Hammer and Tongue Cambridge took place both in person (at the Cambridge Junction in Cambridge) and on Zoom on April 8th 2022.
A mood but well lit stage set up allowed for viewers in the intimate (but well spaced and Covid aware) venue and on the Zoom interface to concentrate whole heartedly on the poetry without distractions.
The night began with a welcome from host, Fay Roberts (@fayroberts on Twitter), who was poised, calm and a firm anchor for the night to be centred around. Cracking jokes and making people aware of how to be safe (both physically and mentally) whilst navigating an evening full of stirring emotions, Roberts worked with Zoom host Ken Cumberlidge to create a real sense of a controlled, professional environment.
The first featured artist of the night, Cathy Carson (@ourweekathy73 on Twitter), immediately showcased the firepower potential of spoken word. Walking through subjects of alcoholism, domestic violence, the repercussions of parental neglect, healing and homelessness (with an extract from her award winning show ‘Becoming Marvellous’), Carson constructed emotive vignettes with beautiful specificity. Mentioning songs listened to at key moments (When I’m Sixty Four, which also happens to be my favourite Beatles song) and physical details like “the best button box in the whole of our street”, “sliced oranges sprinkled with sugar” and using nappy pins to secure clothes. Carson creates completely believable worlds in which her dynamic characters and their interactions are convincing and devastating. She left the audience with hope in their hearts with her love poem to her husband, Capitals.
After a brief interval Roberts guided the audience into a slam. Explaining the rules, how to interact with the poems (it being okay to laugh, cry, sigh etc!) and offering up a sacrificial poet to help the judges and the audience alike get into the mindset of competitive poetry.
In reality of course, competitive poetry is just an excuse to listen to more poetry. And sacrificial slammer Bhumika Billa (@BhumikaBilla on Twitter) told a twisting tale of a bad relationship with the metaphor of navigating troubled waters at sea. With the occasional meta reference to poetry; “you were living in my heart but now you’re living in my poems too”, a poetry hungry audience found Billa’s honest outpouring easy to relate to and imagine.
Roberts explained that the winner of the nights slam would compete in the Hammer and Tongue Cambridge Regional Final (likely to be in September) and then the winner and Runner Up of the Regional Final would be invited to compete at the Hammer and Tongue National Final (@hammerandtongue on Twitter) which is held at the Royal Albert Hall.
When the slam began in earnest Clive Oseman was drawn to perform first. Oseman is a known comedic performer who plays off his exceptional skills in comedic timing and absurdity, as well as playing with poetic forms, to entertain audiences. So his poem about using “laughter as a substitute for affection” was gorgeous and devastating to those who know this consummate performer well. A sharp and vulnerable reflection on the viability of performing as a trauma response and how it feels to feel differently than the emotion of the poem you might be sharing on any given day.
Next up was Kate Jenkinson (@kate_kjenkinson on Twitter) whose clever writing of a univocalism (a poem only performed using words with one vowel!) blew the audience away. “My lilting light is dwindling. Ink. Ink in my mind” Jenkinson’s poem talked about writing poetry with a natural performance style that was warm and endearing.
Lantern Carrier brought rich imagery about light being seen in the dark to the space next. Talking about hope winning out, Lantern Carrier’s performance and words were both uplifting and comforting, with the occasional (welcome) dig at toxic capitalism. “It is still a beautiful world” Lantern Carrier reassured us, even if “fear and loneliness sing such sad songs.”
The next up to the mic, performing in person at Cambridge Junction instead of via Zoom in the events hybrid model, was Rachel Mariner. Mariner performed two poems, with a natural flow and pacing that mirrored her good body language.Their poetry dipped into a vital political space as they talked about the war in Ukraine. “When wars happen we learn the names of cities” was a blistering line, followed by taking aim at a Western addiction to social media retellings of tragedies; “getting buzzed on a shitty tangental connection to history”. I only wish Mariner had kept their 3 minutes focused on one subject, as switching between two poems allowed for judges to get distracted from one central idea or emotion being shown to us.
It is worth mentioning for posterity that after Rachel I myself competed, but I have nothing to say about my own work.
The final phenomenal poet of the night was Dee Dickens (@ThePontyPoet on Twitter), who was this years runner up at the Farrago UK National Slam, and it shows. Dee came in like a wrecking ball against sexual abuse. Utilising a stilted breathwork element in their performance that perfectly mirrored the spiralling emotion of the scene they painted for us, it was an excellent example of when performance and poetry are married together to create something more. An extremely powerful close to the slam.
After the slam ended there was time for another interval before our headliner, Hannah Jane Walker (@hanwalker on Twitter) came onto the stage at the Junction. Hannah’s poetry was performed gently, but demanded attention emphatically with lines such as “my mother gave birth holding a sledgehammer” and “All of us look like endings.”
Hannah started with some poems that were extremely tender without the tinge of nostalgic sentimentality that can sometimes overwrought a poem. She balanced comedic elements, surrealness (“the use of the moon as war space”) enchanting details (“a silver disc dropped into indigo”, “crooked bone next”, “such slippery mushrooms”) as she swept right along into some poems about family life during the pandemic, and then stormed into political poetry that targeted Boris Johnson, and war criminal Vladimir Putin with the fury of modern society clasped in a fist, but Walker also opened that fist to reveal the beauty happening in the world anyway. Overall Walker was a well balanced and compelling headliner who brought a multitude of moods, themes and moments to the forefront with her easy craftsmanship of words.
Hammer and Tongue Cambridge (a hybrid in person and digital event) is a brilliant, welcoming and invigorating event. It is a monthly event and you can follow, sign up to slam, or attend events by visiting them on social media. Find them on Facebook here.
Review by Kathryn O’Driscoll