delight. She chooses familiar crowd-pleaser ‘Blissful Chance’, a rhythmical masterpiece that encounters street performers, drum beats and heart strings.
Finally, it was time for the feature set from Ben Mellor, who greets Cambridge as the final point of his Hammer & Tongue national tour, claiming to have picked up a bout of ‘man-flu’ from Camden two nights prior. Nevertheless, Ben gives a flawless poetic performance and battles through (without forgetting to remind us how brave he’s being of course!) Ben is instantly likable – reminding us of a cheeky teenager between poems as he sporadically plugs his merchandise – but before long he hits us with verses of biting wisdom and delivers a fantastically crafted and indeed varied set. Ben’s wide range of poems contain moments of true tenderness and poignancy but are seasoned with political punches, brilliantly wicked satire and a humorous delivery that can’t help but win you over. Ben is no one trick pony; he is highly experimental and appears to have a number of exciting projects on the go. I was particularly intrigued to hear him describe the backstory to his piece ‘How To Smash A Piano’, a hauntingly personal poem that he intends to incorporate with the video footage and audio soundscape recording of the event in question (That sounds fucking awesome! – ed.)
Before departing, Ben also promotes extracts from his forthcoming touring show ‘Anthropoetry’ (available online as an accompanying CD/book) that is described as a journey through the human body with words and music. Ben Mellor is a perfectly skilled performer of the highest calibre, and I for one can’t wait to catch ‘Anthropoetry’ on tour in the future.
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